Every second person I speak to believes they’ve “got a novel in them”. It’s getting it out and onto the page that’s the tricky part!
Only about 3% of people who actually start writing a book, will ever finish it. Fewer still end up with a story that works.
So, how can you be in the minority of fiction authors who end up with a story that hits all the marks publishers and readers are looking for?
In my experience, it doesn’t matter when or how much you like to plan your stories, so long as you nail four critical aspects. It’s all about writing with purpose. Having a fabulous idea, is just the beginning. The hard part is moulding that idea into a living, breathing story that captures the imagination of readers, plucks at their heart strings and lures them towards ‘the end’.
Authors usually come unstuck by
Sure, there are dozens of aspects to the planning and writing process, and we can’t cover them all in a single article, but without the four critical aspects below, a novel is unlikely to have what it takes to catch a publisher’s attention and engage readers.
The four critical aspects of a workable novel
1. Idea transformation
2. Story purpose
3. Driven characters
4. Character-driven conflicts
Now, let’s look at each of these in more detail.
An idea is not a plot, no matter how amazing. It is the kernel of inspiration, which we must flesh out into a three-dimensional world populated by living, breathing characters.
The whole process of gathering, sorting and selecting ideas can take a long time. Our minds need to brainstorm, ponder and weigh up possibilities before settling on a host of ideas with the potential to come together to form a novel.
Take your time when brainstorming ideas that flow from that initial idea. Follow each one along the path of “what ifs” until you exhaust all avenues, no matter how crazy they may seem. I’m often surprised at what random ideas trigger solid story threads.
What if questions can lead in a host of different directions. Keep going until you expose the inherent conflict in a situation. Something that interests you enough to want to tease out the underlying struggles people in that situation are likely to face. Something that is substantial enough to germinate a multitude of possibilities and sustain a story for 80,000 plus words.
Once you’ve filled many pages with potential ideas, sort them according to topics or your degree of interest in them. If you still can’t choose the angle/topic you want to work on, I find it helpful to flesh out a few ideas. Just free write, imagine situations, locations and characters and see where they take you. Some will peter out, but eventually one will fire up your imagination and demand to be told.
Let’s look at a couple of examples (simplified though they may be) of how ideas can be transformed into story premises.
There are two parts to story purpose:
Understanding why you want to write a particular story will sustain you through the inevitable questioning of its worth, and being clear about where it’s going will prevent you from meandering so far from the core plot that you lose steam and come to a halt. Worst case scenario? You abandon the story all together.
The author's purpose
Books are so much more than ideas communicated through words. We tell them because we want to share our own beliefs and ideals with others and/or to open their eyes to the plight of a minority and/or to open their minds to a different way of seeing things.
Dig deep into your soul to see what aspects of the story and its character you want to explore. Where does your passion lie? It might be an injustice, moral standpoint or statement about an institution or culture.
What message or sentiment are you hoping to leave readers with after they close the book?
The story's purpose
A story’s purpose is the end point, which every action and thought is hurtling towards.
I use a “story summary” to point my characters in the right direction. It’s a few paragraphs that outline who the main characters are, what they want, why and what’s stopping them. Just like a synopsis, only less formal because it’s purely for your reference.
I often start mine by posing a “what if” question I will answer by the end of the story and spend extra words making it clear why my character is driven to pursue this goal and what inner fear or false belief they will overcome during the story.
Referring to this summary before writing or editing each scene, prevents me from getting side-tracked on tangents that don’t serve the core plot.
This is the most common area where I see stories fall short. Authors often come up with a story idea, complete a standard Character Profile and start writing. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to dimensionless cardboard cut-outs on the page.
It isn’t what a character looks like that will make them memorable or able to drive a plot. We need to unearth their “why”.
The answers to all of these questions must be relevant to the character’s goal (what they want to achieve by the end of the story).
How your characters got to the point in time where the story starts, has a huge bearing on the types of obstacles you put in their way during the story.
Use their personal fears, false beliefs and past traumas against them, to make their lives as difficult as possible.
Having to overcome such challenges will help them grow as a person (their character arc). Learn something about themselves (possibly something they would never verbalise).
Conflict is the heart pumping life through the arteries and veins of your novel. The source of character development and the thing that hooks readers into the character’s life.
Use what the main character(s) want (their goal) and why they want it (their motivation) to create challenges that are difficult for them specifically. This is what I mean by the characters driving the conflicts in the story.
Stephen King says, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and see what happens.”
Force your main character(s) to face challenges as soon as possible. To create a well-rounded story, your characters should come up against external and internal conflicts. Gradually making the situations they are in more challenging — with more to lose emotionally and physically — will increase the tension and lure readers through the story.
So, if you find your stories fading into oblivion and remaining unfinished, or you have completed stories that aren’t quite coming together right, you may be left feeling confused, overwhelmed and insecure about your writing abilities. But don’t despair.
Take a step back and make sure you have fully explored the four essential elements to transform your idea into a workable story using driven characters and conflicts, and keep it on track with a clear purpose. With these things in place, you will have a solid foundation from which to create a workable story.
Competition judges, agents, publishers and (often subconsciously) readers, are looking for these elements to create a cohesive story they can follow and become fully immersed in.
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