An Idea Does Not a Novel Make

We’re now starting to delve into the first pillar of novel construction—concept with a kicker. I introduced the 12 key pillars we’re going to look at this year, and emphasized that there are four essential corner pillars that provide the key support of your novel. Without them, the entire project will collapse. These four pillars interconnect, and, in a sense, support and work off one another, so although you can work on them in any order, think of them as a set that have to be evenly and perfectly placed in your structure in order to do the work of supporting your story.

Before I get further into this first pillar, I want to address those of you who have a bit of resistance to this whole concept of structure rules. In an earlier post I compared building a novel with building a house, and spoke of how a contractor must follow the engineered blueprints provided to ensure the house he or she builds will be sturdy and will hold up to the elements. A novelist needs to do similarly.

But some will say that writing a novel is a creative endeavor and, as such, shouldn’t have to follow rules. That’s true—there is no “rule” saying a writer has to follow a list of “rules” to write a good novel.

Sure, You Can Break the Rules

Although every novel is unique (one would hope), regardless of genre, style, voice, or story line, they each face the same construction issues. Like the laws of physics and gravity, the basic supports of good novel construction apply to every novel—unless of course you want to get wild and crazy and go for the experimental method. And I’m not saying that’s wrong or invalid. I support creativity on plenty of levels—and so do various audiences in the world that are open and eager to embrace such creativity. A lot of literary fiction breaks many of the “rules” of time-tested and proven novel structure. And many are hailed as great works of literature.

So, please don’t think I am saying that if you don’t follow this “construction course,” you do so at your peril. Just know that, as in building, when you “wing it” or experiment with unusual materials (such as substituting SillyPputty for cement or duct tape for Simpson ties), your finished product might not hold up when that flood or tornado hits.

There’s a reason contractors are required to follow building codes before they can pass their inspections and get the project signed off by the building inspector. Many of these codes ensure the house or building will be safe to inhabit, and that the structural support has been built to specs given by the highly trained (we hope) engineer who made the blueprints.

Of course, if a novel flops from faulty “materials,” it’s not likely anyone’s life will be endangered. Maybe there’ll be a resultant bruised ego, or maybe not. But if a novelist really does want to have the greatest chance of success—and I don’t mean success in the monetary or worldly sense—she needs to get some basic construction skills under her belt.

I sleep well at night, not at all worried my roof is going to fall on me. I didn’t build this house I live in, but I know a licensed contractor did, and he had to pass all the inspections before the house was allowed to be put up for sale. This gives me a lot of peace of mind. And novelists can experience a similar peace of mind when they “build” their novel following the structural principles that have been “approved” by most building inspectors. They can avoid a lot of frustration and heartache, which come from endlessly rewriting and tinkering with a novel that was not correctly constructed right from the start.

Which Circles Back to My Rant about Wasting Time . . .

Why suffer such aggravation and waste so much time trying to guess at how to make your novel better or to fix all the many nebulous problems inherent in your story—which you know are there but have no idea how to fix? A little knowledge goes a long way . . . and a lot of knowledge goes a really long way. Building a novel is a lot like building a house in many ways—and one way is to take the time it takes to become a proficient builder. The time spent learning will save you gobs of time later.

Trust me. I really know this truth, for I critique hundreds of manuscripts a year, written by authors who may have spent years trying to “fix” their novel or—worse—have spent years sending it out on submission only to get rejected over and over without a clue as to why not one agent wants to acquire it. Often it’s because they have not taken the time to learn essential novel construction, and usually the greatest flaw in their manuscript centers on the failure to construct these four essential pillars.

You Must Have More Than a Good Idea

And I’ll venture to say many of these novels fail due to the lack of a concept with a kicker. Sure, they have a good idea. And maybe have formed that idea into a premise of sorts. All that means is they’ve come up with that “what if” question that supposes something will happen if a certain situation is established.

For example, an idea for the story might be: “What if an ‘ordinary guy’ has the task of destroying a ring of power?” What turns the idea into a premise is the supposition that something prompts the need for the task to be accomplished: “An evil power searches for a ring that’s been lost for ages, and in order to prevent him from taking over the world, that ring must be destroyed.” That’s a premise. A premise proposes or presumes something, and what follows supports that premise.

You could say, for example: “I propose this [bad, scary, tense] situation, and this is what must be done to deal with it.” As you might conclude, a lot of ideas fail even at this “premise” stage, by not having a compelling situation that requires some specific action. This is where premise meets protagonist with a goal, conflict with high stakes, and theme with a heart. Someone with some passion needs to deal with the situation.

