Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 16, 2022

4 Essential Elements You Need to Create a Workable Novel

by Sandy Vaile

Image of faceless white-clay.figure sitting on the floor surrounded by large, red 3d question marks, The character has its elbows on its knees, one hand covering its face because it doesn't know the four essential elements you need to create a workable novel.

Every second person I speak to believes they’ve “got a novel in them”. It’s getting it out and onto the page that’s the tricky part! Only about 3% of people who actually start writing a book, will ever finish it. Fewer still end up with a story that works because they don't understand the essential elements needed to create a workable novel.

So, how can you be in the minority of fiction authors who end up with a story that hits all the marks publishers and readers are looking for?

In my experience, it doesn’t matter when or how much you like to plan your stories, so long as you nail four critical aspects. It’s all about writing with purpose. Having a fabulous idea is just the beginning. The hard part is molding that idea into a living, breathing story that captures the imagination of readers, plucks at their heartstrings, and lures them towards ‘the end’.

Authors usually become stuck by:

  • Not developing their idea into a workable plot. The whole brainstorming and playing with ideas phase is often rushed in the excitement to start writing.
  • Not populating that plot with interesting characters readers will want to spend time with.
  • Not having a focused direction for the story and therefore losing their way.

Sure, there are dozens of aspects to the planning and writing process, and we can’t cover them all in a single article, but without the four critical aspects below a novel is unlikely to have what it takes to catch a publisher’s attention and engage readers.

The four critical aspects of a workable novel are:

  1. Idea transformation  
  2. Story purpose
  3. Driven characters
  4. Character-driven conflicts

Now, let’s look at each of these elements in more detail,

Idea Transformation

Image of an anonymous clay character with no face on its round head and holding a red puzzle piece with gray puzzle pieces around it on the floor and in front of him a hole for that red puzzle piece that will make a workable novel.

An idea is not a plot, no matter how amazing. It is the kernel of inspiration, which we must flesh out into a three-dimensional world populated by living, breathing characters.

The whole process of gathering, sorting, and selecting ideas can take a long time. Our minds need to brainstorm, ponder and weigh up possibilities before settling on a host of ideas with the potential to come together to form a novel.

The Brainstorming

Take your time when brainstorming ideas that flow from that initial idea. Follow each one along the path of “what ifs” until you exhaust all avenues, no matter how crazy they may seem. I’m often surprised at what random ideas trigger solid story threads.

What if questions can lead in a host of different directions. Keep going until you expose the inherent conflict in a situation. Something that interests you enough to want to tease out the underlying struggles people in that situation are likely to face. Something that is substantial enough to germinate a multitude of possibilities and sustain a story for 80,000 plus words.

Once you’ve filled many pages with potential ideas, sort them according to topics or your degree of interest in them. If you still can’t choose the angle/topic you want to work on, I find it helpful to flesh out a few ideas. Just free write, imagine situations, locations, and characters and see where they take you. Some will peter out, but eventually one will fire up your imagination and demand to be told.

Some Examples

Let’s look at a couple of examples (simplified though they may be) of how ideas can be transformed into story premises.

Example 1

  • Idea – A destitute woman with a child to care for.
  • Brainstorming – What if a destitute woman had to provide for a special needs child whilst living in a station wagon?
  • Transformation – A destitute woman pretends to be someone else, to provide for her special needs child, despite the constant risk of exposure.

Example 2

  • Idea – Someone who lived through the sinking of the Titanic.
  • Brainstorming – What if a woman who is desperate to avoid an arranged marriage, falls in love with a working-class man?
  • Transformation – A seventeen-year-old aristocratic woman falls in love with a kind but poor artist aboard the luxurious, ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic and will risk everything to avoid her arranged marriage.

Story Purpose

We are looking down on a large anonymous orange clay figure who has a tiny white clay figure standing on his left shoulder and whispering into the orange one's face and a black clay figure stand on his right shoulder and whispers in his ear as the orange one tries to figure out a workable novel.

There are two parts to story purpose:

  • The author’s reason for writing the story; and
  • The end goal (of the book or main character).

Understanding why you want to write a particular story will sustain you through the inevitable questioning of its worth, and being clear about where it’s going will prevent you from meandering so far from the core plot that you lose steam and come to a halt. Worst case scenario? You abandon the story altogether.

The author’s purpose

Books are so much more than ideas communicated through words. We tell them because we want to share our own beliefs and ideals with others and/or to open their eyes to the plight of a minority and/or to open their minds to a different way of seeing things.

Dig deep into your soul to see what aspects of the story and its character you want to explore. Where does your passion lie? It might be an injustice, moral standpoint or statement about an institution or culture.

What message or sentiment are you hoping to leave readers with after they close the book?

The story’s purpose

A story’s purpose is the endpoint, which every action and thought is hurtling towards.

I use a “story summary” to point my characters in the right direction. It’s a few paragraphs that outline who the main characters are, what they want, why and what’s stopping them. Just like a synopsis, only less formal because it’s purely for your reference.

I often start mine by posing a “what if” question I will answer by the end of the story and spend extra words making it clear why my character is driven to pursue this goal and what inner fear or false belief they will overcome during the story.

Referring to this summary before writing or editing each scene, prevents me from getting side-tracked on tangents that don’t serve the core plot.

Driven Characters

A white-clay. faceless character figure sitting on the floor beside a red heart with black cracks in it. The character holds its hands on each side of its head and represents how to change a driven character story into a workable novel.

This is the most common area where I see stories fall short. Authors often come up with a story idea, complete a standard Character Profile and start writing. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to dimensionless cardboard cut-outs on the page.

It isn’t what a character looks like that will make them memorable or able to drive a plot. We need to unearth their “why”.

