HOW MUCH DO YOU REALLY NEED TO KNOW TO BEGIN?
Stuck on how to structure a novel? Should you outline first? Or free write to find out what happens along the way?
Writing is a journey. And while any trip remains an adventure, you wouldn’t leave home without a map or ultimate destination.
When you begin writing a novel, you must leave room for discovery. Yet to avoid years of drafting in wrong directions, it pays to know where you’re writing from, as well as what you’re writing toward.
Save time by identifying three key mile-markers before getting started:
The rest can be discovered en route.
First things first, what sort of story are you telling?
Readers buy books based on subject, not theme. Like it or not, most sales as a debut author will result from your book’s genre: not your bio, prose style, or the quality of the idea itself. (If you become famous, readers will buy your brand; until then, they purchase primarily genres they enjoy reading.)
Before you start your novel, look over this list of 10 Types of Stories to see if you can identify which best reflects the tale of transformation you wish to tell. Buddy Love? Rites of Passage? Dude With a Problem? WhyDunIt? Institutionalized?
Blake Synder’s list of common tropes from his Save the Cat series focus future free-writing sessions by letting writers know the specific types of characters, plot points, and thematic transitions expected in each genre, as well as when each should occur in the course of a plot. Such structure has its foundation in Aristotle’s Poetics, and is roughly the same as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Even if you wish to subvert expectations, you should know what type of story you are writing.
And while literary writers may resist formula, it remains worthwhile to remember: great novels rely on much the same structure as terrible ones, the difference is that great writers execute material better by imbuing formula with originality and depth when it comes to theme, character development, conflict, dialogue, prose style, metaphor, and topical relevance.
Note your novel’s trope: _______________________________________________.
WHERE YOU’RE WRITING FROM:
THE “BROKEN” WORLD
Broken World scenes make up the first few chapters of a book, and show how a character’s life needs to be transformed in various areas (work, family, love, etc.) These scenes present problems readers recognize, even if the characters may not recognize them at first. They depict everyday situations your protagonist faces that reveal defining beliefs via image, action, thought, or dialogue.
The more clearly you depict this world via scenes in Act I, the easier time you will have creating an opposite world with new experiences for your main character in Act II, when they are thrust out of this familiar place.
Want overt examples of Broken Worlds? Look to musicals. The opening number will often be a Broken World song, (some variation of France Sucks, Skid Row sucks, Uganda sucks, etc.) Broken World songs function as quickie versions of Act I chapters in books: they set up a larger context from which a character yearns to escape. And it’s almost always some element OF that world that drives a protagonist to take the action that throws the plot into motion. After all: we are affected by our environments.
NOTE: If you want to write compelling dialogue for the page, don’t look to the screen for examples, and if you’re hoping to pen a novel and not a screenplay, it’s essential you maximize interiority. But when it comes to story structure, there’s no easier point of reference than examples present in your favorite films, shows, or plays.
The satirical film Office Space (of the Institutionalized! trope) has a strong, comedic sequence of Broken World scenes in Act I for analysis.
Likewise, TV’s Breaking Bad serves as origin story for an anti-hero. In the pilot episode, we get a rapid series of seemingly innocuous suburban scenes all set on the day of Walter White’s 50th birthday, depicting what’s wrong in his world.
At home, he’s scorned and pitied at the breakfast table by his pregnant wife and differently-abled son for being unable to buy a new hot water heater so they can take warm showers. At work, although he tries to incite passion for chemistry, he’s disrespected in the classroom by students whom he is unable to discipline. At his second-job at a car-wash, we see him bent over, coughing blood as he tries to shine the tires on a new Porsche–someone snaps a cellphone photo and we recognize the car belongs to the student who’d disrupted his class that morning.
Due to his second job, Walter is unable to get home in time for his birthday party, but no matter, everyone, including his son, proves more interested in / impressed by his DEA agent brother-in-law, who commands attention by showing off his gun and televised seizure of the drugs and money of local meth cookers. The day concludes with the couple in bed, Walter’s wife listing items from their home on e-bay to raise extra funds with one hand, giving him a half-hearted birthday hand job with the other.
Even if we didn’t know what was coming next, we sense Walter White is at a breaking point. Virtually every area of his life is tinged with disappointment, disrespect, a sense of impotence, and simmering anger.
What are three examples of ways the world YOUR protagonist begins in does not work for them?
(Can you tie outer experiences with defining beliefs? Does each example touch on a different life area?)
WANT > WOUND
A want propels someone to attempt to achieve a concrete goal; a wound holds someone back. Wants and wounds work in tandem to create yearning, which creates tension and gives rise to dramatic potential.
A character might:
Writers often presume protagonists must be plagued by traumatic wounds—the more, the better. In truth, readers connect with what characters want. It is our wants that make us relatable. In wanting something, and going after it, we risk. This renders us vulnerable, creating a connection with readers and throwing plot into motion.
