by Janice Hardy
A novel is about the story, not the technical skills you use to write it.
Fiction is an odd combination of skills. The craft of writing is technical, with rules and techniques that can achieve different results, yet the art of storytelling is visceral, relying on creativity and instinct to pluck the best pieces from our imagination.
While the story is often what grabs us first, it can quickly get overshadowed by the technical aspects.
Add in the countless blogs, books, and classes that teach good writing, and it’s easy to see how the focus can shift from telling a wonderful story to writing a well-written book. This can lead to technically well-written novels, but not great stories.
Now, I’m not saying ignore the technical side of writing—that’s how you bring a wonderful story to life—but don’t lose sight of the joy and magic you felt when that story idea originally came to you.
How many times have you stopped reading a book that was well written, but the story didn’t wow you? And how often have you only read one book from an author who was clearly skilled, but their books felt flat? Their stories didn’t make you want more.
And that’s what we all want, right? A story that grabs readers by the shirtfront and hauls them into our worlds so they can play with our characters for a while. We want them to lose themselves in our stories first, and marvel over how we handled our stage direction later.
Here are some things to remember during the drafting process:
My high school creative writing teacher said it best: “Stories are just interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways.”
Characters are why readers love a book and they’re at the heart of every story. No matter how great the plot, a flat, lifeless character fails to make that emotional connection with the reader. Without that connection, readers don’t care about all those amazing plot elements you worked so hard to develop.
Sure, they might think the book itself is cool, but that memory fades as soon as a great character in another book comes along and captures their heart. Then your story is likely lost, or worse—becomes one of those “I forget the title but it had this really neat twist to it” novels readers talk about, but no one else reads.
Let them be the best story people they can be, and don’t shy away from showing both their strengths and their weaknesses. Give them motivations only they could have and let them act in credible and plausible ways. The more real a character is, the easier it is for readers to connect and relate to them. Even larger-than-life characters can be grounded in reality. Make sure they:
Stories are about characters, so don’t skimp on yours.
The more emotion a reader feels, the more likely they are to love the story. Make them laugh, cry, gasp in shock or squeal in glee, and those will be the scenes they’re telling friends about the next day. Emotional connections allow readers to feel like they’re in the story along with the characters. Connections make readers care, and when they care, the plot becomes that much stronger and more meaningful.
It’s not just the stunning plot twist no one saw coming, but the emotional punch that twist caused. Build every tough choice into a gut-wrenching experience, tap into the human flaws we all recognize, and show the fears that we struggle with every day. Make the reader feel right along with the characters. Look for opportunities to:
Connection makes us care, and them more a reader connects to and emphasizes with a character, the deeper they’ll be drawn into the story you want to tell.
Elmore Leonard famously said, “don’t write the parts readers skip.” Failing to heed this advice has hurt many a story, and resulted in pages of backstory, heavy description, and tedious exposition. You know which moments are the best parts of your story—they’re the ones you can’t wait to write. If a scene isn’t exciting enough to make you want to write it, that’s a good indication that no one will want to read it.
Find what you love most about every scene and use it to draw readers in so they love it, too. Try to craft every scene so it contains something that makes you want to call your best writer friend and tell them all about this great chapter you just wrote. Embrace the moments that:
Stories come alive when you show them, not when you explain them.
There’s no rule on when to explore the story and when to explore the technical aspects of writing it, so follow your instincts here. You might create the story first and then polish, or get the plot worked out before you focus on the deeper aspects of the tale. However it works for you, go for it. Just take some time before you’re done to develop the story itself, not just how you tell that story.
Free Workshop Alert! I’m giving an online workshop for the Florida Mystery Writers of America on Planning Your Novel in Ten Easy Steps.
When: October 14
Time: 12:00-1:30 pm EST
The video will be available for on-demand viewing October 15 – October 31.
It’s open to writers of all genres, from beginners to experienced. In this workshop, writers will learn how to create the critical elements of a novel’s plot, how to use goals, conflicts, and stakes to build a story and develop characters, and how to approach a novel in a way that will make it easier to write and be more marketable to agents, editors, and readers.
Here is the link to the event page on the library’s website: https://nova.libcal.com/event/11035820
How do you treat your story in your early drafts? Is it the focus, or does it get refined later?
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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.
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