There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are – W. Somerset Maugham

–But there are lots of classes and books out there trying to tell you what they are. I’ve become fascinated by the craft of writing. I’ve taken over a dozen classes and bought at least as many books on the subject in the last year.

Here are my three takeaways on writing novels:

1. Your characters must be human for humans to relate to them. In other words, characters need lots of flaws, not one or two. Sure, Dan might work at the soup kitchen every other weekend, but he’s doing it because he was sentenced to community service and rehab treatment after he ran into a little old lady’s car while he was drunk one night after partying too late with the boss’s son. We all do things we regret, have petty prejudices, personality conflicts, and emotional triggers. Characters in books should have them, too–lots of them.

2. Readers like underdogs so there has to be a moment near the end where it looks like your character won’t make it. The plot structure I like has this setup:

  • Characters’ main goal is introduced as well as the conflict that will keep them from achieving it
  • Characters design short term goals to get to main goal
  • Characters are thwarted
  • Stakes are raised and the characters design new goals to reach main goal
  • Characters are thwarted again
  • Characters revise their goals thinking this will get them to the main goal
  • Characters are thwarted again and because fate is fickle the stakes are raised again
  • Characters give up, they can’t reach their main goal
  • Characters are persuaded to try one more time even though they are sure they can’t make it
  • Characters are thwarted again, spectacularly thwarted–not only will they not get the goal, they are now going to die just for trying to get the goal
  • Something happens that shakes the characters down to their core being–literally a life-changing moment
  • As they have nothing left to lose, the characters try again to reach their main goal
  • Characters rise to the occasion and good triumphs over evil, main story goal is achieved, and there is great rejoicing (your mileage may vary)
3. If you build it, they will come. World-building isn’t just for science fiction and fantasy novels, folks. Memorable stories showcase the most believable characters and astounding plot twists, but they also take place somewhere your reader can picture themselves inhabiting. I’ve read so many contemporary stories that do story shorthand, setting their plots in Typical Town, USA. How hard would it be to give the town a yearly feed store appreciation week or even paint the center lines on main street with daisies over the solid yellow line? You know, even an impersonal big city has small, memorable places that burrow into your heart and mind. Use that as a writer, make up rules for how the place is perceived–is it raining three to four days a week during the summer? Does the wind whip around the yard and dance with the leaves or maybe howl at the neighborhood crossroads at night? The setting can be just as powerful as the characters and even influence both how they react and how they obtain their goals. A great setting allows your reader to immerse themselves in the story. Don’t short-change this key element. Sure, without a memorable setting you’ll have a fine story with great characters and an interesting plot, but it could be so much more if you take a little time to place those characters somewhere interesting.
Okay, that’s my take on the great novel. Let’s see if I can put those three things into practice. What three things do you think are essential to every great novel?

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