When my first book idea hit me, I immediately started writing notes. I briefly explored my characters and the basic plot. Since I wanted to base my science fiction novel on real science, I conducted a lot of research. I wanted my plot to be smart and believable. When it came to the actual writing, my goal was to use beautiful language and original expressions.
I thought if I had a logical plot and beautiful, expressive language, I would have a fantastic story.
But boy, was I wrong—a fact my sister was first to point out. My road to true enlightenment began when I watched a webinar on the story genius method, which was hosted by Joel Friedlander of The Book Designer.
A lot of us confuse plot with story. We imagine that the thing that drives us to flip the page is a dramatic plot, or the twists and turns of a convoluted plot. This could not be further from the truth. The truth is more obvious, yet we totally miss it.
What compels us to keep on reading is the curiosity to find out how the external elements are going to affect the protagonist internally. Story is not about what is happening externally; it’s about how our protagonist is feeling, reacting and changing because of external events.
We turn the page because we want to know what will happen next to the protagonist. We feel what they feel, and in essence, we become them. I mentioned in Reignited Interest In Fiction how I would stop reading a chapter because I was fearful. I wasn’t fearful of the next gorgeous metaphor or beautiful sentence; I was fearful for the protagonist’s well-being.
What we respond to is the protagonist’s internal dialogue, internal conflict and internal change as they try to solve the unavoidable plot problem they are confronted with.
A few things stuck with me:
Before you even begin writing your story, you must know what point you want to put across. What will the reader learn about human nature? What will your story teach the reader about navigating the world?
Your point need not be complicated. It can be a huge cliché like money doesn’t buy you happiness. But the point needs to be present from page one. The point is ultimately made by how it changes the protagonist internally, by how their worldview shifts. Remember that good fiction teaches us about people and about the world.
You do not start writing your story on page one. Way before the plot kicks in, you must know who your protagonist is. You must know what they want, why they want it, and what is limiting them from getting what they want. They must have a worldview at the beginning of the story, which is going to be tested by the plot problem.
Backstory is not about writing a character’s life history; it’s about writing segments of their past which define who they are at the beginning of the novel. You should write scenes for these life defining events. These scenes should address the why questions.
Writing this backstory is not wasted effort—most of it will find its way into your novel. The backstory should be laced in your book from page one. This is done through flashbacks, thoughts, conversations and so on.
But be wary of info dumps. Backstory should be artfully weaved into the main story. From personal experience, I know that if you come up with the backstory first, it naturally flows onto the page as you write your novel.
Show, Don’t Tell
You should show us why a character does what they do, and how they arrive at a certain decision or conclusion. You must be specific, and you should give us the thought processes, not just some vague gestures or general narrative.
Instead of saying, Jack kicked the dog because he had a bad morning, tell us that Jack woke up with a headache because he got little sleep, courtesy of his noisy neighbours. He spilled coffee on his work shirt, which he had to change. And when the dog peed on his shoe, he finally snapped.
Story is not about what a character does, it’s about why he does it.
Instead of saying, John stroked his chin and decided to bungee jump that afternoon (an activity he swore he would never do), tell us that the awesome girl he is talking to (who loves adrenaline junkies) is one of a kind. John is even shocked that such a bombshell looked at him twice. He knows that he may never get another opportunity to go on a date with someone as great. Despite his better judgement, he agrees to jump off a bridge with her, although he doesn’t know if he can actually do it.
Story is not about what a character says, it’s about what he is thinking when he says it.
Body language can also be used to show what a character is feeling. It is better implemented when it tells us something we didn’t already know. Don’t give us paragraphs of Laura scowling at a known enemy. Instead, write about how Laura tells her date she is comfortable, yet her body is stiff, and her gaze searches for the exit.
We want to read about what our friends don’t tell us, about what nobody talks about; we want that insider information.
Need To Know
As a writer, you should supply information on a need to know basis. If the reader doesn’t need to know it, then it shouldn’t be in the book. Before you write a sentence, paragraph, page or chapter, ask yourself the following;
- What is it telling the reader about the protagonist?
- Does it describe events or circumstances limiting your protagonist from achieving his goal?
- Does it describe events or circumstances bringing your protagonist closer to achieving his goal?
The problem with irrelevant information is that the reader holds on to it, ascribes meaning to it, misinterprets the story and fails to predict what may happen next. The reader will value information which means nothing to the story. What would be the point of you writing, and the reader reading about some big event which doesn’t affect the protagonist at all?
Don’t give us elaborate descriptions about the tree in the yard if that information tells us nothing about the protagonist or the story. Sure, an excessively neat, clean and organised house can hint at an OCD character, or one plagued by perfectionism, but as long as that is the point you want to make.
In a nutshell;
Your protagonist starts with one worldview at the beginning of the novel. The unavoidable plot problem challenges this worldview, forcing the protagonist to change. In order for the protagonist to solve the problem, they have to change their worldview.
Their first worldview is a rule of thumb which they have held on to because it served them well in the past. But when they are confronted by the problem, this worldview becomes inadequate, even erroneous.
They are forced to change if they hope to solve the plot problem. The change is not external, but internal—their perspective on life, how the world works, love, and so on.
Story is everywhere—in commercials, in movies, in none-fiction, and even in blog posts. As writers, we need to learn to harness the power of story if we hope to reach more readers.
You can get first-hand information from Lisa Cron: