Home » Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice » The Biggest Problem Facing the Beginning Novelist—And 6 Tips for Avoiding It

The Biggest Problem Facing the Beginning Novelist—And 6 Tips for Avoiding It

12 November 2012

From author Anne R. Allen:

Creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action.  All those elements have to come together in one story.

One story.

Not a series of episodes.

As creatures of the television era, a lot of us tend to think in episodes rather than one long story arc. I know I do. My first book, which I worked on for a decade, contains what is probably my very best writing. Every scene is honed to perfection.

But it’s not a novel: it’s a series of episodes. I had story, but no plot. The book is unpublishable. No wonder it got over 300 rejections.

. . . .

Episodic storytelling happens when one scene doesn’t generate the problem of the next scene. You could shuffle the scenes around and pretty much the same things would happen.

E.M. Forster illustrated this in one of his famous lectures on novel-writing: “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then queen died of grief’ is a plot.”

You can just as well say “The queen died and then the king died.” But the “dying of grief” makes no sense in reverse order.

. . . .

1) Start a novel with the ending in mind. I always do this now. After my disaster with the Novel That Would Not End, sometimes I even write the last scene first. It never ends up being the actual last scene, but it helps me enormously to have it sitting there as a goal.

. . . .

4) Make sure your story has an antagonist. Again, just the one. This doesn’t necessarily mean a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash bad-guy. But you need a force working against the hero that’s powerful enough to keep the plot going for an entire novel. Your hero can’t just slay a new dragon in each chapter. He needs to live in constant danger from the Big Momma Dragon who never lets go and can’t be slain by ordinary means. And Big Momma Dragon has to get meaner and more dangerous as her little dragons get vanquished.

5) Create characters who act rather than are acted upon. The protagonist’s actions and choices should cause each new event. When you have a hero who causes things to happen by her actions (no matter how stupid) the story is propelled forward. You can do E. M. Forster one better with something like: “The king died, then the queen faked her own death to run off with a hot young dragon-slayer.”

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

19 Comments to “The Biggest Problem Facing the Beginning Novelist—And 6 Tips for Avoiding It”

  1. Why do beginning novelists have such a hard time learning story structure? I did, my friends did, every novelist I know did. It’s rarely taught in college writing classes. One MFA grad told me that “plot” is a dirty word!

    But story structure is so basic and so important. Screenwriters know this, and that is why so many novelists turn to books on screenwriting when they need to learn how to structure a story.

    • Because to the modern literary theorist, what the writer is actually trying to say is not only unimportant, it is a distraction. Therefore, there is no reason to worry about whether, like Eustace Scrubbs, you have no idea how to tell a story straight.

      The reason poor Eustace can’t do it is also a very important contributing factor.

      (Now that I’ve shown off my obscure trivia cred, the reason Eustace, who is a character in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, can’t tell stories is that he has never read any stories. He thinks they are a waste of time. So when he needs to tell one, he doesn’t know how it works.)

      • He was a waste of time himself until after the dragon episode. On the other hand, the dragon episode is one of the greatest transformation sequences of English literature.

        • Love, love, love the Eustace dragon sequence. Might be time to re-read the Narnia Chronicles. It’s been a while since my last time through the series.

        • One of the greatest opening lines in literature:

          There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

          However, I must apologize for that extraneous s in my initial naming of poor Eustace.

          And ditto on the dragon transformations, both in and out. The latter being one of the cleverest metaphorical explanations of the necessity of Grace that ever was written. Believe it or not, it sums up the situation in a way that’s understandable to anyone who’s ever had a stuck zipper.

  2. I avoid watching sitcoms and watch movies instead because I think it’s important to keep thinking in long story arcs. Movies are a great way to learn plotting because most of them follow a very clean story arc, there’s simply not time to dither. It’s good training for novelists.

  3. Love the tips. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Interesting. Maybe it’s a good thing I grew up without television! Except for one year around the first landing on the moon, we didn’t have one in the house.

