Another Take on The Most Critical Thing You Need to Know about Writing a Novel

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.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

6 Responses to Another Take on The Most Critical Thing You Need to Know about Writing a Novel

  1. Very true! My big failure in my first novels was that I wrote until I got bored. That meant a lot of little episodes that filled space but didn’t really propel the story. I showcased the setting, I had little mini-adventures, I had character moments, but I really didn’t have novels. They were “episodic”, as the post says.

    Outlining my newest attempt (novel #10 as it happens) really helped me see the weaknesses of the story before I wrote it. The outline went through several drafts, and this actually saved me time when I started writing. For the first time in my life, I’m actually excited enough about the story to do a second draft.

    I credit the outlining with giving me an overview. But, more fundamentally, the hero has to be involved and engaged in the story. It’s a rare story that works with the hero has passive observer. (That was another of my issues.) When I made the hero of my current book crippled, it forced me to really think about his involvement. He could easily be a passive observer, especially since I have to be really creative to get him into action scenes (and he does have some impressive moments despite his physical limitations). Because of his limits, I think I became hyper-conscious of how important it was that I made him the “prime mover” in each scene.

    I think the biggest challenge was to make the book about something. It was easy to write about my hero getting involved in a revolution. In my original stage, I kept thinking, “Why doesn’t he just leave?” Now, I have a reason for him to stay, get personally involved, and, as a bonus, I have material that will create a sequel. To force my hero to stay, I made him a lot more interesting.

    A lot of my post was a bit self-centered, so I want to add a few lessons I figured out:

    Give the opposing force a face. Instead of fighting the “government”, personalize the government by creating a character who represents the government.

    Make each scene propel the main plot forward. This is difficult: I’m still catching some in the second draft.

    Give the hero something worthy to fight.

    Commit the hero. Don’t leave a back door that could allow him to escape the situation.

    I could probably think of some more, but I’m finding that the biggest tip of all is to spend more time planning than actually writing. This tip is the biggest single reason why I’m now on draft #2 of my novel. I had enough bones from the outline that I had something I could actually work with.

  2. Coincidentally, I spent the greater part of last weekend bingeing through several BBC productions of Charles Dickens’ novels. I couldn’t help but notice and admire how CD handled the episodic format, and yet even though the stories felt episodic, they also felt tied together, as several overarching plot and theme elements ran through them all. I tried to do this with my first novel. Not an easy thing to accomplish. One might think writing in an episodic format would be easier, but I actually found it harder, as you have to manage each individual episode as a functioning story in and of itself, and then manage higher level plot (as well as theme) threads to tie them all together as a functioning novel (sort of like how a TV series operates). I ended up creating quite a complex Excel matrix (coded for automation) to manage everything. I’ve now begun making some slight adjustments to the matrix for book 2 based on the great info in Story Engineering. It was nice to see I was about 85% there already….

    I guess my point is, the much-maligned episodic format gets a bad rap because poorly designed writing can sometimes turn episodic due to its faults. Which is a bit different than the episodic format being a bad format in general. Kinda like wine and vinegar. There’s nothing wrong with a well-produced vinegar, but when a poorly produced wine turns to vinegar, the term vinegar becomes pejorative…

  3. MikeR

    To me, “theme” is always the reflection in the mirror – never the mirror itself. Characters, from another place and another time (even another planet or dimension) are acting and reacting as they would. They never break character; never indulge in a soliloquy. (“That’s SO Shakespeare …”) They never cease being just who they are. And yet, when you (whoever you are, wherever you are, whenever you are) read it, you detect a theme. Someone else might detect a different one.

    I certainly have some ideas of what is the “theme” of my nascent story, because I have deliberately set my story in a place-and-time (Chattanooga, Tennessee, late 1950’s) that “was on the cusp of change in a great many ways and didn’t know it yet.” But my characters have no idea of any of this – no more than any one of us have any idea how the babies we see in strollers at the shopping mall will regard US when THEY are college-students (and WE are … ugh … “well, nevermind all that”).

    What I’ve got to be dreadfully-sure of … and I have caught myself making this very mistake quite a number of times (in my [thank-god this isn’t ten-thousand words …] OUTLINE!) … is that I don’t write “deus ex historica.” That I, XXXwritingXXX outlining in the year 2013, do not react – and therefore, cause my characters to react – as I would.

    Here’s another potential-article angle for you, Larry: 😉 “Not only must your characters constantly (RE)ACT,” but … in a period piece, at least … “they must react AUTHENTICALLY.” Even though they are but puppets, you, Gentle Reader, must never see the strings.

  4. MikeR

    P.S.: Kindly let me postscript the above post – now that I’ve figured out that the posting doesn’t work at-all in the OS/X Mavericks incarnation of Safari …

    In ¶2 of my post above: “I certainly have ideas of what the ‘theme’ of my story is” … and, while my characters must have no knowledge of such things, “=I= do need to, at least in the back of my mind.”

    Why? Because I’d love to write one of those books that wind up being used as homework assignments.” 🙂 (Hey, if thousands of college students are assigned to buy a copy of my book, that’s money-in-the-bank to me and/or to my copyright-estate, heh.)

    When faced with any given nasty-situation … a gun in your face, say, or a dead body / dying man in a bathroom stall … ANY/EVERY blood-bearing human being IS going to react. Somehow. Yeah, if you put two people in a room and have one of them pull the trigger and then have a third someone discover it, yeah, there’s gonna be some kind of reaction. Guaranteed. But just =what= that scenario is, and what it means to some poor schleb in “ENG-0102 CREATIVE WRITING I” (heh … been there, done that) =is= entirely up to you.

    … as was every single aspect of “who the characters are,” “why they are there,” “where they are” … every single aspect of everything. (Hey, who said that being a god was easy?)

    Let’s say that my central idea is this: “At this place/time, there were three castes of ‘Americans’ all living in the same country, all stuck in the same lifeboat that none of them knew (yet) was sinking. One of them was at the top of Lookout Mountain; another was crowding around the ground-level sides or stuck in little square houses; a third was content to cook meals for the first. And, at the time, nobody thought anything of it. (Except for the fact that some people in all three(!) groups DID.)”

    I’ve got to keep that in the back/front of my mind in order to guide these characters’ action-packed actions. Even though it must never appear to be the case that they thought the same way.

    (Hey, who said that being a writer was easy?)

  5. Tips about writing a novel is simply… well, it comes down to writing and re-writing and re-writing and so forth until it’s perfect.

  6. @Marjorie – you use the word “simply” (and ironically, too, because the context of the sentence is grammatically off), but you are over-simplifying. What you say might be true IF the writer knows what they are doing, though “perfect” is a poor choice, and frankly if this writer believes this to be true, my guess they wouldn’t know “perfect” if they tripped over it. If the writer doesn’t know much about craft, then you need to end your sentence with an ellipse… because the rewriting could go on forever… and ever… and ever…

    I hope (because this is what you imply) you don’t believe that rewriting is all that’s required, to do just do it enough until it’s “prefect,” as you claim. (That’s what people who get multiple divorces say about marriage, too.) It’s sad, and it’s untrue. A good book is never an accident waiting to be randomly stumbled upon down the rewriting road, and rarely is “perfection” attained, especially by a writer who thinks this is all it takes.

    This belief is why 999 out of 1000 manuscripts get rejected. I hope you’ll think deeper and smarter about what it takes to write a good novel. There’s nothing “simple” about it.