You’ve read this here before, and it bears repeating because the entire enchilada of effective storytelling is embraced in these few lines:
A great novel is not just ABOUT something… a theme, a time, a setting, a situation, or even a character. That’s a great start, but it’s rarely a great novel if that’s the sole purpose and focus of the narrative.
A great novel is about something HAPPENING. About a hero who DOES something. Who takes ACTION, which can manifest in infinite ways.
At the end of the day, what HAPPENS is the vehicle that transports theme, character, setting and emotional resonance into the consciousness of the reader.
As novelists, we’re not writing diaries or documentaries or journalism. The life story of a fictional character is not likely to get you published. We are writing about need and resolution through action, whether subtle or on-the-nose.
The less episodic (in favor of a core dramatic arc), the better. I think this is the deal maker, and the deal breaker of storytelling truisms. The longer I do this, the more stories I coach, the more I believe this to be true.
Most of the exceptions out there — check the fine print — are based on true stories (“Twelve Years a Slave,” for example), which is a different game.
You think “The Help” was ABOUT racism? That Kathryn Stockett sat down and gave us 80-or-so scenes that simply demonstrated racism at work in the lives of her characters, all to make us feel that horrific injustice and empathize with the maids who star in this story?
That was there. But it’s not the machine that made it work. That was the thematic landscape of the story, not the dramatic arc of the story.
Success depends upon, awaits on the wings of, understanding the difference.
What made “The Help” work was the sum of many parts… the most mechanical of which was THE PLOT (dramatic arc) of that story. In which SOMETHING HAPPENS… then, after sweeping us into the drama of it, resolves.
The “plot” is what people talked about the least. But like the CPU in a computer, the whole machine depends on it to run.
It’s how you define “happening” that matters most.
Here’s a trap that’s easy to fall into: you define “happening” as a bunch of stuff going on… a series of incidents… a sequence over time… different views on a circumstance. They are linked by some combination of character and theme, and together they paint a picture of a life, or a situation, or a time.
This trap quickly and almost always leads to an abyss.
Example: your novel is “about” age prejudice in the workplace. That’s a theme, by the way, which as a dramatic focus is almost always risky (from the author’s point of view) to write about. Theme, in the hands of an artful pro, is a consequence of the sum of the parts of the story. It’s what the reader is compelled to dwell upon based on what the story makes them feel.
Which is good. It can make your story a bestseller, in fact. IF you realize the whole, bigger picture of how to package a theme within a dramatic arc.
And so, in this agism-is-evil story example, you write a bunch of stuff… a series of incidents within a series of scenes… showing your hero in this situation over time from different angles. Each scene outrages, it’s so unfair. We like this hero, we empathize. We yearn for a better situation for her/him.
Things get worse. In a bunch of different ways.
And then you type: “The End.”
Ask Nann Dunne. In her guest post a few weeks ago, Nann wrote about her experience staring into the mouth of this abyss. She wrote what she thought was a plan for a novel, when it fact it was (in it’s early stages, which she didn’t yet recognize as being early) a bunch of scenes showing her protagonist experiencing judgment and prejudice at the behest (on a different issue than agism) of her family and employers.
It’s easy to do, especially when you are emotionally involved and passionate about your story’s theme. Nann is an experienced pro, and yet she didn’t see it at first. All of those scenes were heartbreaking. They vividly dramatized her hero living through moments that viscerally stuck the theme into the moral craw of the reader, showcasing something that needs attention, needs changing, and still unfairly exists in our society.
And that was, nearly, all it did.
Why? Because there was no ARC to the story. Nothing HAPPENED other than the demonstration and dramatization — coming at an issue from different angles — of the intended thematic issues, through the point of view of her sympathetic (and easily empathized with) protagonist.
Encore: It all depends on how you define what is HAPPENING.
If the context of what “happens” in your novel is, in fact, a tour of a place, a diary of a time or era (in which you take us there), a bunch of ways that show what is unfair, or even was actually happened (like, living through the depression or summering in Australia or being born without all the normal body parts)… without the requisite context of dramatic arc in play…
… chances are you’re not there. Not done. Possibly making a story planning mistake.
A story is indeed about a hero. But it doesn’t end there.
The hero needs a problem to solve, a goal to pursue, a foe to square off against (human or otherwise), a quest to take, lessons to learn, courage to discover, and then… wait for it…
… action to take.
Something SPECIFIC, external, and immediately threatening, to DEFEAT through action.
Not just a situation.
The hero needs to DO something. Something needs to HAPPEN… the hero needs to TAKE ACTION. The hero must PURSUE CHANGE OR RESOLUTION… rather than just live through something and then, as an attempt at resolution, decide she’s had enough and simply leave.
Out of every ten story concepts and plans submitted to me for analysis, I’d say six of them lean into this very risky area of storytelling weakness.
Ask yourself these questions to see if you are at risk in this area:
Was theme your starting point? Your purpose and passion behind this story?
Are you showcasing that theme within a dramatic arc, or though a series of scenes (episodically)?
Is your hero DOING SOMETHING ABOUT the situation you’ve put them in?
Is there an IMMEDIATE THREAT at hand? What is being threatened, other than a sense of injustice or inequity?
Is there an OPPORTUNITY at hand, waiting to be seized?
Are there OBSTACLES in front of hero? Does that antagonism take action, grow in terms of urgency and threat?
What does your hero DO about those obstacles?
What is at stake in terms of what the hero risks, decides and ultimately DOES?
What, at any given moment in the story, if your reader ROOTING FOR? Not just feeling, but actually hoping to see, anticipating or fearing or otherwise vicariously fighting for as they read?
Look for these forces in play in the published novels you read, you’ll see them at work and, as a writer, begin to understand why they are the essential stuff of a novel that works.
If you’re interested in an affordable evaluation of your story plan relative to these issues, click on the red-highlighted words HERE and HERE in the banner above this post.