As a short story writer embarking on my first novel, I had braced myself for the problem of sheer length. I anticipated the near-impossibility of navigating characters beyond page twenty-five without "falling into hugeness," as Cynthia Ozick called novel-writing. Now, in the revision stages, I do find novel length my greatest challenge—but it is a challenge for pages one through twenty-five.
The job of a novel's opening is to set up the central questions, themes, and narrative conflicts of the book, as well as those of the more immediate chapter, scene, and even sentence. When an author introduces the world of her novel, she must contend with several questions: Which conflicts to present first? How strongly will the first narrative thread or theme prime the reader for all those that follow? At what point should the component parts of the novel's DNA be in place—the first sentence? Paragraph? Chapter? Act? Which conflicts require background information, and which can be enriched retrospectively with deferred backstory?
In attacking these problems, I have found it helpful to conceive of story arcs—conflicts introduced, dealt with, and solved—as missiles. (More or less benign.) For the novelist, the question is: at what trajectory have I launched each missile? Some arcs must deploy at the trajectory of the scene, some the chapter, some the act, some the entire novel.
Another way to frame this authorial work is as a question of balance: solving a problem, versus introducing one.
For a particularly instructive example of how to launch a novel's arcs, I have looked to the second chapter of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. The incestuous pig's tail is an arc launched over the entire novel, a problem solved temporarily in chapter two that continually resurfaces until the very last page. Úrsula's virginity is an arc for the chapter, a problem introduced in response to the specter of the pig's tail and solved completely by chapter's end. José Arcadio Buendía's rumored impotence is an arc for a scene, a problem introduced in response to Úrsula's continued chastity and solved when he murders his harasser, all while Úrsula's virginity remains intact.
I choose García Márquez because he is a master at deploying, from a single plot point, multiple thematic and narrative missiles at different trajectories. While the narrative problem of Úrsula's virginity is resolved in chapter two, it launches the novel-length themes of incest, sex, and family mythology. While the thematic problem of José Arcadio Buendía's emasculation is resolved in chapter two, it launches the novel-length narrative strategy of revisiting ghosts—starting with the very man José Arcadio Buendía kills.
From the first to the final sentence, the novelist continuously and strategically deploys, keeps aloft, and lets fall his various narrative and thematic arcs. The author can then view the collective trajectories as a whole, noting where they harmonize, where they are dissonant, and where their amplitudes most potently and innovatively combine. This last task—crafting the strongest interplay of so many arcs—is what makes the novel's length not only a great structural challenge, but a great artistic opportunity.