Thursday, April 8, 2010

Writing that Stellar Novel- Part One: The Balancing Act

So you want to write a bestselling novel. Here's how to do it in three easy steps!

Ok, so maybe it's not that easy (although, if you come across such a blog post, please let me know!). In truth, a lot of different things go in to writing a bestseller, not the least of which is having the right book in the right place at the right time.

Imagine you've written a great book about a girl falling in love with a vampire. You don't normally read such books, but you had this dream... Well, now let's say you're about 3/4 of the way through, when you see previews for this new movie called Twilight. Now, you suddenly realize there's this whole series of books and they're really popular and everything and are selling really well. Now, if you had the novel done and were already shopping it, that would be great. People will be wanting books in that genre. However, you're only 3/4 of the way done with the book. By the time you finish and get it ready to submit to agents, the market will be saturated. If you're writing a vampire love story at the time of this blog posting, you might as well put the project down and write something else. No one's buying right now.

My point is that chance plays a large part in getting published and doing well. However, there are things you can do, and in this series, I'm going to examine some of those. I don't expect this to be a limited-run series as the previous one was, but rather, I will add to it as the need and inspiration presents itself. Hopefully, you'll find it helpful.

The first (and perhaps most important) element to writing a stellar novel is writing a balanced plot. I don't care about the beauty of your prose, the depth of the characters, or the importance of the themes. If your story is boring, few people are going to pick it up. Mark Twain once said, "High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water." (Letter to William Dean Howells, 15 February 1887) My problem with "fine literature" has always been the same as it has been with "fine wine." If the taste must be so strenuously acquired to even appreciate the experience, wherein is the value? If it's really so great, shouldn't everyone like it? I'd rather have a "water" novel than a "wine" novel.

My point is that if you want a "water" novel, that is, you want to write a novel that will sell well (or at all), then you'll need a plot that is balanced. What does that mean? Think back on novels you really, really liked. Think especially of novels that also sold very well. For my exercise, I'm going to use the (perhaps obvious) Harry Potter series.

In very, very general terms, what are the basic elements of the plot of Harry Potter that draws people to it? Now, I'm not talking about theme here. I'm talking about plot elements. Also, I'm speaking generally, not specifically. So, what does it have?
  1. Action- At some point in every Harry Potter novel, things fly around and blow up. A fight breaks out in some form. People run, jump, flee, etc. Stuff happens. The same should be true for your novel. At some point your MC should be in a situation that is tense and somehow dangerous (whether fleeing death eaters or merely hiding from the girlfriend of the guy you just slept with). If everything is always hunky-dory for your MC, then why do we care?
  2. Drama- This is different than action. Action is a "right now" tension from some external force. Drama is an internal force. In the Harry Potter novels, there's always something that Harry is dealing with, whether it's uncontrollable anger and feelings of injustice, a spat with Ron, or else Ron and Hermione fighting amongst themselves (again). These situations, even Ron and Hermione fighting, have some impact on Harry that develops him as a character. In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry must deal with feeling torn between his two friends when it seems as if they will never reconcile. Dramatic scenes are necessary, and should always be a point of character development for the MC.
  3. Suspense/Mystery- In every Harry Potter book, there is something that both the MC (Harry) and the reader does not know and is trying to figure out. Now, this occurs in different forms. Sometimes the reader and MC are looking for the same thing ("What is the philosopher's stone and why is it so important?"). However, sometimes it's different things (Harry wonders "What is Draco up to?" when the reader is also wondering "When and how will Harry find out/prove that Draco and Snape are planning something sinister?"). A gripping scene will keep the reader interested for a while, but there must be something in the book that the reader doesn't know to make them want to keep turning the pages and find out.
  4. Humor- All of the Harry Potter books have humorous parts. People love to laugh. The whole book doesn't have to be a laugh riot, but there is a reason why it's called comic relief. Tension needs to break so it can build again. Rising and falling tension is key to a good story. Humor also draws us to characters. If we can laugh with a character, it makes us feel bonded to them. Joke with your MC, and your readers will feel more connected and invested in the story. Joke with your antagonist, and your reader will either feel conflicted if it's something we also find funny (which can sometimes be a good thing) or feel disgusted if it is something we don't find humorous. Humor impacts the way the reader feels about your characters, so use it. It's an important tool.
  5. Romance- I actually hesitated to put this, because not all great novels must have romance. However, love is a very strong emotion and thus romance is an important element that appears in most greatly-loved stories. Another caveat here. Harry Potter didn't begin to have romance until Goblet of Fire, but that was when the series officially made the cross from middle grade fiction to young adult fiction. If you're writing middle grade fiction, you can ignore this category. However, if you're writing YA or adult fiction, then take heed. Love is something that every post-pubescent reader you have can identify with. Want to be sure your story is relatable to your reader? Add some romance into the plot. It's also a great way to add drama (and thus more character growth).
A good story will have all of these elements in an appropriate balance for the story. Think of the Twilight Saga. More romance and less action and suspense. However, it's all there. What about a James Patterson novel? In that case, there's more mystery and action, and less romance and drama. Still, he always adds romance and drama, because that's what advanced Alex Cross as a character. The same is true for the detective shows on TV that actually do well. Look at CSI, NCIS, and Law and Order, and see why they are more successful than shows that run 6 episodes and die out. They have the right balance of these five elements. Not enough humor or drama? Flop. Too much drama and not enough mystery and action? Flop.

It's all about the right balance for the story and genre. Master that, and you're well on your way to having a stellar novel.
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