I’ve recently re-read Robert McKee’s excellent Story, for my money, the best how-to on screenplay writing. Although specifically about writing for the cinema, most of the principles in Story apply to all storytelling, including writing novels.
McKee clearly and concisely covers many facets of storytelling, but what I most admire about his argument is that screenwriters (and I would argue novelists) need to create far more material than they will eventually use in any given story, in order to use the few ideas that genuinely stand out. His approach to outlining the story is also very helpful, in that he suggests writing scene outlines that contain both the conscious and unconscious thoughts of the characters; text and subtext, but without writing actual dialogue. He argues that because writers fall in love with their dialogue, they’ll often keep scenes that should be cut, which prevents them reinventing the story to make it better.
I’ve had a few experiences of this kind very recently. For example, when I outlined my upcoming novel Phantom Audition (coming soon), I prepared many different versions of the story (particularly several radically different endings), without writing actual chapters, in order to make sure I didn’t fall in love with dialogue and thus get tied to a version of the novel that I should ditch. I’m really glad I did this, because although the ending of Phantom Audition I settled on was the first thing that occurred to me, I got cold feet when I came to write it, so referred back to the six others I had in outline form, before concluding my first instincts were correct. It was very important for me to go through that crisis of faith in outline form, rather than as a proper draft with dialogue, or I may well have settled for a more conventional (but lesser) finale.
With my other upcoming novel The Irresistible Summons (coming even sooner), the overall plot including the ending never really changed, but I trimmed quite a lot of material from the finished version, including a scene with dialogue I loved. I wish I had applied McKee’s method to this book to the same degree when writing the earlier drafts, because had I outlined the above scene without writing the dialogue and looked at the overall greater good of the novel, it would have been less painful to cut. The scene in question was comical and witty, but tonally it stood out like a sore thumb, so had to go.
Killing one’s darlings is scarcely a new concept, but I think McKee’s advice about not writing dialogue until you know you are almost certainly keeping a scene or sequence is excellent advice. That way, we can kill our darlings without imagining them begging for mercy as the axe falls.
There are many other great bits of writing advice in Story – especially when it comes to structure, and making sure every scene “turns” to avoid dull exposition (often colloquially referred to as “info dumps”). I highly recommend picking up a copy.