Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 13, 2019

The Heart of a Novel: Its "About-ness"

by Barbara Linn Probst

I’m delighted to join WITS as a regular blogger! Thanks for having me.

We’ve all had that question put to us by friends, relatives, colleagues, and potential readers. It’s a reasonable question.

“It’s the story of a woman who …”

“It tells what happens when ...”

But that’s the setup. It’s not what the book is about.

Coined by R.A. Fairthorne in 1969, “aboutness” is a term used in linguistics, philosophy of language, and the informational sciences to convey both the subject and intention of a text. In other words: what is said, and why.

So what’s your book about?

The question can be surprisingly difficult to answer. That's because we aren't used to thinking conceptually about our writing. We’re taught how to create stakes, wounds, obstacles, turning points—but those are just landmarks, coordinates, strategies in the service of the book’s aboutness.

Pinning down your book’s aboutness is critical, however!  It will lead you to your “elevator pitch,” log line, and all the language you’ll need for talking about your book out there in the world.

We’ll explore three ways to think about this question—three perspectives, from concrete to abstract.

  • First, there’s the story your protagonist or point-of-view character is enacting. It’s driven by her goal (inner or outer) and what she must do to achieve that goal. When she achieves that goal, the story is over.
  • Next, there’s the story your reader is experiencing. It’s driven by the question the reader is yearning to resolve as she turns the pages. When she’s answered that question, the story is over.
  • And finally, there’s the story that you, as author, are creating, driven by what you want to say about how life works or what it means to be human. When your premise has been fully illustrated, the story is over.

There are no rules for which comes first, but it can be helpful to begin by identifying your premise, since premise underlies both question and goal. A premise is like an aphorism, a concise generalization about the way life works. Forgiveness is always possible. Courage takes many forms. Be careful what you wish for.  

The story question—a question that’s large enough to span the entire narrativeasks whether the plot will demonstrate that the premise is true. If the book’s premise is that it’s never too late to change, then the story question is: “Will the outcome verify or disprove the assertion that it’s never too late to change?”  In spite of everything, will Lucy be able to let go of her anger toward her father?

The protagonist’s goal takes the story question and turns it back into a statement. Lucy’s goal is to let go of her anger and reunite with her father.

The premise doesn’t have to be stated overtly; often, it’s better if it’s not. But you, as author, need to know what it is! Without it, your book has no coherence.

In a “simple” story, the goal, question, and premise line up neatly. The protagonist’s goal is usually to find or acquire something; it might be something that’s been taken or lost, like a kidnapped child, or an achievement that represents recognition or healing of a prior wound. The reader’s question is whether the protagonist will reach her goal. The author’s premise is that the protagonist’s core feature (determination, resourcefulness, courage) will lead to success. For example, if the protagonist’s goal is to find her missing child, in a simple story their eventual reunion demonstrates the premise that parental love will overcome all obstacles.

There are many examples of stories in which the protagonist’s goal, the reader’s question, and the author’s premise align easily. In The Help by Kathryn Stockett, for example, Skeeter’s goal is to write a book about something that truly matters, and the question is whether she’ll be able to accomplish her aim. She does, thanks to the courage of the women who trust her with their stories. The book’s ending thus captures its premise: Courage and friendship will triumph over hate.

In my own novel Queen of the Owls, Elizabeth’s goal is to find her true self beneath the roles she tries so hard to fulfill, a more complete self that will unite body and mind.

The overall story question—whether she will be able to do that, and at what cost—is framed by a series of questions that emerge as the plot escalates and evolves. These questions (whether she will pose for Richard, what will happen as a result of the photographs he takes, and what she will do in response) are the steps that lead from the first intimation of the question all the way to its resolution. At the end of the book, the book’s premise is fulfilled: Embracing the parts of yourself that you’ve denied leads to wholeness.

In a more complex story—one based on irony or misdirection—the three elements don’t always line up so neatly. In Gone with the Wind, for example, Scarlett O’Hara’s goal is to marry Ashley Wilkes. The reader, however, wants to find out if Scarlett will come to her senses and realize that Rhett is the one she really wants; the reader doesn’t share Scarlett’s goal. This discrepancy (misalignment) adds to the book’s tension and points to its premise: Never give up.

Other stories are complex because the protagonist’s goal changes. Perhaps the first goal turns out to be false, a mask for the true goal, or perhaps circumstances require a new goal.

In Lisa Genova’s Every Note Played, Richard’s initial goal is to preserve as much of his identity as a musician as he can. As his disease progresses, however, he must abandon this goal in favor of a neglected desire—to connect with his family. In Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, Vianne’s initial goal is to protect her daughter. As the story develops, her goal shifts to the aim of saving as many Jewish children as possible —not a reversal of her earlier goal, as in Genova’s book, but an expansion.

Sometimes the protagonist’s failure to achieve her goal—or the reader’s realization that what seemed like the story question wasn’t, in fact, the right question to have been asking—is the way the book’s premise is ultimately demonstrated. E.g., the premise that the thing you’re seeking may have been right in front of you all along might not be apparent until the end of the book.

By “goal,” I mean the Big Goal, although the protagonist may have “smaller,” specific goals at various points in the story. For example, in the middle section of Queen of the Owls, Elizabeth believes that her goal is to destroy the photographs that are revealing her, publicly, in a way she didn’t intend. Later, she comes to understand that her true goal is exactly the opposite: she must embrace the photographs, claim what they portray.

In each of these examples, there’s a discernable relationship between goal, story question, and premise—a good thing!