  • Why they are in this situation.
  • Why they desperately want to achieve the goal.
  • Why they are the perfect person to put in this situation.

The answers to all of these questions must be relevant to the character’s goal (what they want to achieve by the end of the story).

Some Examples:

  • They are in this situation because of choices they made and situations they faced before the book started.
  • They desperately want to achieve their goal because it has a deep emotional and/or physical meaning to them. This desire needs to be strong enough to keep them going in the face of fear or danger.
  • They perfectly suit this story situation because of events from their past, which shaped the skills, talents, flaws or fears they have and are relevant to the plot. They must be the kind of person who will be challenged or distressed as you deliberately put them in increasingly difficult situations.

How your characters got to the point in time where the story starts, has a huge bearing on the types of obstacles you put in their way during the story.

Use their personal fears, false beliefs and past traumas against them, to make their lives as difficult as possible.

Having to overcome such challenges will help them grow as a person (their character arc). Learn something about themselves (possibly something they would never verbalise).

Character-driven Conflicts  

A white clay figure strides forward  inside a large red cog and represents character-driving conflicts in a workable novel.

Conflict is the heart pumping life through the arteries and veins of your novel. The source of character development and the thing that hooks readers into the character’s life.

Use what the main character(s) want (their goal) and why they want it (their motivation) to create challenges that are difficult for them specifically. This is what I mean by the characters driving the conflicts in the story.

Some examples:

  • A victim of child abuse is going to react differently than someone who was nurtured in a loving home.
  • Someone who has repeatedly been rejected, by lovers, friends and parents, will view relationships differently than someone who found the love of their life in high school and is still with them.
  •  A person who feels guilty for letting down someone they cared about in a big way,  will approach a similar situation differently than someone who hasn’t experienced such a trauma.

Stephen King says, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and see what happens.”

Force your main character(s) to face challenges as soon as possible. To create a well-rounded story, your characters should come up against external and internal conflicts. Gradually making the situations they are in more challenging — with more to lose emotionally and physically — will increase the tension and lure readers through the story.

A Solid Foundation for a Workable Novel

Competition judges, agents, publishers and (often subconsciously) readers, are looking for these four elements to create a cohesive story they can follow and become fully immersed in.

So, if you find your stories fading into oblivion and remaining unfinished, or you have completed stories that aren’t quite coming together right, you may be left feeling confused, overwhelmed and insecure about your writing abilities. But don’t despair.

Take a step back and make sure you have fully explored the four essential elements to transform your idea into a workable story using driven characters and conflicts, and keep it on track with a clear purpose. With these things in place, you will have a solid foundation from which to create a workable novel.

* * * * * *

If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish, never submit, or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering Writers in the Storm readers a FREE masterclass, which reveals the real reasons few aspiring authors finish their novels (and how to avoid them).

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About Sandy

Photograph of Sandy Vaile author of this post is holding a copy of her book Combatting Fear showing she knows how to create a workable novel.

Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. She writes romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US and coaches fiction authors to write novels they are proud to share (and which get noticed by agents and publishers).

Sandy is an experienced course presenter who provides a nurturing workshop environment where participants can truly absorb the material and apply it to their own work.

In her spare time, Sandy composes procedures for high-risk industrial processes, judges writing competitions, runs The Fearless Novelist Facebook group, and offers critiquing services.

Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.

17 comments on “4 Essential Elements You Need to Create a Workable Novel”

  1. I love each of these four elements. The one I have the most difficulty with is the Idea Transformation so I find your examples ultra helpful. Thanks and welcome to WITS, Sandy.

    1. Lynette, you are most welcome. I think a lot of authors will sympathise with having too many ideas and struggling to wrangle them into a cohesive plot. I like to write all of my ideas down, so I don't feel like I'm losing any, but once I lock onto something I'm interested in, I focus on the main character's desires.

  2. Hi Sandy!
    You've broken down what needs to be done in a way that makes it easy for a writer to know what's missing.
    I see that I need to have a clearer end game for my main protagonist in a story that's rolling about in my head. Thank you for that.
    Great post. Welcome to WITS!

    1. You've hit the nail on the head, Ellen. There are SO MANY things to think of when writing a novel, but keeping your eyes on that end goal can really save time and frustration, because it guides you in the right direction.

  3. You have hit on the core needs of a good novel here so simply and so well. I love the logical approach and the examples. I am in the process of resurrection a shelved YA contemp written before I understood some of these concepts. Having them so succinctly in front of me during revisions will be very helpful!

    1. I'm please to have helped, Miffie. My favourite tip is the Story Summary. A few paragraphs that are laser focused on what the main character wants, needs, why and their false belief from a past trauma. Have fun!

  4. Welcome, Sandy! Solid advice! I particularly liked the piece about turning an idea into a plot.

  5. Thanks, Sandy. These in depth suggestions really get to the heart of building a page-turner. I'll be sharing this!

    1. Thanks a million, Kris. I'm thrilled you enjoyed these tips. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the minutiae that we forget some of the core elements that keep us on track. Happy writing.

    1. Thanks, Denise. Making sure your characters (especially the main character) is strongly driven to achieve their goal, even when the going gets tough, will solve a lot of issues.

  6. Thank you, I needed this reminder! In the past my 1# problem has been staying on track, and not chasing a new idea down a rabbit hole. Where some people are hampered by writers block, I am the opposite. I have new storylines with characters and dialogue constantly interrupting my focus on what's at hand.

    1. LOL CW. You are not alone with new ideas screaming for attention!

      I find writing them down, so I don't worry I'll lose them, helps. If one is particularly persistent, take an hour or two to brain dump all of the ideas. Then put it aside and head back to your main project.

      It's nice to have little breaks from our main project anyway. Enjoy.

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