Whether you’re just starting your novel or just finishing it, you’re bound to come across a couple bumps in the road. Maybe you’ve hit writer’s block, or your characters aren’t doing what you want them to do, or you can’t find the right way to finish your novel. Nine times out of ten, the problem (and the solution) lies in the construction of your plot. The plot of the novel is the overarching theme that gives the reader a sense of continuity—it gives us direction, stability. Think of the plot as the backbone of your story. Unfortunately, plots have about as much traction as wet fish scales and in a story of 100+ pages. It’s very easy for the plot to wiggle out from between the author’s fingers. Symptoms of an out of control plot usually include wandering and lost characters, a lack of any real tension, entire pages devoted to small talk, dinner menus, and ancient family histories. It’s what happens when you’re waiting to hear about your friend’s encounter with the crazy waiter at the restaurant, only to get an earful about the different outfits she tried on before she left the house.
To keep control of the slippery beast we call a plot, I’ve come up with five questions that every author should be able to answer about their story. Whether you’ve just started outlining your novel or you’re on the last ten pages, it’s always important to reacquaint yourself with the essence of your story. Screenwriter Billy Wilder himself said, “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” Meaning: if you’re building a skyscraper with a patchy and weak base, the entire structure will crumble. With that in mind, here are 5 building block basics to keep in mind…
1. Who is my protagonist?
This is not as easy of a question as you might think. To find our protagonist, first we need to define what it means to be a protagonist. The protagonist (or the main character) should be the person who drives the action of the story. It’s hard for both reader and author to stomach a passive main character.
Here’s a test question: who is the main character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby? I’ll give you a hint: the answer is in the name. Nick Carraway is our narrator, but he is not our protagonist. Why? Because he doesn’t drive the action. Rather, he’s a passive character who witnesses the drama around him without ever really being engaged in it. He doesn’t take command of his destiny and he doesn’t even truly change in any life altering way. On the other hand, we have Gatsby, who hosts parties and events and does everything he can to get the attention of Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby is the character that drives all the action in the novel and thus, the protagonist.
2. What does my main character want?
Desire is what propels a story. Your main character has to have something they want in order to push them forward, otherwise it’s a simple “day in the life” story. Whether that want is a woman or a promotion or a couple of bucks to keep up a drinking habit. Whatever their want is, it should be something that drives them to act. As long as you know exactly what it is your character wants, writer’s block will be a thing of the past because your character will always have a goal to work towards. Just remember this: the Trojan War was fought for a single woman. Desire is a powerful driving force, and it will keep your story rolling.
3. What is standing in my main character’s way?
Tension is at the crux of every good novel. If your protagonist got what they wanted in the first five pages, your novel would be finished. Conflict is what keeps the story going. This is often where your antagonist steps into the picture—the evil villain with the pencil thin mustache.
Conflict can come from a multitude of sources. Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook would have been a very short love story if Noah and Allie’s summer fling never ended. However, they had a myriad of obstacles keeping them apart—social tension, Allie’s mother, college, the war, and, ultimately, Allie’s engagement to another man. Without all the different sources of conflict keeping them apart, we as readers would never get a chance to understand just how strong their love is, making The Notebook a satisfying and successful story. The more hurdles your character has to leap over, the more rewarding their ultimate achievement of their goals will be.
4. What does my main character need?
What your main character needs and wants are not always the same. In fact, in a good, complex story, the main character will often have to bypass what they think they want for what they need. Don’t always feel like you have to go the easy way out and give the character everything they asked for at the start of the story.
Lemony Snicket devoted an entire book series to this notion entitled A Series Of Unfortunate Events. The series revolved around three orphans, the Baudelaire children, who were constantly on the hunt for a happy family life. The admittedly morbid gimmick of the novels was that they would always end in an unfortunate manner, thanks to a very persistent protagonist. However, despite the fact that the children never got what they wanted, the series was incredibly successful because the children always got what they needed. Despite their hardships, they always had each other, and every evil plot against them only worked to further strengthen their sibling bond. Sometimes, giving a character what they need instead of what they want makes the character and ultimately the story stronger for it.
5. Is my novel a comedy or a tragedy?
Generally speaking, most stories fall under two categories: comedies or tragedies. I’m not talking about Shakespeare and Garfield, I’m talking about stories with happy endings (comedies) and stories with sad endings (tragedies). In a comedy, the protagonist will usually change and grow as a person in order to overcome his antagonist. In a tragedy, the protagonist’s failure to change or grow as a person will usually lead to his own downfall.
The importance of knowing how your story will end lies in how you set the reader up for the ending. For example, if your story is a comedy, there should be that moment where everything goes wrong, where your protagonists hit rock bottom, just before they enter into their happy ending. In The Hunger Games, Katniss finds herself face-to-face with a handful of nightlock right at the end of the Games. The harder it is for your character to reach their end goal, the more satisfying it is when they get there. If your story is a tragedy, the protagonist is often too blinded by his own desires (achieving their wants) to understand what he truly needs. Therefore, the events leading up to his downfall should have your character at the peak of his satisfaction, so the readers feel the full effect when he finally falls. If you know how you want your story to end, you will know what direction to build the story’s tension in order to give your novel the satisfying ending it deserves.
A helpful exercise to tackle the writing or rewriting of your novel is to write out your plot in one sentence on a post-it note and stick it up over your work desk. Answer each of the five essential questions on post-it notes as well and stick them up there right beside your plot. You’ll officially have a solid backbone to work writing and revision off of. And then, when your story hits a brick wall or you feel yourself straying away from the central theme, you will have your main structure there in front of you to guide you along. However, finding the bones of your novel can sometimes feel like a hard and dusty archeological dig. It’s always helpful to get advice from a fresh pair of eyes that can see straight through to the essence of your novel. Contact our trained, professional editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to give your novel the attention it deserves. Remember, we’re here to help writers create a competitive product, not to simply to get a book published.
–Morgan Hufstader (email@example.com)