Over the last five-plus months we’ve been exploring the four primary, essential components of novel building, which I label in this course “corner pillars.” I spent a bit of time on these because they truly are the foundation of your novel—and if those four pillars aren’t structurally sound, your novel will collapse. Really and truly.
If you are joining in late to this course, all you have to do is go back to the first post the first week of January and work your way through these four pillars. My advice to anyone wanting to craft a really great novel that stands up to scrutiny and the test of time is to take the time to ensure that these four key elements in your novel are thoroughly developed and don’t have any weak spots.
Before I plow ahead to pillar #5, I want to step back a moment and take another holistic look at these four pillars. I mentioned that you need to work on all four at once. You don’t have to start with any particular one or go in any order. Think more of juggling all four, adding bits to each one as you brainstorm these four components. They work together like a well-oiled machine, each part fitting perfectly in position with the others.
Mind mapping these four pillars together will help you strengthen them all until you have a truly strong and lasting support. Then you can move on to the other eight support pillars.
Let’s Review Those Four Pillars
So we first looked at concept with a kicker. You can’t just run with an idea or a basic premise. You need to create the kind of story concept that will make people excited to learn more about your novel just by hearing the one-line story concept you’ve come up with. Your story concept, all by its lonesome, should get people saying “wow.” So what is a one-line story concept all about?
Michael Hauge, screenwriting consultant and best-selling author of Writing Screenplays That Sell, encourages writers to come up with one sentence that tells your concept—and that sentence is all about the next pillar we looked at—the protagonist with a goal. When you can write that one sentence to describe your story by expressing the protagonist’s goal with the emphasis on the kicker—or what makes your story so unique—you will be on track. And along with noting the protagonist and his goal, you need to identify the third pillar: the central conflict with high stakes.
Remember: A Concept Is Not Just a Cool Idea
There is a huge difference between this: “A teenage girl in a dystopian future society has to struggle to survive and keep her family alive” and this: “A teenage girl conscripted to participate in deadly games foments rebellion that eventually destroys the oppressive government in order to provide hope and a future for those she loves.” The Hunger Games series is about Katniss, the heroine. It’s her story.
Your Story Is about Someone with a Goal
I agree with Hauge when he says every great story is about someone, not something. Every great story has one main character the reader roots for and cares about—a character with a visible goal that she strives to reach. It may sound simple—yes, it is! But you would be surprised how few novels I critique have this element in it at all.
The fourth pillar—theme with a heart (which we just looked at last month)—is the glue that holds the whole story together, for it’s what your novel is really about. The Hunger Games is really about a whole lot more than a girl trying to survive. It delves into issues of loyalty, self-sacrifice, how people should govern other people, and ultimately forgiveness. A lot of themes are developed on many levels throughout the three-book series.
I recently saw the movie Divergent and just read the first book (which is similar enough to the movie). If you said that Divergent was about a dystopian society in which everyone gets put into one of five different groups and has to conform to the rules of that group, you wouldn’t even be close to the concept and kicker.
You Gotta Have Conflict and High Stakes
The book (and film) is about Beatrice (Tris). The central conflict is centered on one faction led by one woman, who is intent on using another of the factions to commit genocide (essentially). Tris, the protagonist, has a goal that emerges as she trains to become an accepted member of Dauntless. She learns of this plot to kill all the members of her former faction (Abnegation) and hence must strive toward that goal—to stop this massacre—and, while doing so, save her family. We see fairly late in the movie and book this goal emerge (not at the traditional 25% mark), but the conflicts and tension she faces in her training—building allies and making enemies—play an important part. The themes, here too, grow organically from what the protagonist’s goal is.
Don’t forget: great novels have high stakes. And what are the stakes? What your protagonist must be willing to risk, what danger he will be willing to face, in order to reach his goal. When what he’s passionate about is threatened, those are high stakes.
And Finally, Theme . . .
Remember, I previously mentioned how theme is the protagonist’s goal made universal? The things your character cares most about, which is why he is going after that goal, are things lots of people care about. So if your protagonist is not really concerned about anything that concerns most people in the world, you might need to spend some time working on that pillar to give him a passion and concern for something that will resonate with other humans on the planet.
We resonate with characters who are going through tough situations and have to draw strength and courage to face obstacles. We respect characters who are assertive, humorous, humble, innovative, smart, clever, and who refuse to give up. We care about characters who care about more than just themselves. It may sound silly, but I think we read to care.
So as you write or rewrite your novel, spend a serious amount of time working on these four corner pillars. Go through all the questions on the inspection checklists (below) and see where your structure is weak.
If you are stuck and can’t quite get one of the pillars strong enough, enlist the help of other authors or a writing coach to help you work out the kinks and maybe help you find some better building materials. Don’t settle for so-so or trust that the ideas will come later on as you write the book. Build a framework, then work within it.
Think of your novel as a house and don’t keep nailing siding onto a weak, flimsy structure.
I speak truth when I say that such a weak structure will not hold up. It won’t. You will have to tear all that siding off and then rebuild the framework. Maybe that’s okay with you and part of your style, your creative process. But you know what I always say (if you’ve been following my blog for a while): Why waste weeks, months, or years of your life tearing your hair out trying to rework a novel that isn’t structurally sound (and that may need to be demolished)? Why not be smart and start with the right building materials and a proven-sturdy structure?
Don’t answer that. Just think about it. And about what you could do with all that time you could save . . .
So, next week: Pillar #5: Plots and Subplots in a String of Scenes. It’s all about Scene Structure.
Share your thoughts? Are you struggling with one pillar more than the others? What comes easiest to you? Have you learned anything neat you’d like to share that’s helped you with your story? Let’s hear it!