Novel Construction Begins with Concept

Last week we dove into the idea of constructing a novel, likening a novel to the roof of a building. In this course that will run the entire year, we’re going to look at the 12 support pillars of novel construction and how each pillar must be built so that it can hold up the story you hope to convey to your readers. I mentioned how a great building contractor will combine both book learning (which stands for any type of instructional learning) with hands-on knowledge, but that book learning alone can’t teach a person all they need to know to become proficient in a vocation.

And the converse is especially true for writers. You can’t just dive in and write something as complex as a novel without some book learning. But all too often that’s just what aspiring novelists do. Which, as I explained, ends up unproductive and a waste of valuable time. To become proficient at writing fiction, you have to learn as much as you can from the best teachers and books, then apply what you learn in practice. And although there is a wealth of diverse information “out there” for writers, basic structure, like established building codes, underlies all the best novels that have been written over the years, all over the world. 

Don’t Be a Tinkerer

A lot of writers are like weekend handymen. Once they’ve gotten a little bit of knowledge, skill, and writing time under their belt, they feel they’re ready for the big time. But many inexperienced handymen (or women) tackle a repair or remodel project, only to meet with disaster.

I’m reminded of the commercial showing a man trying to fix his light switch in the bathroom, but when he flips the switch, the toilet flushes (which actually would take some pretty clever planning and construction to achieve). My contractor husband is never happy when I tinker with things I really am not qualified to mess with. He knows that no matter how determined or careful I am, I am being foolish and counterproductive to attempt to fix something I have not adequately learned how to fix.

This doesn’t mean I’m stupid; with proper knowledge and some practice, I’m sure I could take that sink apart, unclog the drain, and put it all back together again without flooding my kitchen. And that would be a good skill for me to learn (but since I’m married to such a handy guy who actually likes doing repairs like that, I haven’t bothered). However, a novelist doesn’t have the handy guy or gal at his beck and call to come running to fix everything while he’s writing his novel. The novelist, as sole architect, builder, and decorator (unless doing a collaborative novel), has to have all the chops needed to construct that great novel.

It wouldn’t do to throw your hands up a few pages into the writing and turn the project over to someone else to fix. If you want to be a proficient builder of lasting, terrific stories, you need to take Construction 101. And that is what this course will do—give you the requisite instruction on how to structure a novel that, I hope, will endure the ravages of time and critics both.

The Crucial Four Corner Pillars

So, as I mentioned last week, I’ve come up with a simple, practical way of approaching the daunting task of novel structure. I’ve organized the requisite components into structural pillars, all of which are essential supports of a successfully told story. Some pillars are more important than others, and the first four are critical to get right. In fact, if you get your four support pillars in place, you can play around a lot with the other eight to suit your style, genre, and tone for your book.

While there is no set order to any of these pillars, I will go so far as to say these primary four need to be solid before you focus on the other eight. Your roof [read: novel] will collapse if any of these four corner supports fail, so instead of working on your novel with a shotgun approach or trying to tackle the components in a random fashion, do what builders do—frame up the building with the required supporting beams before even thinking about putting on the roof or laying down flooring.

I listed the four main supports last week: a concept with a kicker, conflict with high stakes, a protagonist with a goal, and theme with a heart. So let’s take an initial look at the first pillar—concept with a kicker.

You can work on the four corner pillars in any order, but keep in mind these four are intricately linked. I recommend you spend some time brainstorming and mind mapping these four pillars together on a large chart to play with the ways they are interconnected. But as we go along, you’ll see how this is so, and I’ll give you some good examples that will make this clear.

Concept . . . with a Kicker

Next week I’ll go way deeper into the concept of concept, but for now, I’d like to get this idea simmering in your head.

Concept seems to be a hard concept for novelists to get. Granted, a concept, by definition, is an idea, thought, or notion. And some excellent writing instructors differentiate between idea, concept, and premise. I find the terms a bit confusing, though—especially when used to mean different things. So I’m going to keep it simple.

Every great novel starts with a basic idea. An idea for a story. You could phrase an idea by starting with “What if . . . ?” What if a comet was about to crash into earth and scientists had to find a way to destroy it? What if a man on death row was innocent and only one person believed him? What if a woman fell in love with a man and it turned out he was her brother?

Writers generate innumerable ideas for stories, and many ideas they come up with have a germ of potential—the potential to be turned into a truly great novel. Every great novel, in the beginning, started with some idea.

Ideas Are a Dime a Dozen

But, a great idea does not make a novel. Some ideas are fine for a short story, but they don’t have the “legs” to be fashioned into a lengthy novel. Almost all ideas fall way too short of novel potential. Well, how can you determine what has legs and what doesn’t?

It’s only when they are developed into “a concept with a kicker” that they start to have the potential to be worked into a novel.

Think about a lump of clay. That’s your idea. That lump of clay is not a beautiful vase. It’s just a lump of potential. That is what your good idea is. We all have a lot of lumps on the table, but they are not going to turn into vases by sitting there. You are going to have to work on them to get them into shape.

So in this way, ideas have to be taken to a higher level; they have to have a kicker. I came up with this phrase “a concept with a kicker” because I wanted some simple way to roll all the diverse and confusing information about concept, premise, plot, and idea into one clear statement. Well, what is a kicker? To me, it is the very specific, unique “shape” that idea is going to take on. The kicker takes the blah lump of clay and turns it into a stunning vase. Or sculpture or whatever you have in mind as the finished product.

Well, just how in the world do you take an idea and infuse it with a kicker? The secret is tied up with the other three corner pillars.

