by Janice Hardy
I work with a lot of new writers, and a common frustration I see is getting tangled up in the details of the story and being unable to see the larger problem. These writers have a general sense of what they want their novels to be about, but they keep focusing on the specifics of individual scenes and not the bigger picture.
Say your novel is about a couple who reconnect years after their relationship ended and rekindle their romance. You know there’s a history between these two, and that they broke up over trust issues, but you’re not sure exactly what happened. You feel confident you’ll figure it out later and write (or outline) away.
You create a slew of decent scenes that show them rediscovering each other, feeling that spark again, feeling unsure because it didn’t work out the first time, but also feeling the pull and urge to try again.
Then you start having trouble, because the setup is over and it’s time for the actual conflict to begin. You have them fight, but over silly, general things, so it feels superficial and not at all what you want.
So you tweak.
You change the job of the one character and the goal of the other. Instead of a clerk, he’s a sales manager, and instead of wanting to go back to med school, she wants to open a bakery. You create a whole mini-arc about his need to hit an impossible sales goal that’s creating all kinds of trouble in the romance. You give her a nemesis who wants the location she’s trying to get for her shop.
None of this addresses the issue of why they broke up or what their baggage is, so the plot still doesn’t work.
You change things further, connecting his sales problems to her bakery in some way so they’ll have something to fight about and create that much-needed conflict. You make the nemesis an old flame of his to add to the pressure.
And you still can’t get past the general setup of the novel.
By this time, you’re ready to rip your hair out and throw your laptop across the room, sure the novel is doomed and you’re never going to get anywhere with this story you love so much.
And you’re right, because you’re lost in the details and ignoring the bigger picture. No matter how many things you change, nothing actually changes because the real problem isn’t being addressed.
Luckily, there’s way out of this mess.
Step Back and Look at the Big Picture
Your novel has a main problem, and that problem will drive the plot (the core conflict). Your main characters—particularly the protagonist and antagonist—will have goals they need to resolve by the end of the book. It’s possible you’re lost because you’re not sure what that main problem is yet, or only have a vague sense of the premise. Being fuzzy about what the goals are will make if difficult to know what needs to happen in your scenes.
You can’t fully understand how the story details fit if you don’t understand the larger conflict behind it all. Knowing the couple has “a bad past together” doesn’t give you enough information to write their scenes, or know what’s really behind their romantic problems. Was that past infidelity? A lack of attention? Attempted murder? Know what happened matters.
Even when you know a little about it, such as “trust issues,” that often makes it worse, because now it feels like you know the reason behind the conflict. And you do, sort of, but the details are still missing. Those details are necessary to understand the backstory, and thus create the conflict that will drive the plot. How was the trust broken? Who broke it? Have circumstances changed that would prevent the same thing from happening again?
If you don’t know, you can’t choose the right details to bring the scene to life. You wind up choosing random details that don’t serve the story about past lovers torn apart by trust issues.
Look to Your Characters’ Goals and Motivations for Guidance
The goals might not be fully developed yet, but knowing what your characters want will guide you to crafting the right plot for them to get it. Ask what they want. Ask why they want it. Ask what they’re willing to do (and not do) to get it. If you can’t answer those questions, or can only give vague answers, that’s a red flag you need to spend more time fleshing out the goals and motivations of that character.
It could also mean you haven’t given enough thought to their backstory, which typically explains why they want that particular goal or why getting it is a problem. The stronger the character arc, the more likely the backstory matters to the plot. Past wounds will play a big role in how that character behaves.
Maybe you chose the goal before you decided why. It’s not unusual to know your character needs to do X for plot reasons, but have no idea why from a character perspective. Using my reunited lovers as an example, you might know they need to not trust each other because of their past history, but without knowing the details of that history, the mistrust feels weak. There won’t be any real conflict in the scenes to cause that mistrust, and the characters end up looking childish and petty.
Details are terribly important in a novel, so we need to choose the right ones to illustrate our story. But we also have to be objective enough to notice when we’re getting tangled up in the details and forgetting what the story is about.
Don’t get caught up in details that don’t serve your story. Do enough brainstorming to figure out the problems and conflicts facing your characters, so you know the right details to use to drive your plot.
How much do you usually know about the goals and problems of your characters? What methods help you discover this information?
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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
Want more on how to craft strong conflicts and solid story problems in your novel?
Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. This book will help you: understand what conflict means and how to use it, tell the difference between external and internal conflicts, see why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution, determine the type of conflict your story needs, fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back, and so much more.