These days, we have to be our own editors if our novels are going to succeed, get an agent, a publisher, or the share of the reading market that we want. And sometimes, our own tendencies as writers can work against us. It’s so easy to get caught up following a few favorite characters around like the camera of a reality television show, trusting that our readers will be interested in whatever they’re doing, when that simply isn’t the case.
So I wanted to share three questions that can help you trim away the rabbit trails, the mental monologues, and needless exposition, focusing on the real story you have to tell.
- Whose story is it? This is one of the hardest ones for me, because I over-populate my worlds with interesting people (at least, I find them interesting), and I want to show what everyone is doing. But to make a good, marketable story, I have to focus on only a couple people. Usually, having a single protagonist is encouraged, but readers can follow around a few more, especially if they are connected in some way to the main character.
I write fantasy, which seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards this, but I still try to keep the core characters down to no more than four: the main duo and a secondary duo. (I steer clear of any fellowships; Tolkien pulled it off, but nowadays, people don’t seem to want that many major characters thrown at them at the same time.)
Other genres have different expectations. Romance seems to gravitate towards a single protagonist, as does anything in first person, and science fiction is often oriented around a team: two, three, or maybe four people trying to solve a problem of some kind. But even in these situations, one character should get the lion’s share of the focus; it helps ground the reader, and it helps clarify what we are writing.
- What does the main character want? This has to be something far more personal than saving the world. Does she want to be a hero, to be admired and respected? Maybe he wants to saves his marriage, or find love, or significance? As people, we all want something, and if we had a genii-lamp, we probably wouldn’t ask for world peace unless we want to be seen by others as altruistic, caring, moral, ethical kinds of people (which means we’re after admiration and not really world peace).
This question applies, not only to the overall story, but even to every scene and every character. The wife may want to talk while the husband wants to sleep, one sister wants to stay out late at the party while the other can’t wait for them to leave. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy wants to maintain his reputation and fulfill his family’s expectations, while Elizabeth wants a husband she can respect and admire. In The Hobbit, Bilbo wants to prove that he isn’t quite the cowardly, incapable creature the dwarves take him for initially, while the dwarves want their gold back. The dragon wants everything to remain as it is, and the spiders want something good to eat. In Divergent, Four wants to keep Tris safe and alive, while she just wants to make the cut and be Dauntless.
Even if your characters “don’t want anything,” they want something: to not disturb the status quo. Knowing what a character wants is essential because then, and only then, can you know how to thwart those desires, creating tension, conflict, problems, and plot.
- What is the story about? This is where theme comes into play, and while it can seem corny, the theme actually underpins a lot of your choices about the story. If the story is about finding love, then there are certain kinds of scenes that you’ll include, and others you’ll leave out. You might work in a subplot about searching and finding something else, like car keys or a book at the library, because that would reinforce the theme. While searching for one thing, the character could find something else…maybe running into his or her true love?
Theme is tied to what your main character wants. Thus, Pride and Prejudice is about love, family, and respect; The Hobbit is about recovering things, gaining things, and losing things; Divergent is about love, safety, and belonging.
Theme should also influence your choice of imagery, as the fantasy genre knows and uses extensively (if you write about good and evil, your use of light and dark becomes very significant). But this also affects other stories, too. When people write coming-of-age stories, they often highlight changes in seasons because these mirror what is happening to the characters. When you write about loneliness, your characters will notice interactions more than normal: the happy couple in the park, the kids playing, the ants in the dirt all working together. Whatever the topic, knowing your theme lets you choose words, metaphors, and plots that reinforce what you’re writing, helping you build a tight, coherent story.
When I started writing my stories, I was just happy seeing where things went, but as I sent them to Beta readers, I was repeatedly told that the stories were confusing. There were too many characters, too much going on, and they couldn’t figure out who was who until halfway through. These three questions changed that for me, transforming sprawling tales into stories that readers can actually follow and enjoy.
What other questions do you ask your novels? Or your characters? What helps you write coherent stories?
Copyright 2015 Andrea Lundgren Photo courtesy of Gratisography