The Role of Scaffolding in Writing a Long Novel
I’m currently 250,000 words into a novel that looks like it will go to 300,000 words. It could go as long as one of my favorite novels, Anna Karenina.
Since my longest published novel to date (A Truth Stranger Than Fiction) is only 90,000 words, the novel-in-progress will likely end up being three times as long.
While writing the current novel, about every 80,000 words I’ve had to stop and erect what I call scaffolding: outlines and sketches of remaining scenes, characters, plot arcs, etc.
When adding rooms on to a house or another large structure, builders will often erect scaffolding because it gives them a staging area from which to work—a place to accumulate materials, and a stable setting from which to knock holes in the current structure, etc.
Up to now, I’ve hated having to do this drudge work. I’ve hated losing writing days erecting temporary organizational structures that won’t appear in the final book.
But this weekend, while finishing what I think will be the last scaffolding work for this novel, I realized the benefit scaffolding offers me: It makes the remaining writing much more efficient, because I don’t have to spend time groping in the dark, wondering where to go next with the novel.
Whether you’re writing a very long novel or one of more standard length (60,000-80,000 words), here’s how to erect scaffolding for the remaining pages of your novel:
- Make a simple list of all the chapters and/or major scenes and sequences (sets of scenes that work together) yet to write. Give each chapter, scene or sequence a simple title: e.g., “JANE’S BIRTHDAY” or “GRADUATION CEREMONY.”
- Once you have this list, put each title at the top of a blank page (on your computer or a legal pad).
- On each page, list all of the images, characters, ideas, dialogue, etc. that you would like to appear in that chapter/scene/sequence. Close your eyes and try to see the scene in your mind as a movie, and write down the elements of the movie as they play in your mind.
- When you finish a first draft of this process, put the work away and return to it in a day or two. Read through your draft, seeing it as a movie in your mind, and try to see it in more detail the next time through, adding details as they occur to you.