But you don’t have to scratch your head trying to pull apart which threads belong to premise and which to idea. Just know that to have a concept with a kicker, you have to tie in the other three essential corner pillars—conflict with high stakes, protagonist with a goal, and theme with a heart. If you construct all four of these pillars together, your idea will become a strong concept with a kicker. But without even one of them, you will only have an idea or a premise at best. And a great novel must have a concept with a kicker.

Writers flounder trying to figure out how to make their idea compelling so that they will have a great novel. Unfortunately, too many search for this “secret” or magic to take place while writing the novel, hoping it will just develop on its own or appear organically as the story unfolds. Let me say simply, “It won’t.” It has to be carefully constructed.

So next week we’ll go more into what a kicker is and how it turns a great idea into a compelling concept. And just what part the other three corner pillars have to do with influencing and forming this crucial concept development. Your novel will either stand or fall on concept, so take some time to think about the core idea behind your novel’s story and be ready to ask some tough questions.

Photo Credit: aenimation via Compfight cc

8 Responses to “An Idea Does Not a Novel Make”

  1. Jean Ann Williams January 22, 2014 at 11:28 am #

    Thank you, Susanne, I’m enjoying this topic.

  2. Diane Holcomb January 22, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    I’m a pantser. When I write a story, or novel, I don’t know what the story will be, but I have an interesting character. Basically I follow the character, and my instinct of storytelling kicks in due to having absorbed technique from fiction writing workshops and constant reading. A lot of the stuff that comes up is way better than anything I could plan in advance.

    However, somewhere around the halfway point I peter out. That’s when I think: Too bad I don’t have an outline, plot points, something to use as a guide.

    So I understand the need for a solid foundation. But constructing an outline when I don’t know the story…isn’t that a form of writing by the seat of the pants? Same problem, different point of entry.

    Would love your thoughts on this.

    I’m looking forward to your next installment! Thanks.

    • cslakin January 22, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

      You might find it helpful to read through the five or so posts I wrote on brainstorming and mind mapping. That’s something you could do at any stage, although I would dare claim best before writing at all, to get clear the point, themes, character and plot goals from the start. However, some people start writing and then ideas come to them, along with themes and plot. And all that is fine, but at some point there needs to be some stepping back and organizing it all into structure that has a purpose–that tells the story you want to tell. And if this story compels you to write it, it probably has some themes you are interested in exploring. So at the point where you get stuck–granting that you are willing to completely tear apart and reorganize what you’ve done so far–you could start brainstorming with all those ideas you’ve already developed. Then, once it becomes clear to you just what you want that novel to be about, its themes and a great plot, you can put together an outline of sorts of the scenes in order so that you can start shaping it into something beautiful. Think of that lump of clay. You can spin it on the wheel all you like. But at some point you have to decide if it is going to become a vase or a plate. And once so committed, see it to the end to make it the best plate or vase you can.

  3. Angela Byrne January 23, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    Great article, and a great topic! It drives me crazy that so much of current writing (particularly in the area of film and TV) seems to hinge upon an ‘idea’ and nothing more. Ideas really aren’t all that special; kids come up with great, imaginative ideas all the time! The ability to build a story from an idea is what marks the professional, so I’m really looking forward to seeing where you take this.

    • cslakin January 23, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

      Thanks, Angela. I draw from editing and critiquing hundreds of manuscripts so see repeated problems with very basic structure. I hope we’ll cover everything during the year!

  4. Robyn LaRue January 26, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    For Diane – I’m a pantser as well, though I do a lot of pre-writing to learn some of the essence of the story. Somewhere in the middle, I’ll sit down and plot out the rest. Not sure if that will help you, but starting with a mindmap as suggested and planning at some point has worked for me so far.:)

    For CSLakin – enjoying the series very much and looking forward to the upcoming posts. 🙂

  5. Tom February 7, 2014 at 3:43 am #

    I recently discovered this website and am glad I did. Perhaps you can answer a question that I’ve had for a long time regarding the rules of fiction writing. That is, who sat down and developed the rules that writers are expected to follow? Some people discuss the rules as good ideas to follow. Others discuss them as absolutes. But where did the rules come from in the first place?

    Thanks.

    Tom

    • cslakin February 7, 2014 at 6:03 am #

      Tom, there are no set authorities about “rules” for fiction writers. However, many writers and instructors have a consensus on particular methods or “rules” about such things. You can always break rules, but there is a reason some are highly touted–because they work and make sense.

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