    I liked the 4-part story structure described by Larry Brooks on StoryFix:

    1) Introduce protag and situation

    2) Let protag flail in initial grapple with problem and include “pinch point” where antagonist appears and wins that round

    3) Protag cowboys up and becomes effective; events start to move; second “pinch point” where antagonist also cowboys up and things look hopeless

    4) Final conflict and resolution

    But now I’m getting curious about the 3-part structure. Time to go looking. (But must write today’s words first! Grin!)

    • I saw a very good summary of how to write an interesting story which is like this, but even shorter:

      “Put your characters into a situation it looks impossible to get out of. Then get them out of it.”

  5. I had the exact same problem with my first book. I don’t think it’s just TV that skews our thinking. It’s serial stories. My mother made up stories about a caterpillar to tell us at bedtime. Something new every night. We want to go on adventures with our characters.

    The first novel is bound to have a lot of problems. Learning to write inside a structure feels claustrophobic the first time round. I dabbled in screenplays and thought it was insanely restrictive. But when I went back to novels it made so much sense.

    Artists and musicians know there are certain rules and structure to their art. No one would sit down at a piano to play without learning the basics. Or start a portrait without a few lessons. Why do people think anyone can sit down and write a novel without similar training?

  6. My first two novels were just about unreadable. The first one got to 300 pages before I answered why they had been abducted by the aliens. The second one could probably be salvaged and I’ve used parts of it as ballads in other stories. Yes, my second book was written in the style of Beowulf, but badly.

    And yeah, none of my creative writing classes went over story structure. I took a couple classes on that at a sci-fi/fantasy convention along with a series on the heroes journey and I suddenly got it. I was pissed that I hadn’t learned something so basic in the classes I paid a lot of money to take.

  7. “1) Start a novel with the ending in mind. ”

    I hope more authors would do this. With the new fad for writing a “series”, everyone is writing stories that never seem to end, and expect the readers to keep paying them forever while they end each book on a cliff hanger.

    • Hey, if they hook the editor that way…

      Actually, I’ve seen a different pattern. The first book stands alone mostly-okay, because the author (…agent…) may never sell another in that series. Then there is a tendency for everything to end with that episode wrapped up and a new cliffhanger introduced. I think this probably works okay… in small scale. Every reader has one or two episodic series (serises? I think it’s like sheep and sheep…) that they are willing to follow, and after that, they’re all urban-fantasied (or whatever) out. (I follow manga; even Ranma 1/2 and Inu-Yasha eventually ended…)

      Some US book series do end, though! The Grimspace/Jax SF series just did, for instance. I think there’s 5-6 books of it, but it did come to a completion.

  8. PG, thank so much for posting this here. When I suddenly get 1000 hits on my blog before noon, I figure I must have been featured here :-)

    Margaret Yang–Thanks so much for coming by and posting your recommendation of SAVE THE CAT–which people tell me is a must read for story structure.

    Marc–Thank you for the lovely Narnia reference. Eustace is one of the great loser characters in fiction.

    Marc and J.M. The basics of the three act structure were taught to me as: Act 1) Get a guy up a tree. Act 2) Throw rocks at him. Act 3) Get him down again.

  9. I thought the biggest problem was obscurity…

    Though, sucking is admittedly worse.

  10. Every time I read an article about story structure and plot, I ask myself “What part of this wasn’t covered in Aristotle’s Poetics?” I have yet to find anything important that isn’t in there, except for genre-specific stuff. He covered all the basics over 2300 years ago.

    • Sometimes someone has to hear something a different way, or with a title that doesn’t sound like old Latin/Greek poetry. Also, the Classics section of the used bookstore smells kinda funny. >_> (But good lord, this translation of Lysistrata is hysterical!)

  11. Great stuff. One of the best workshops I ever took was on 3 act story structure. Fabulous. Set up as prompts throughout. Really makes you think. “I’m writing about. In the first scene, my protag…” etc.

    I have always known the ending to my novels, but somehow the one I’ve been playing around with for some time has no ending. I’m hoping that a little more research will inspire me. Has a great beginning and some connecting scenes.

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