And next week, I’ll start right in on that. In the meantime, think about the idea of your novel—the one you’ve already written or that you’re considering writing. Think about what makes the idea of your novel special, different, fresh, unique. Then be ready to hold it up to the construction checklist to see just where it may be weak or flawed. Share what you think turns a good idea into a real concept with a kicker . . . and then next week we’ll see how close to target you are.

Photo Credit: bobtravis via Compfight cc

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  1. You’re right, of course. Diving in and trying to write a novel without learning how will certainly be a waste of time for the most part. On the other hand, Orson Scott Card is reputed to have said, “Since every writer has about ten thousand pages of utter drivel in them, you might as well start now so you can get a good portion of that out of your way while you’re still young. After all, you learn more about writing from writing a 100,000-word manuscript than you ever will from any writing class or writing book.”

    I made the mistake of diving in to write a book without learning how first and five years later I had an 8000 word short story. I must have re-written it about 10 times and at one point it was up to 60,000 words. I still think of it as a good introductory writing exercise.

    In the years since that exercise, I’ve come to realize that becoming a writer is a combination of studying how to write and then writing. Repeat until successful.

    I must agree with you that planning out a novel before starting is the best way to go. But, I can’t say it’s the way for everyone to go. There are many successful, even famous, authors who swear that they never make a plan for their novels. Maybe they make the plans in their heads. Thanks for the article.

    1. Thanks, Ivan, for the comment. Most writing instructors, me included, state that plotting is essential. Maybe not the entire book, but building a novel is complicated. Winging it never works unless you are amazingly gifted. One teacher refers to Stephen King and says that he might “wing it,” but he probably has structure so ingrained in his brain from practice, he’s subconsciously plotting and structuring, even if he doesn’t actually write an outline. That’s probably true.

    2. Hi Ivan,

      I agree with you. I’m not at all seasoned yet, but it is the ultimate goal, and I won’t be stopping until I’m as close as I can get to perfection. While I wholeheartedly appreciate the time and effort given to produce this wonderful piece, I have to say that writing isn’t a one size fits all. Not everyone is a plotter and not everyone thinks that way to be able to produce in that way. I know in undergrad, they often forced us to use an outline and each and every time I struggled with the outline, yet came out like a pro when I kind of just ‘went with it’. I do believe there is some structure that is needed, but to say that ‘plotting is essential’ is like saying that each and every one of us has the exact same learning style and we know that’s not true, or there wouldn’t exist (7) different ones.

  2. Good stuff. I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean by “a kicker” from this, though. Are you going to elaborate on that in the coming weeks?

    I mean, I have my preconcieved notion from last week (something that makes the concept unique), but is that what you mean, or am I just assuming?

    1. Yes, we’ll go over this in more detail in the next few posts. And then again, I’m sure, many times after that. See if next week’s post gives you a better understanding of the concept.

  3. Hello, CS Lakin:

    Thank you so very much for putting this together. I saw the link on my Twitter timeline and thought I would come by and read what you had to say. I appreciate when a writer takes the time to share wealthy information. I will take a lot of it to heart, and see how it can fit into what I am doing as a writer. I will say that I don’t think I have it in me to be a plotter. My brain doesn’t work that way. I’ve seen many people work as a plotter, but I’m not one of them, though I may try it one day – especially, that you say it’s “essential”.

    Again, thank you for sharing.


  4. I saw this on Twitter, also. I’ve subscribed for future posts. I can’t believe it. Someone has finally made this simple. I’ve read dozens of craft books, but so often they complicate the subject.

    Thank you so much for doing this topic. I’m eager to read more.

  5. Great post! I think for me a lot of this is instinctive. I could never totally wing it, as I would forget stuff! I do write chapter plans and character plans, but leave myself open to changing things later, should I come up with a better idea during the writing process. Will be tuning in for future posts.

    1. Thanks, Susan. I plot out all my books fairly extensively, particularly when it comes to these four essential corner pillars. But I leave myself open to inspiration and let the characters take charge sometimes. I often have a lot of scenes in my novels I never planned on, and usually those are the strongest and most important. It’s as if the characters are telling me I missed something. Even with very heavy plotting and structure, you provide a solid framework so that when you do let loose your imagination, it usually leads you on target because the themes and character/plot goals are established and clear in your head.

  6. are hook and kicker interchangeable here c.s.? this post prompted me to write this elevator rant premise concept for my Black Sea Brotherhood trilogy.
    what if…. some Diadochoi want young Alex the IV dead; but peoples of the Black Sea—lead by a dead Diadoche, an ousted Sheriff, and an accidental pirate— band together to try prevent that from happening…
    straight up c.s. is that a concept with a kicker?

    1. We’re kicking around terms here. It could be that your “hook” to your premise is the kicker, but not always the case. A hook should be that unique take on your idea that pushes it into a concept with a kicker. I think what you describe here is an idea. You have some characters that want to stop the protagonist. The focus you have here is on the secondary characters, not your main character. As we will go into soon in future posts, one of the four key pillars is the protagonist with a goal. So the kicker needs to be tied in with the protagonist’s goal. So spend some time thinking about what Alex wants, his core need, passion, dream, and how that plot you are talking about shows a central conflict with high stakes and a theme with heart. If you work with that, you’ll figure out how your story concept has a kicker, for it has to include those other key pillars. Make sense? It should make more sense as we go on.

  7. Thank you for that, C.S…. because with three books and three protagonists it is difficult to put in one box and wrap my head around it. Looking forward to your posts.

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