Four Things To Consider When Writing Your Novel

For the past few weeks, I’ve been shoving my story ideas into the “traditional” story structure (a.k.a. Three Acts/Four Quadrants).  The idea is cool and technically, the story works.  I have the ~5-10% “inciting incident,” the 25% “point of no return,” the 50% midpoint/turning point, and the 75% “all is lost” milestones.  But it isn’t working for me on an interest level.  So what gives?

After whirling on this for several nights, I thought I would approach this from a different angle.  Let’s forget about the technical stuff for a moment.  What stories have I really enjoyed and why?  Here are my thoughts:

AN INTRIGUING PREMISE (NOT THE SAME AS A CONCEPT)

Maybe I’m in the minority, but I don’t read books by genre.  All I care about is the PREMISE of a story.  (I will elaborate on the difference between premise and concept a little later.)  If a premise is unique, I will pick up the book from a shelf in the bookstore (because I’m an old fashioned person who still goes to Barnes and Noble) or buy the ebook from Amazon.  If it’s REALLY good, I may also buy a hard copy.  Double sales for THAT author!

Now, there’s a HUGE difference between a novel’s concept and a novel’s premise.  A concept is just an idea.  For example, in The Hunger Games, one could argue that the basic idea is a David vs. Goliath story.  For me, as a reader, that’s nice but hardly unique.  It is the PREMISE of the story that makes the Hunger Games so interesting to me.  (And why I have both the ebook AND the hard copy.)

A story’s premise is much more specific than a story’s concept.  There is conflict in a premise.  In Hunger Games, the premise is one girl’s fight against an evil post-apocalyptic government.  Let’s thrown in an annual gladiator match with children from each district, and one young girl offering to take her little sister’s place in these barbaric games.  Now, THAT is an intriguing premise that will make me as a reader part with my valuable TIME and MONEY!

READER CONNECTION WITH THE PROTAGONIST

I’m going to run with this Hunger Games example because quite frankly, I think Suzanne Collin’s execution was pretty close to perfect.  For those of you who haven’t read this book, Katniss Everdeen is the hero in this story.  It is set in a post-apocalyptic U.S. that has been divided into thirteen districts.  Katniss and her family are from the poorest district and struggle to survive.  When her younger sister Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

All of this takes place within the first two chapters of this book.  Now, I have nothing in common with Katniss.  I’m not poor and I have plenty to eat (some would argue too much to eat.).  Her personality was a little on the surly side, so I don’t even think we’d be friends in real life.  But I was still emotionally invested in Katniss Everdeen by the end of the first chapter!

Why?  She is smart, honorable and loyal, but such an underdog.  There was something visceral about her impoverished situation that moved me.  Whenever I meet a great, hardworking person in real life who is a victim of circumstances, I want to help him or her in anyway I can.  That’s how I felt about Katniss.  And that’s how I want readers to feel about my protagonist.

Not every protagonist you create has to be an underdog from page one.  But I think the best novels are the ones where you’re rooting for the protagonist to win against the odds.

MAKE EVERY WORD COUNT

I don’t have a lot of free time, so when I am blessed with a few minutes to look at a book, I just want the author to get to the point.  So I skim.  A LOT.

Call it ADHD if you want to, but I will lose interest in a story if it has too much technical jargon or too many flowery descriptions.  This is the main reason I just can’t get into the second book in Hugh Howey’s Wool series.  And I won’t be buying the third book.

I know I keep bringing up The Hunger Games, but it really is one of the best books for pacing and information exposition that I’ve ever read.  I didn’t have to skim that much of it.  With the exception of the cat descriptions (which were unnecessary in my mind), just about every single word moved the story forward.  This is something to consider when you write your book.  Make every sentence count.

A DASH OF ROMANCE

I used to be a voracious romance reader in my late teens and early twenties for two main reasons.  First, my parents strictly forbade any “smut novels” in the house when I was growing up.  So, of course, the first year I lived on my own, that was all I read.  Second, I was searching for “Mr. Right” so I could empathize with the women in these novels.

Honestly, I read so many of them that I’m now sick of the entire Romance genre.  But, I do admit that I still like seeing a SMALL thread of romance in every novel that I read.  In Hunger Games, Katniss is in a love triangle with two infatuated boys (Gabe and Peeta).  It wasn’t the main focus of the story, but I do think it added another level of interesting tension to the entire story.

TO MY READERS:  What are your favorite books and why?  What was it about them that caught and held your interest?  Are there any books where you own both ebook and hard copy versions?  Please let me know!  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Post 10: Story Structure SETUP

Okay, I feel like pulling my hair out of my head.  I’ve spent the last few days poring over books and online posts about story structure setup.  For the love of whatever deity you want, I know that they’re writers, but is it necessary to be so wordy?  Why don’t they just get to the point?

