A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Novel, Part Three – Content and Themes
Updated: May 23, 2020
Just as there is no one way to start your novel, there is also no one way to write your novel. It is your story and how you tell it and what you include in it are choices only you can make. These choices can be made consciously or subconsciously as you write, or consciously as you revise and rewrite.
Some of the topics we will cover today will overlap with next week’s guide about style, but I will try to stick as closely as possible to the WHAT part of what you are writing, rather than the HOW part of how you are writing it.
There are some questions I would like you to consider first.
What is your story about?
Who is your story about and who is telling it?
How many main characters do you have?
Is your story character-based or plot-based? (If you aren’t sure I will go further into the differences later.)
What do you want people to think about as and after they read the story?
What can you do to ensure people understand what your book is about?
It is frequently said that character + conflict = plot, but what does this mean? I will cover character in the next section, but what do we as writers mean by conflict? Conflict includes the challenges and dilemmas your character faces in the story. If you have a strong character in mind already imagine them under pressure. How will they react? What choices will they make? Will they stand up for themselves or for someone else? The answers to these questions are the bones of your story or scene. They are your plot.
It might be easiest to see your plot as a triangle. First we have the beginning. This is the set up, where the characters and world are introduced. It is here that we should also learn what the character wants and what difficulties they might face in achieving that goal.
Traditionally a story has three acts and in each of these tension will be built until it reaches a climax at or near the end of the act. So by the end of the first act, or the first part of your plot, the hero will face a challenge or decision that could set them off in a different direction and give them a new goal. In a romance this might be meeting the woman or man of their dreams.
We often begin by depicting our character’s life or “ordinary world”, positioning them either as a representative of our readers or at least as someone they should care about. The character is called to adventure (of some kind) in the first act – conflict occurs. Perhaps the character is afraid to face whatever that conflict may be, the “reluctant hero” and perhaps they meet someone who might help them overcome those fears, a mentor. Eventually the hero of the story must decide to act, or such decision must be forced upon them. If not there is no plot.
The character will then face tests and enemies, and find allies along the way. These trials will lead them to their most difficult task or most dangerous enemy, at the end of the second act. They may hit rock bottom at this point, but discover previously unknown inner strength. Like Jonah they are in the belly of the beast. This life-or-death challenge once overcome means the hero will receive their reward, but we still have the final act to go.
At the start of act three, the hero may encounter another problem, a “road block” which temporarily prevents them from completing the journey and returning home. There may be vengeful forces at work, angry that the hero succeeded and claimed their reward. There may be a jealous ex, a toxic parent, a past trauma that resurfaces. This is the time where, if we are to have a happy ending, the hero must be reborn somehow, or cleansed of their sins, in order to return home with their prize.
If you study stories you have enjoyed, and even more with successful films you have watched, you will see how the structure of plot varies little between the stories that people love. The pattern seems to resonate within most of us and that is why it works.
From an archetypal view, three is the magic number for central characters. Unlike plot structure, this can vary significantly. However if your story feels burdened with too many individuals you might consider bringing the strongest three into the foreground and concentrating your story around these.
There are some guidelines about ensuring characters are not muddled in the readers’ minds. It is advisable, if possible, to give them very different names. Avoid naming them John, Jane and Janet for example. In fact if the same first letter is used to name multiple characters this in itself can create confusion.
You should know your characters inside out. Because it is their decisions and their actions that create the story, you need to be confident that they will behave in the way you need them to. Rather than burden the story and the reader with all the information about each character – from their shoe size to their favourite breakfast cereal, you can keep character cards that you can refer back to in order to ensure consistency.
A final word on characters for now – readers expect the characters to grow during a story. Everyone loves a good character arc. If you’re putting your character through hell for the entertainment of others you can also allow them to learn and grow during the course of the novel.
Whose story are you writing and who is telling that story. If the narrator is the main character, and unless the main character has special mind-reading skills, ensure that you only include outwardly observable behaviour of the other characters.
If you find that too limiting you can have multiple narrators, and switch between them with new chapters or scene breaks. Or your narrator could be an omnipotent observer who knows everyone’s inner secrets and is willing to share them with the reader.
Making a decision early about who is telling the story will save you months of rewriting later.
(and reinforcing your themes and/or plot through setting)
The setting might or might not be important to the story. There is a joke about Literature students that I’ll paraphrase. A teacher asked their students what the writer meant when they said the curtains were blue. The diligent students suggested numerous reasons: a reflection of the character’s melancholy or reinforcement of their masculinity or some other concept as the reason for the choice in décor. The most keen, but least imaginative, of them wrote to the author to ask. The author replied that the curtains were just blue, that it could have been any colour, but they fancied blue. Whatever your reasons for describing the setting people will read underlying meanings into them. And who knows, maybe you subconsciously chose blue because of a culturally shared reason that you didn’t consciously acknowledge, or maybe the curtains are just blue. Either way settings can hold power beyond that which you originally intended and playing with them consciously can add layers of meaning to your story beyond what the characters say and do.
A well described setting will draw the reader into your tale and make it feel more real for them. Rather than simply telling us the curtains are blue, you could allow us to smell them and feel them for a more immersive experience.
From Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
“The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks, and dust all about him, and that special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get out of town in summer—all worked painfully upon the young man's already overwrought nerves. The insufferable stench from the pothouses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town, and the drunken men whom he met continually, although it was a working day, completed the revolting misery of the picture.”
Character-based vs plot-based
Of course there is no reason you can’t write a story with strong characters who grow and an exciting plot, that’s what best sellers are made of.
A character-based story can have little plot and simply show how characters behave and respond to one another, and share what they feel about their lives. If there is a plot it is driven by the foibles or flaws of the central character. Meaning is given to the character’s attributes. Rather than allowing circumstances to determine how the character behaves, the character’s belief system or morals direct the circumstances. Character-based stories are found commonly in literary fiction. “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger would be an example of this.
A plot-driven narrative emphasises the plot or story. There are twists and action in a plot-driven book which might be entirely absent in a character-based story. Character development oftens takes second place to an exciting tale in these books. “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens would be a fine example.
Hopefully you’ll feel I’ve covered the basics with regard to whatever answers you gave to the initial questions. Characters, plot and setting can all be used to ensure your reader understands what the story is about whether you are writing a character-based or a plot-based novel. Neglecting any of these parts of your world, if done consciously, can allow you to produce an avant garde work, breaking the rules wilfully. However by ensuring each part of your story is as strong as it can be you are likely to create something lasting and beautiful that readers will love.
We will be covering style, including perspective (briefly mentioned this week under narration), language, tenses and chapter lengths.
If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments below.
Resources used this week - “Crime and Punishment” Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Creative Writing” Linda Anderson, and “The Writers Journey” Christopher Vogler.
Carmilla Voiez is a horror and fantasy author. Her novels have been published by indie publishing companies including Vamptasy Publishing, CHBB and Stone Circle Publishing and her short stories have been included in anthologies by Clash Books, Weird Punk Books, Siren Magazine, and Dragones Mecanicos. Her award-winning Starblood series is being adapted into a series of graphic novels illustrated by Anna Prashkovich. She has studied creative writing with the Open University and proof-reading with Chapterhouse.
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