Does Your Novel Have a Problem? (It Should)

From Writers in the Storm:

I’ve always been drawn to writing science fiction and fantasy, which means that I’ve written a lot of first drafts based on “cool ideas” but no real conflict. Sure, I had a sense of what the problems were, and maybe even a few key scenes unfolding in my mind, but the books were about the idea, not characters with specific problems. 

No surprise, those drafts never got beyond the first draft.

Many a novel has been started with a vague idea and a lot of pages that explain why that idea is so cool. They’re even well-written novels, but in the end, they fail because there’s no point to them and no problem driving the plot.

. . . .

Take a look at your current manuscript. What’s the problem of the novel? Is it a specific, concrete problem to solve (such as catch a killer, find the money to save the farm, defeat the evil wizard before she enslaves the realm) or is it a vague issue (such as find love, learn to rely on yourself, show how X came to pass)?

If the point of the novel is a vague issue, odds are you’re going to have trouble writing the first draft, because there’s nothing for the protagonist to do. Without a problem to solve, there’s no plot. 

. . . .

Here is a template to help you evaluate. Test your novel and fill in the [bracketed information] of this statement:

My novel is about [the protagonist] who [has a problem], because [the reason the problem exists]. To fix it, [the protagonist] must [risk something of value] and [specific action that has to be done to resolve the problem] or [what happens if they fail].

For example:

My novel is about [Lisa] who [is part of a government experiment], because [she was born with a special gene that allows her to sense emotions]. To fix it, [Lisa] must [risk her life and defy her government] and [make people aware of what’s being done to people like her] or [they’ll kill her].

Can you tell what this book is about?

There’s a general sense, but the specific plot isn’t there, because “defy her government” is a vague idea, not a problem to resolve. Her “problem” is also that she was born with a special gene. There’s nothing here that says how that’s affecting her life or what problem she has because of that gene.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

2 thoughts on “Does Your Novel Have a Problem? (It Should)”

  1. Isn’t the example a trial log line? With the problems enumerated following?
    NB: I didn’t read the original post…

  2. I like this. A logline is a helpful way for a writer to focus on exactly what the story is about. For a writer I was beta reading, I made a logline and “back of the book” summary for her so she could understand what I was getting at. Her story didn’t have a discernible central conflict, nor were there any stakes attached to what conflict she did have. So, the story dragged because it wasn’t clearly going anywhere.

    I also agree that you don’t want to use the protagonist’s potential death as a stake in the summary. Protagonists rarely die, except in YA horror. Christopher Pike and LJ Smith used to make me nervous about turning the pages, simply because they weren’t afraid to kill off their heroines. Or in Pike’s case, sometimes the heroine (or hero) was dead when the story began. Sometimes Pike would imagine some other horrible fate for the character.

    But aside from not believing the protagonist will die, another reason to use a different stake is that a reader may be more interested in a protagonist who is fighting for something larger than herself.

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