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How to write a novel with a great story
In this episode, it would be very tempting to talk about getting cracking with your draft.
However, I want to hold back a little bit because I want to do one more bit of thinking before we dive headfirst into getting that draft underway.
I want to start by asking a simple question: what is the point?
And by that, I mean what is the point of your story?
If I were sitting next to you, I would say what is this story about? Then when you answered, I would look you in the eye and say, no, what is it really about?
What I’m getting at here could be described as theme and metaphor, but all we are really doing is trying to delve a little deeper into the reason that you are starting this project in the first place.
You can frame it any way you wish, but what I can say with some confidence, is that if your novel is simply a series of events, then no matter how interesting characters may be, it won’t satisfy you or your readers.
I’d like you to take a moment and ask yourself why you are really going to write this novel.
It’s not enough to say that you’ve always wanted to write. You need to have a story to tell.
People often say that at some fundamental level we all know what a good story is, but the word story is used to cover a multitude of sins.
If someone tells you the story of what they did at work that day, it probably won’t have much significance to anyone but them and possibly you. Similarly, we might describe two neighbours who are gossiping over local events as telling a story to each other. But again, it’s not something that would bear retelling, and almost certainly isn’t worth writing about.
When I was rereading Share Your Work by Austin Kleon, I found a great quote from John LeCarre Macari. Apparently, LeCarre said that The cat sat on the mat is not a story, but the cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story. And really what he’s trying to imply in a humorous way is that events need to have some significance beyond the scope of what has actually occurred.
People who are cat owners and dog owners would relate to his example in an immediate way. It would elicit an emotional response in them. “Oh yes,” they’d say. “I know how that’s going to turn out.”
This is we’re looking for in your story. Not just events, but emotional responses that go beyond what is actually set down on the page. We’re looking for a story that resonates with people.
Try and bake these questions into your process as you go: what is the point? As you’re working on your plans or your early drafts, ask yourself over and over again. Is it intriguing, will it pique our interest, will it make us laugh or cry your tug at our heartstrings?
This is not to imply that the events in your story must all be earthshattering. A seemingly mundane action can speak volumes. We’ve all seen or read stories where a person has laid a place at the dinner table for someone who is no longer there. We can use small actions to reveal aspects of your characters’ lives and in so doing elicit emotional responses from the reader.
If we bear that principle in mind, we can see that themes and metaphors will emerge as we answer those questions. It’s also true that we will be able to produce those scenes more effectively and with more impact if we have some idea of what those themes and metaphors are before we begin. But don’t get hung up on the decision.
You may be worried that you will pick a theme or metaphor incorrectly for your story or that your choice of theme will tie you down in some way. But I urge you to remember that we are still in the planning phase here.
These ideas are not set in stone and they cannot be wrong.
It is absolutely fine at any point to modify or delete them or replace them entirely.
But we need this step in the process because it isn’t just about crafting a more meaningful story, it also feeds into the motivation you need to keep going through the whole process.
I can still remember the dread horror of the kind of writing tasks that I was set at primary school. My imagination wanted to run free, but what the teacher asked for was an elongated diary entry called What I did at the weekend or What I did over the summer. Sound familiar?
I had no real interest in recounting these events, and though they could be made interesting perhaps by a skilled diarist, to me they were dull and repetitive tasks that I trudged my way through with little enthusiasm.
You cannot afford to bog down your novel writing process in the same way.
So ask yourself, what is this story really about?
The themes don’t have to be ideas that will be recognised by scholars of ancient literature, nor do they have to be earthshattering. They just have to exist.
If you’re not sure where to begin, here are a few examples of universal human experiences we can all aspire to talk about.
Loss is one that we can always explore because we all experience it in some way at some point. The loss of a loved one, a relative, a friend, or even a beloved pet.
Another rich seam is the relationships within families.
I often find fathers and sons coming into my work, perhaps because I lost my dad quite a few years ago.
Another evergreen theme is the coming-of-age story. It may have been used many times in ways that are quite clichéd, but it can also be toyed with in other ways. We all go through the stage of becoming an adult. Then again there are other ways in which we could be said to come of age, e.g. settling into new modes of life, leaving home, leaving a hometown, getting married or remarried, changing careers, coming to terms with life’s obstacles, overcoming troubles.
These are all variants of the coming-of-age to my mind.
Whatever your theme, think back to the previous episode, and remember that what we’re interested in is change.
When characters undergo significant changes, the story moves forward.
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A Podcast on the Craft of Writing by Author Michael Campling
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