For my own sake and the sake of other irritated novice writers, I’m just going to cut through the flowery crap and get to the point.  The Setup of a story is the first 25% of a story.  It does exactly what it sounds like it does – “sets up” the hero to make a pivotal decision at a major plot milestone called the First Plot Point.  In this post, I’ll start the discussion of Setup by presenting a quick overview of my interpretation of the Setup.

Every story runs on a timeline.  The clock is always running in a book.  Every action, event, and word that the author uses must keep the story moving forward along this timeline.  If not, the story loses its momentum and possibly, its reader.  That’s where the story structure milestones come into play.

A story’s timeline can be broken down into four parts or quadrants:

1.  First 25%:  Setup

2.  Second 25%:  Response

3. Third 25%:  Attack

4.  Final 25%:  Resolution

In case you’re wondering, the classic three-act structure is just another way of breaking down a story.  I’ll just mention it here to avoid confusion:

1.  First 25%:  Act 1 (Set up)

2. Second 25%:  Act 2A (Response)

3.  Third 25%:  Act 2B. (Attack)

4.  Final 25%:  Act 3 (Resolution)

I’m just going to use the quadrant terms because I’m used to it.  Within each quadrant, there are pivotal milestones that keep the story moving along the timeline.  The milestones in the Setup are as follows:

SETUP MILESTONES

  1. Hook
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. First Plot Point (20-25%)

I like learning things “top down,” so I’ll start at a higher level and discuss the Setup as a whole before deep diving into purpose of the Setup’s milestones in a different post.

SETUP OVERVIEW

For me, a story’s Setup is the most difficult portion of the book to write.  I’m an impatient reader.  I guess that’s why I’m an impatient writer.  I just want to get to the heart of the conflict and move on with life.  But, wait a second.  According to the “writing experts,” that’s not what I’m supposed to do.  And to be fair, after reading more about the setup’s purpose, I agree with them.

Basically, the Setup shows what the hero’s life is like before he or she is dragged into conflict.  The author must accomplish two primary objectives in this section of the book:

OBJECTIVE #1:  MAKE THE READER CARE

I struggled with this.  Diving straight into the main conflict on page one just seemed like a cool thing to do.  But why should the reader care if Anita Bath is about to jump off the cliff on page one?  Who cares if Jacque Strap just caught a disease?  What difference does it make if Holden Magroin holds up a liquor store?  I could keep going, but I’ll stop here.  You get my point.

The best writers make their readers weep or cheer or both for their heroes within the first quadrant.  Think Harry Potter and his dysfunctional Muggle family.  Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon kept him in a cupboard under the stairs.  His cousin Dudley was a bully who subjected him to daily torment.  Harry didn’t even get to celebrate his eleventh birthday or any other birthday.  Is there anything more pathetic?  I wanted Harry to turn his relatives into slugs and crush them under his heel.  Go get ‘em, Harry Potter!  Turn them into slugs!  But that’s what I mean.  We all cared about Harry from the very beginning of the story.

And what about poor Katniss Everdeen?  She and her family were starving in poverty-stricken District 13 before she was dragged into the Hunger Games.  When her father died, she stepped up to take care of her mother and sister.  She was honorable and a fighter.  Who wouldn’t root for this girl?

Luke Skywalker was bored out of his mind living with his aunt and uncle on a farm in Tattoine before flying away to fight the Evil Empire.  We could sense his yearning for excitement and adventure, but admired his willingness to stay home another year to help his uncle with the farm.

OBJECTIVE #2:  FORESHADOW THE ANTAGONIST  

For me, the best stories also show the antagonistic force at work in the “Life Before” world.  The first chapter of Harry Potter talks about “The Boy Who Lived” without an explanation of how.  In “Star Wars,” we see Princess Leia being taken prisoner by Darth Vader but we really don’t know why.  Both of these books use prologues to show the antagonist at work WITHOUT fully explaining their evil plans.

The Hunger Games uses a slightly different technique.  It doesn’t have a prologue, but we still immediately understand that something is wrong within the first few pages.  We meet Katniss for the first time on an unusual day.  The streets of her town are empty.  There are no coal miners trudging along to work.  There’s a mysterious event called a “reaping” that’s going to take place.  Obviously, “Life Before” isn’t very good for Ms. Everdeen.

All three stories do a fantastic job of pacing the information exposition in the first quarter of the book.  None of the authors just dumped the entire world on the reader like a cold bucket of water.  They slowly immersed the readers into their worlds.  Everything in these setups leads to a critical decision that each hero makes at the first Plot point, which I will discuss in more detail in my next post on story structure.