The Heart of Your Novel – Part I

I recently read an article by Steven James in an older edition of Writers Digest magazine that pooh-poohs many of the ideas that are taught about writing fiction, and though I still think many of those techniques or elements work and have value, especially for a newer writers, I do agree on one approach is important to writing a quality novel, and it’s in this question: What is truly at the heart of your story?

A story begins when the writer knows what the most important point, theme, question, message or statement is the motivation for writing a novel. Without knowing this, a story is pieces of life hooked together in scenes that have little value to a reader. What the reader ends with as he closes a book cover is a feeling of being enlightened, understood, or hopeful. If the reader just closes the book and walks away without a memory of what made the story worth reading, the author has failed.

Most publishers request some kind of outline or synopsis as part of a book proposal, and this can be, in the long run, a detriment to the novelist if he believes he cannot veer from the original outline. When a writer sends in a synopsis, it is to let the editor know that the story has a semblance of organization and purpose. The synopsis does not require providing every location where things happen or whose POV reflects each scene, but it is a tool to show the growth of the characters and of the story. Editors want to see the story move from a sought after goal or need with logical and driving motivation through a series of conflicts to a reasonable and acceptable conclusion.

Within the story’s growth, editors want to see the growth of the characters. Just as you change each day by what you learn, see, hear and experience, so do your characters. You will be different months and years from now. So are characters. By the end of the novel, they will have learned, changed, altered perceptions, and found new directions or goals in their lives. If the story is a romance, the editor wants to see a logical growth of the relationship between the man and woman. They want to watch the struggle as they deal with obstacles that hold them back from the relationship and how those change and grow. In a faith-based novel, editors want to witnesses the faith growth of the characters as they become stronger or clearer on their understanding of their beliefs and how they are guided. A synopsis can show these elements without tying the novel to a path that doesn’t allow detours.

Readers or editors don’t worry if a novel is character-driven or plot-driven. They want to read a novel that grabs their interest and pulls them forward to the end, leaving them sometimes sorry the story is over, yet feeling satisfied. A novel too bound my guidelines or rules can end up feeling artificial—lacking believability and short on reality. We want our readers to follow the story understanding what’s happening because they’ve felt the same way or they know someone who has struggled with the same problem. They are captured by the struggle, often comparing it to the difficult times in their own lives, and thus experiencing the realism. Certainly speculative novels, take the reader away to another world or another time where they can use their imagination and experience something they would never experience. It’s the creativity and entertainment that draws them in—a world of dragons or hobbits, a world of Harry Potters, a community plagued by werewolves or vampires as in Twilight Series, or a land of sacrifice where people must fight to survive as in The Hunger Games.

So what is important? Within the statements above, you can find some of the important elements of a story.

  • An introduction of setting that has a spirit of it’s own and can influence the story—a cabin in the woods, a small town, a large metropolitan city, a farmland, a ranch, a world outside reality.
  • Characters to live in this environment who are flawed and seeking something they need or want (their goal) and motivated by a driving force to obtain it.
  • Obstacles or forces that hold the characters back from reaching their goal (conflict) that grows and deepens as the story progresses and pulls the characters from their everyday life of the past.
  • Tension that arouses emotions of the characters and the readers and which can also provide “hooks” that keep the reader turning pages.
  • Action that demonstrates what the characters are doing to fight against the obstacles so they can reach their goal. The action can be mental, physical or psychological or a combination.
  • A Crisis that strikes near the end of the novel, that feeling that all is lost and the goal will never be reached.
  • Finally that moment of resolve—a sense of peace where the goal is reached or the goal is not reached but the character has changed enough that the goal is no longer needed. It is the “ahhh” moment that the heart comes to life, leaving the reader with an understanding of how life has changed, renewed, altered, grown, and life is better for it. It is then the reader walks away with a new understanding of life, self, or others.

Yes, a novel is first meant to entertain, but within it, what makes it a driving force and memorable, is the heart and sometimes soul that makes all the difference.

Part 2 will cover the specific building blocks that will help you help the story’s heart to connect with the readers and editors.

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  1. April January 17, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    Loved this– am looking forward to Part 2!

  2. Jill W January 19, 2014 at 7:46 pm #

    Oh, this is a goodie, Gail! This is going into the Gail Notebook for sure. Thanks!

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