by Larry Brooks
If you’re a regular reader of this or any other writing blog (including mine), you may distrust today’s headline. Because you know for a fact that a good novel requires way more than three little added-on “tips,” which when you get beyond the circle of core craft (which is not composed of tips; core craft is way beyond tips) number in the hundreds.
Which begs the question: what is the difference between core craft and those hundreds of “tips” that become the frosting on that cake?
Core craft can be summed up (among many astute ways it can be summed up like this) as the commingled implementation of the following: Understanding what constitutes a compelling premise… dramatic theory (which, at its heart, gives the reader something to engage with)… structure… dialogue… setting… character/arc… a hero’s quest/journey… scene writing… and how to write professional-level paragraphs and sentences (voice).
All of which delivers what can be described as a singular outcome: a compelling, memorable, worthwhile reading experience.
Simple, right? Just grab an idea and sit down with it, see what happens.
Or not. That’s the long road, by more than a mile.
Rather, the more you know about those core competencies, and the more creative and fresh your premise, combined with the more you know about the story itself (through planning or drafting), the better your story will be.
Sometimes, though — too often, in fact — you can do a decent job with all of them and end up with… a good novel that doesn’t fly. Or a nice try that doesn’t.
Sometimes again… the difference in those outcomes can be the little things — things often conveyed via “tips” — that breath life into a story in more subtle ways. There are volumes full of storytelling and writing tips out there (take care to differentiate tips on storytelling and the writing process itself), many of which are fundamental to the work of continually successful authors.
Here are three of them, for your consideration.
1. Give your hero an interesting career.
Too many writers don’t take advantage of this one, even when it doesn’t divert them from their primary vision for the story.
With the exception of the detective genre, you get to plop your main character into any career you want. Sometimes that decision is driven by the content and context of your story… pathologist, politician, doctor, cop, etc.
Other times, when the job isn’t central to the story, you still have an opportunity to give them something interesting to do during the day. The key here is to make what they do interesting. Something that says volumes about who they are, where they’ve come from, and how it defines their world view and current state of mind.
This tip opens the door to one of the most powerful techniques available to us: setting our plot and characters within an arena – cultural, economic, political, or more simply, time and place – that delivers a compelling vicarious experience to the reader.
Do that, and you’ve backed right into one of the core competencies that might just get you published.
2. Give your hero a distracting personal relationship.
It’s easy to get lost in a one-dimensional landscape of characterization as we thrust our protagonist into the heat of our story. But real life isn’t like that. And while it isn’t always the best idea to make your story a mirror of real life, or even your life, it can be good to give your hero something else to think about than the pickle you’ve tossed at them.
Like, a relationship. A love affair, new or confounding or crumbling. A parent thing. A boss from hell. An IRS auditor at the door.
The idea here is to make this relationship distracting for the hero. Something that provides a reason to survive at the same time it may compromise that goal. Or at least a way to keep one foot in the here-and-now as they go about saving the world.
Welcome to your sub-plot.
Superman had Lois Lane. Otherwise he’s just another guy who, if we’re honest about it, we can’t really relate to.
3. Give your antagonist a noble goal.
Or at least a goal that began nobly, or if that’s a stretch, try one that springs from a sympathetic need.
One-dimensional villains are easy and tempting. But when you give them something that causes us to wonder what went wrong, compromising our full empathy, they become even more interesting.
Of course, if your antagonist is a tornado or a flood – a perfectly legit storytelling option, by the way – then never mind. Haven’t met a sympathetic natural disaster yet… so in that case seek to burden your hero with a pesky inner demon that must be conquered before the dike can be built.
The inner demon thing is a good idea for any hero, by the way, and sometimes it can actually be the primary antagonist (think Leaving Las Vegas… addiction is a worthy foe in any story). When that inner demon has a twist or an edge or a commonality that makes the going tougher for our hero, so much the better.
So there is it. Nothing much to this writing thing… just master six or seven core competencies… understand the relative core story physics that make readers pay attention… come up with a killer story idea that isn’t too derivative of something else yet delivers the tropes of what genre readers want and expect… and then slather it all with a thick layer of tip-driven strategy that brings it all alive.
Piece of cake, right? Just sit down and start writing… everything will turn out just fine.