Not so good when the elements have no intrinsic relationship or slip, inexplicably, out of alignment.

In Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Anna’s goal is agency, the ability to make her own decisions about her body. She has a secondary goal to help her sister, whom she loves. The two goals appear incompatible, raising the story tension. The reader’s question is thus: “How can Anna achieve the agency she seeks without causing her sister’s death?”  Five-star stakes!  

But what’s the premise? The book’s unexpected ending seems to proclaim the goals are meaningless in a world governed by random events. It doesn’t fit with Anna’s goal. So what’s the book actually “about?”

Certainly, there are novels in which the story question is never fully answered, leaving the reader with a sense of open-ended possibility. In Chris Bohjalian’s The Law of Similars, for example, we want Leland and Carissa to reconnect, but Bohjalian’s ending is intentionally ambivalent. We don’t know if Leland achieves his goal, yet the book’s premise is intact: We must try our best and sustain hope.

[Note:  When I call a book like The Help “simple,” I don’t mean that it lacks complexity, nuance, or depth—only that goal, question, and premise are clearly aligned. It’s okay if they’re not—as long as you, as the author, know why you’ve chosen an intentional misalignment and why it is the most effective way to tell your story.]

Now think about your own book. Can you identify these three elements?  

Goal. It may be easiest to begin with the most concrete: the protagonist’s goal. Often, the overt or external goal (e.g., winning a trophy, thwarting a villain, solving a mystery) is a stand-in for a deeper goal (e.g., standing up for oneself, learning to be vulnerable, letting go of a grudge).

Question. Next, ask yourself: What is the reader dying to know?  Is there a central question strong enough to sustain a reader’s interest and concern?

Premise. And finally: What are you trying to express about what it means to be human? 

If the answers seem elusive, there might be a missing through-line, dangling subplots, or too many plot points that are sequential rather than consequential (that is, a lot of things “happen” but they lack necessity).  

If there seem to be multiple goals and premises, it might indicate that you’re trying to do too much and need to simplify—to save some material for your next book.

Considering these questions is time well-spent. Your book will be stronger—and more readable—if you know what it’s about.

* * * * * *

About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst is the author of Queen of the Owls, coming in April 2020 from the visionary, award-winning She Writes Press. Queen of the Owls has received stellar advance praise and will be the May 2020 selection of the Pulpwood Queens, a network of more than 780 book clubs throughout the U.S. To pre-order or learn more, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

An earlier version of this article appeared on Live-Write-Thrive in July 2018.

15 comments on “The Heart of a Novel: Its "About-ness"”

  1. I love this post, Barbara! Such a concise, effective way to think about the spine of your story--and I like how you tie these essential elements together to help authors create not only an effective elevator pitch, but to define and polish the story itself. Shared on socials!

    1. Thanks so much, Tiffany! That's exactly what I was after: "a concise, effective way to think about the spine of a story." There's so much focus on arcs, conflict, turning points, dark moments, etc. but without knowing the story's essence, none of that really matters or holds together. I hope you will share the piece with writers you work with!

    2. Tiffany, thanks for sharing! But, like Barbara, I appreciate the way you captured the spirit and the purpose of this post in a single sentence. Your comment made my day!

  2. Thoughtful post. Makes me think about how I handled this in my first novel (and its upcoming sequel). The middle question "what does the reader expect" seems to me, at first blush, the hardest to retrospectively nail down. In Part One of my book "The Expanding Seas of Earth" my protagonists have an immediate goal-escape their alien captors and warn Earth about an impending invasion. But in Part Two–once they overcome the obstacle before them (captivity)– they slowly realize their original plan could pose a greater danger to humanity. They must come to acknowledge and accept the imperfections of human nature and human society (author's premise), and find a way to equally protect humanity from itself.

    They reach this realization by the end of Part Two, and in Part Three put a new plan into action, placing its success before the personal goals (returning to a normal life) they'd cherished before.

    So essentially, I changed the protagonists goals and (hopefully) reader expectations in Part Two. The question is how well I've accomplished what I set out to write, and I guess that depends upon whether the readers are willing to follow me on the same path. I hope so.

    1. So glad this way of conceptualizing the "heart of a story" was useful to you, Jerold! It's helpful to think of the three perspectives: protagonist's, reader's, and author's. If we only think about the first one, we can miss the chance for greater coherence and power. Good luck with your new vision!

  3. Thank you, Barbara, for explaining how these complex story components are interwoven. It truly helps to pull these components apart and look at how each one is influencing the other. You lead me to a light-bulb moment. Great post!

    1. So glad the article was useful to you, Lia! Those "light bulb moments" are the reason we read blogs like Writers in the Storm ... moments when things come together in a fresh and empowering way. Thank you, and best of luck with your writing!

  4. I love this post, Barbara! And the "aboutness" is the hardest part of a book to describe, in my opinion. You laid it out in a way that will make this process easy to duplicate, which is a gift.

  5. I've struggled to answer the "about" question in my own head, and therefore bumbled when others asked the question, just as you said, Barbara. So I spent some time thinking about the goals, question, and premise and found I can answer them now. My WIP is a memoir, but it seems like your recommendations are still applicable. Any thoughts on that?

  6. Hi Barbara, identifying the core of the story and putting it into a question form can help the author at early stages of development, too.

    If it makes a compelling elevator pitch, one can 'backwards' plan their book into the marketable premise they've created.

    I appreciate all the examples as well - thanks for your post!


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