How clearly you identify your protagonist’s want, and how much they want it, is the most important thing for an author to know at the start of drafting. If you identify nothing else before you begin your book, gain clarity around this.
Readers will follow a character who wants something badly, even if what that person wants seems trivial. (This is why childhood books about kids and dogs often break our hearts: we connect to the primal want and pure love main characters display unabashedly in these books; therefore, we grieve when they experience loss at the end.)
Want powers plot. (The Office’s Michael Scott’s uncontrolled desire to be loved, especially when in tension with his position as branch manager, powered nearly a decade of television.)
Wants lead to the establishment of concrete goals by which readers can then measure success or failure once a protagonist has entered the New World of Act II. (They also set up the potential for false victories or false defeats midway through that second act.)
Wounds, on the other hand, create tension, and power inner stories of transformation. Wounds give characters obstacles to overcome. A wound allows us to see a beneath any goal a main character sets by revealing a bit about a character’s choice of goal, and why that person set it.
(A character without a wound would not be interesting from an emotional standpoint, and would not provide dramatic potential from a plot standpoint.)
WANT + WOUND = YEARNING
A yearning is the deeper EMOTIONAL motivation compelling your protagonist to pursue a concrete goal.
To carry on with the example of Breaking Bad, Walter White’s yearning is presented subtly in early episodes when we learn of his Ivy League degree and see a plaque in the hall of his modest home, a nomination for a Nobel–we realize he has tremendous potential AND ambition–and he wants the POWER & RESPECT that accompany success.
We note this most overtly when he goes, within seconds, from telling his sidekick, a former student with whom he is now planning to cook meth, that he is doing this “just to make enough money to care for his family once he is gone” to they are going to “make the best meth ever.” We understand this is not about money, but ambition, power, respect. Yet we know from those broken world scenes (depicting wounds) he has achieved none of this. At least, not yet.
YEARNINGS ARE NOT GOALS.
In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s goal is to solve the mystery of WHY her husband died suddenly on THAT night. But her yearning was really to make sense of life / control events.
In the film Thelma & Louise, the main characters’ goal is to escape to Mexico to avoid arrest, but their yearning is for freedom from restrictive conventional gender roles.
In the show Hello, Ladies, the main character’s goal was to date a model―but his yearning was to appear successful―to “win at life.”
As for Walter White, you may have guessed his initial goal is to cook enough meth to provide for his growing family in the wake of a terminal cancer diagnosis. Yet his yearning is for power and respect.
You don’t need to know what concrete goal will power your journey through the “New World” of Act II yet.
And you don’t need to know whether or not your main character will achieve their goal or their yearning in the end.
But you do need to know what they want, what wound has been holding them back, and what their current world looks like as a result.
What does your protagonist most want?
What has been holding your protagonist back from getting this in life?
EVENT YOU’RE WRITING TOWARD:
The ONLY thing you need to know about the later part of your book is an event you’re writing toward.
To what sort of “ultimate event” could your book be building?
A climactic event is not internal, or thematic, but external, to be leveraged for plot. Often this event will reveal whether a protagonist succeeds or fails at achieving some concrete goal, (although you do not need to know how things will turn out at this stage of drafting.)
Good news: Most genres come with built-in culminating events!
A crime or mystery is building toward its solution. A trial is building toward a verdict. An interview is building toward a secret being revealed. A relationship will either consummate or conclude. Stories surrounding illness or extreme adventure hinge on whether or not a protagonist will survive. Seasons, holidays, and school years come to an end. Road trips or journeys either end when characters successfully reach destinations, or do not. Sporting events or competitions build toward a win or loss. Institutionalized tropes end when a protagonist either joins or rebels against a group (such as a family, military unit, clique, or professional organization) at great cost. Rites of passage such as graduations, weddings, and funerals are used to shape stories as well.
What event can you use as a compass to aim your novel towards?
If you find yourself struggling to define a specific event that will tell readers when the book will end, you can help yourself by imposing a clock on your material instead.
Clock refers to the duration of time it takes for the present action of any book to unfold—not backstory—and focuses stories around moments that matter.
Readers appreciate the brackets a clock provides. A clock (or timeline) might span the duration of a trip, tour of duty, relationship, pregnancy, interview, reunion, or illness. The shorter the timeline and tighter the clock, the greater the tension.
Some writers use a ticking clock in place of plot to ramp up tension until they are able to write their way into an appropriate event to conclude a book. Use any tool at your disposal to get words flowing, just ensure some sort of frame is in place to keep events focused.
Spend time wisely early on by drafting into moments that relate to your protagonist’s want, wound, and world, as well as brainstorming a potential climactic moment where a transformation can be witnessed.
Note an event your novel could be building toward: _______________________________________________.
Writing a memoir?
Nail your topic, timeline, and transformation before you begin.
Writers of trade nonfiction:
Check out tips to position your book in the marketplace.
See if your opening passes the test:
Does Your Opening Hook Readers with 3 Key Questions?
an Arizona-based editor who turns ideas into art. Need to get your book publication-ready?