Essence of a Novel

“Go write a novel.”

Okay, uh, how?

As said by Flannery O’Connor, everyone knows how to write a story until they sit down to write a story.

Let’s start with the basics:

A story is a conflict. Without conflict, there is no struggle, there is no story. Your character must want something, struggle for something – the main conflict is the center of the novel. Everything else evolves from that conflict.

Aladdin wants to get out of poverty.

Harry Potter wants to fit in.

Katniss wants to protect her sister.

Luke wants to get off Tatooine.

If your character didn’t want anything, then there’s no story.

Your character can want it from the start, or something can happen in which he then wants it, or he can have it at the start but it’s then taken away, in which case he must get it back.

From that initial struggle, other struggles arise. Other characters enter the picture. Those other characters have their own conflicts that intermingle with the center one.

Get to the central conflict as soon as possible. Like within the first chapter. I can’t stand novels with long-winded first chapters that are nothing but exposition and narration. What’s the story? What’s at stake? Who’s the main character? If I don’t know by the end the the first chapter, I’ll likely stop reading.

By “stakes,” I mean the stakes of the conflict. What happens if the character doesn’t get what he wants? What will happen if he does?

The stakes can be physically, mental or whatever – but something needs to be at stake. There needs to be a risk to the story. If the character has an assured victory, well that’s not a very interesting read. If there’s no challenge to the main character, why read at all?

The main character needs to change within the course of the story. They should be tested, and if they rise above, they should learn – they should grown and change, and be a different person than they were at the start.

Think of something in your own life that changed you. Maybe it was a car crash, or a disease, or not winning something you’d thought you’d win; how did you change? Map out yourself before and after. Your characters also need to change – but it can be more dramatic than real life.

Aladdin learns that lying isn’t the best option. The truth sets him free.

Now, side note – this is my personal preference when it comes to a book. If I don’t feel a book is catering to those needs, I’ll put it back on the shelf. Some people like the long-winded narration at the start. I don’t.

That’s the trouble with writing advice. It’s all 100% objective. Well, maybe 90% objective, 10% tested and true, like novels in the second person. It doesn’t work, don’t try it.


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