Two critical questions for any novel

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

It wasn’t so long ago I confessed to you I’d never actually written a first draft of a novel based on an outline, but that’s not entirely true.

The novel I’m writing now started off as a short story—so my first draft wasn’t much of a draft at all. 

And now that I’m actually writing this novel? Man, I am SO glad I took the time earlier this year to work out the fine details. 

Meaning, I’m glad I took the time to develop a sturdy structure for the novel. To figure out what the characters were hiding and why. To fine-tune my two protagonists’ character arcs, and to flesh out the backstory on my world and its characters.

Because now that I have, I can really stretch my creative muscles, live in the world of the story, and enjoy the sense of a real story unfolding beneath my fingertips each day.

In the creative writing world, much is made of simply applying “butt to chair.” But just forging ahead with a novel you haven’t done this kind of work on is a recipe for wasting years of your life. 

I know: I’ve done it myself, and I’ve helped more clients than I can count untangle the convoluted results of this approach.

In my course on big-picture structure, Anatomy of the Novel, I guide students through the sort of big-picture work I consider critical to avoiding years of rewrites—the exact work I did this spring, in developing the outline for this novel.

Here are two questions you’ll find explored there, and why answering them BEFORE you apply “butt to seat” will save you a whole lot of time and frustration in revision. 

  1. What is hidden from the reader’s view?

Many stories contain a series of developments or reveals, and/or one big revelation at the end. And while it might be fun as you’re writing to hint at big things you haven’t actually worked out, your story will fall flat if it doesn’t ultimately all fit together at the end.

In order to work that out, you have to figure out for yourself what is hidden from the reader’s view—which often means working out the story from the antagonist’s point of view, starting at whatever point in the past the story really began and working through to the point where all is revealed.

Once you’re clear on that, you can not only build your trail of breadcrumbs more effectively, you can make sure that they actually lead somewhere that feels revelatory…rather than somewhere that feels like a letdown.

  1. What is the essential backstory?

There are times when you may have a sort of vague or amorphous understanding of what happened in the world of your story before that story started. And that can be fine if you’re just writing a discovery draft.

But once you know where your story is going, you’ll realize that what happens in the present timeline actually started in the past—and that some parts of what happened in the past are essential for your reader to know.

If you don’t find a way to include that essential backstory in your novel, you’ll wind up with one of the most common situations writers face: a story that makes sense in YOUR head but not in your reader’s.

And if the backstory you have included doesn’t clearly set up what happens, you’ll find yourself in another: a story where the reader expects things to happen, based on that backstory, that never do.

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