Writing a novel is no easy process, even if you have done it before. Recently, I completed the first draft of my second novel. It still needs a substantial edit, but that is best done in a month’s time when I am sufficiently distanced from it to edit it objectively. In the meantime, I have started planning my third novel.
As any writer knows, writing a novel involves a significant investment in time. My first novel took two years to publish; my second took a year to reach the first draft. Even if you are one of those writers than can churn out a novel in three months, it’s still a significant investment in time. Consequently, before you start any novel, you want to know you have the right story to invest in that will have a chance of success. How you do that is something I have pondered many times.
Recently, I bought The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction by C.S. Lakin to see what she had to say on the matter. I chose it partly because of the subject matter and partly because I had been impressed by her earlier books (Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word usage and Writing the Heart of your Story The Secret of Crafting an Unforgettable Novel). Having read a host of similar books on writing I wasn’t expecting anything startlingly new; but what I think makes this a great book is that brings together all the constituent parts and explains how they link together. C.S. Lakin identifies four primary pillars and eight secondary pillars to the construction of a novel. While all the pillars are important, it is the four primary pillars that shape the story. These are identified as:
- Concept with a Kicker
- Conflict with High Stakes
- Protagonist with a Goal
- Theme with a Heart
For sake of completion, the secondary pillars are:
- Plot and Subplots in a String of Scenes
- Secondary Characters with their Own Needs
- Setting with a Purpose
- Tension Ramped to the Max
- Dialogue–Compressed and Essential
- Voice–Unique to each Character
- Writing Style–Concise and Specific
- Motifs for Cohesion and Depth
For those of you who have read books on the art of writing fiction, none of these pillars will seem to be particularly new, although you might argue about their order of importance. I for one would have put Plot Structure as one of the primary pillars that hold the story together. But that’s me. C.S. Lakin explains her view: “…plot isn’t one of four essential corner pillars. Why? Because plot is the vehicle for the other pillars. Plot is what happens in a string of scenes, one scene after another. Plot itself isn’t a pillar of novel construction, but the way scenes are constructed to unfold the plot is.” Hmm… still not convinced. But whether Plot Structure is a primary or secondary pillar is perhaps a matter of semantics. Later in her book she explains that her book is not about plot structure and that there are other books on the subject.
What I like about C.S. Lakin’s approach is the holistic way she says the primary pillars should all work together. If any one of them is missing, the story will fall flat and fail. Different writers may intuitively start with a different pillar, but they will all need to develop each of the pillars for the story to work. For example, a writer may start with an idea for an interesting character, but a character alone doesn’t make a story. The character needs a goal. There has to be a source of conflict that frustrates the character’s goal and there has to be consequences (stakes) if he/she fails. There has to be something different about the story (the concept) that makes it both interesting and exciting (the kicker) to the reader. And there has to be point to the story (the theme). This holistic approach to story development is not necessarily new; it uses many of the ideas and approaches already used in the movie industry. In fact, the idea of a concept with a kicker is another way of describing a killer logline. This is a one-line description of the story often used in the movie industry to pitch a movie proposal.
So how does a writer discover a ‘concept with a kicker’ or a killer logline that makes for a great story? First, a concept (or what some call a ‘premise’) for a story is more than just an idea. Ideas are easy. For example writing a novel base about London in the 17th Century is an idea. But it doesn’t envisage a protagonist, or a source of conflict. Writing about a baker falsely accused of starting the Great Fire of London might be the basis of a concept for a good story.
A concept is therefore more than an idea or setting for a story, it needs a character with a goal, a source of conflict to frustrate that goal, and consequences for failure (stakes). In practice, most stories are simply variants of a limited number of archetype stories, which follow a well-trodden pattern. Take the typical romance novel. We all know the guy’s going to get the girl in the end. So why does one romance author write a blockbuster and another fails? Maybe it’s because they are just good writers and have a huge fan following. But it may also be because the best writers always find something unique or at least different to tease their fans with. For example, Stephanie Meyer practically invented a new genre of vampire romance novels with her Twilight series. Before that vampires were just nasty creatures in horror stories. Many writers have followed in her footsteps, but simply haven’t had the same success. So, the best writers can always find something new.
Sometimes a new concept with a kicker can be found by taking an archetype story and telling it from the point of view of an unusual protagonist (for example, Maleficent, a variant of The Sleeping Beauty), or by setting it in an unusual location or time period (for example, Titanic — a love story on a sinking ship). Sometimes a new concept can be found by changing the theme of the story. For example, the dark tone of G. R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is very different from the up-beat themes normally encountered in fantasy novels. So, before you start to write your story, you need to think carefully about the four pillars. Is there something about the concept that is new or different from other stories that will appeal to your audience? Does it have potential conflict in bucket loads and dire consequences for the protagonist if he/she fails? Does it have a likeable (or at least interesting) protagonist with a burning goal that will drive the story forward? And is there some message or theme that underpins the story?
Getting the four pillars right won’t guarantee the success of your story. There is still the small matter of how you deliver the story and many of the eight remaining pillars address many of these issues. But the reality is if you don’t have solid foundations for your story it will most likely collapse.
Have you started a novel, and if so, have you considered how the four pillars apply to your story?