Use a light hand with your novel’s theme

There’s a fine line between giving your novel a theme, delivering a message, and just being didactic. I’ll never tell you these things have no place in your book, because many great books have them. But when you do them, you must first of all embed them in an engaging story filled with characters readers care about. And you must handle these elements deftly.

Premise or theme is expressed subtly but consistently.

Here’s another Pixar rule: “Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it.” Which is another way of saying finish your first draft without worrying about theme. Focus on bringing out your theme in the editing. Continue reading

For every plant, there must be a payoff

This maxim is best remembered in the words of Anton Chekhov, who gave the advice several times and in different ways, one of which is this:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.—Anton Chekhov

No plant w/out payoff or vice versa.

Whatever the object is, if it seems important to the reader, it had better, at some point, be important to the story. Continue reading

Make subplots integral to the story

We’re still working on the Plot section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.

Subplots arise organically and make sense as they unfold, not only in light of the ending.

Done right, subplots add richness and depth to a novel. They give us a chance to see characters in different lights and see the results of the plot from different angles. But a subplot that arises out of nowhere for no apparent reason will distract the reader. Having a “now it all makes sense” moment at the very end isn’t a great help, because by that point you may already have lost the reader. Continue reading

Avoid using coincidences to move plot

When you’re escalating the stakes and getting your protagonists into deeper and deeper trouble, a great principle to keep in mind is this one from the “Pixar Rules:”

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Authors of yore used to employ coincidence all the time. Since many writers are well versed in Dickens and other classics, we sometimes try to use those same ploys. But the coincidence trick is much harder to get away with now. This advice from filmmaker Emma Coats, a former Pixar staffer, puts it in perspective. Continue reading

Use surprise in your story, but realistically

Last time, I noted that stories about characters who never fail can become boring. One of the ways to keep things interesting—in addition to giving your characters the occasional setback—is with unexpected plot turns. Hence this checklist item:

The plot contains elements of surprise.

On the one hand, readers, especially of mysteries, enjoy figuring out the story and predicting the ending. But few readers enjoy books in which they can predict everything. When a critique partner or editor calls your story “predictable,” that’s not a compliment. Continue reading

Escalate the stakes to engage the reader

We noted before that the stakes for the protagonist should be stated early.

In the best stories, though, the stakes will change as the story develops. The stakes get higher—at the outset, the heroine might have a promotion on the line, and by midway through her job, and by the end, her life. Yes, it is permissible to have the plot be life-threatening from the outset, but escalating stakes are a valid plot choice as well, and arguably better, because you get the effect of a roller coaster rather than a runaway train. Continue reading

Story tension doesn’t mean everyone fights

Last time, I noted that tension is one of the key elements that keeps readers turning pages. One mistake new writers make is confusing conflict with tension.

Conflict is opposition—it’s a fight. When the hero wants one thing, and the villain wants the opposite, that’s conflict.

Tension is strain—a stretching, possibly to one’s limit. If the hero is climbing a mountain, his muscles are under tension, and so is the reader if there’s a danger he might fall. But he’s not in conflict—unless someone is trying to stop him.

In other words, conflict involves at least two forces, but tension can involve only one.

Writers can get confused on this point: Continue reading

Plot: The other half of story

Early on in this journey, I said Character + Plot = Story. So we’ve talked about characters and as an adjunct to that, point of view, which is how the reader experiences the character. On to plot.

There are some genres of fiction, notably literary fiction, in which you can get away with meager plots as long as your characters are fascinating and your writing is lyrical.

But in most genres, you’ll need an engaging plot to showcase those fantastic characters. Ideally your protagonist—or someone close to your protagonist—goes through a transformative experience in the course of the story. One way to think of it is to consider that the plot is what forces the character to make this change. Many writing teachers call this The Crucible. Continue reading

Why Character is the most important fiction element

The editing checklist I presented last time is written in order of importance according to me. Other editors will disagree about what is the most important aspect of a novel. I put Character at the top of the list because the characters, especially the viewpoint characters, are how the reader experiences the story. Readers become attached to them and will root for them to achieve their goals.

But only if the characters are sympathetic.

Continue reading

Before editing, develop a plan

Many writers get to the end of a rough draft and then start revising without a clear plan. We’re taught how to write, but often we’re not taught how to edit. Professional editors know that editing requires a clear plan. Working without one can lead to months, if not years, of frustration. Don’t ask how I know that. Suffice it to say that how to develop an editing plan or checklist is one of the first things one learns when training as an editor. It’s something I wish I’d been taught as a writer. Continue reading