Since we’ve been exploring masterful writing over these last few months (and will continue to do so), I want to bring you back to the basics of novel structure. Why? Because all the masterful writing in the world won’t go very far if you don’t nail structure.
As you probably know (if you’ve been following my blog awhile), I write a lot about structure. And that’s because it’s crucial if you want to write a solid story. It’s as simple as that.
Every writing coach with a lick of sense is going to tell you essentially the same things I do. Maybe they use different terminology or describe concept or premise differently. Those are moot points.
What matters is that you understand how important structure is. And where to start.
That’s why I like using the building construction metaphor. You have to have a sturdy foundation for your building that meets established and proven building codes. A novel works on the same principles.
With novels, you need to master those four key pillars of novel construction first before you move on to all the other elements of your story.
To review those four key pillars, I’m reprinting part of a post I ran a few years ago when we first explored this topic in depth. And I’m offering you a special deal to help you nail these corner pillars of support.
Nail Those 4 Corner Pillars!
I put together an online video course all about these pillars. It’s basically a slide show with some movie clips that goes deep into examining these essential pillars. The course is normally $49 US, and hundreds of writers have taken it with the aim of mastering novel structure. (And it’s a lot of fun too!). But I’m offering this to you for only $29!
CLICK HERE to enroll and get the course at a discounted rate!
You go at your own pace and watch the videos (take notes!), then download the worksheets to brainstorm your ideas for each corner pillar, to ensure you’ve nailed it.
Trust me: if you have a weak concept for your novel, it’s not worth wasting months of your life trying to flesh it into a killer story. It won’t happen.
And if your protagonist isn’t empathetic or fascinating, and doesn’t have a compelling goal for the novel, you don’t have a story.
Without conflict and high stakes, you will bore readers. But you can’t just throw in any conflict or any stakes. Learn what constitutes meaningful conflict and appropriate high stakes.
And finally, without theme or purpose to your story, you have no glue to hold it all together.
How much is it worth it to you to have a terrific novel? Aren’t you willing to take a few hours and truly master the essential pillars you need to craft a masterful novel?
Don’t answer that. Just enroll in my course and start watching the videos. And pick up the book The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction and study it. You will be glad you did!
A Review of the 4 Essential Pillars
First consideration: 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 —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.
You Gotta Have Conflict and High Stakes
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 . . .
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. 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 . . .