If you’re wondering how to write a novel – or more importantly, how to start a novel – you’re at the “write” place! Each week, for the next few months, I’ll be posting tips and best practices for fiction writers on the WritingNovelsThatSell.com blog. So let’s get started!
Tip #1: Character vs Story Plot
Before you write a word of fiction for a book-length project, take a quick mental inventory of your writing strengths and weaknesses.
Are you a character writer or a story plot writer?
When determining how to write a novel, which strategy works best?
“Most people read fiction not so much for plot as for company.” – Josip Novakovich
Readers of popular fiction want to suspend their disbelief. They want to imagine, just for a moment, that something better or different exists beyond the daily routine. When they sit down with a Mystery, Romance, Thriller, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Western, or Horror novel, they expect to don the “skin” of your characters.
Thus, a good novel serves two purposes: it will let a reader meet someone and get to know him in depth, or it will let the reader meet himself in disguise so he can vicariously live out his passion. Writer William Sloan says reader expectations boil down to this: “Tell me about me. I want to be more alive. Give me me.”
Are You a Character Writer?
For character writers, the protagonist’s and antagonist’s inner conflicts, motivations, and goals determine the plot.
Each story scene is derived from the behaviors of the characters. To fiction writers who elevate characterization over plot, characters often take on lives of their own. They dictate the course of the novel. Thus, the stories seem to write themselves.
Some Characteristics of a Character Writer:
∙ You envision characters first. Then you develop a story line that will challenge them and make them grow.
∙ You explore how your characters “tick.” You know their emotional and psychological baggage, and you share it through introspective passages to expose your characters’ goals and motivations to the reader.
∙ Your story plot sometimes changes in mid-stream because your characters “tell you” they would never behave the way that you are “forcing” them to behave.
∙ If you try to pull Character “A” out of a scene, you face a significant rewrite, because the scene evolved from the motivations and behaviors of Character “A”. Character “B” is not likely to behave the same way.
Are You a Story Plot Writer?
If you’re a story plot writer, your storyline drives your novel. The characters’ motivations, conflicts, and goals are derived from the escalating action in each scene. For instance, a Mystery or Suspense writer might construct a character for the specific purpose of providing a “red herring” in the book.
Some Characteristics of a Story Plot Writer:
∙ You tend to devise story ideas before you develop the characters who will “live” the adventure
∙ You focus your scenes on action and limit passages of introspection (also called “internal narration” or “internal dialogue”)
∙ You let your story determine the personalities of your characters — including their goals, motivations and internal (value-driven) conflicts. In other words, your story plot determines what the characters think and say, and how they behave.
∙ Since action is more important to your scenes, you can probably pull a character out of a passage and insert another character in its place without a great deal of rewriting
Which Focus is Best: Character or Story Plot?
“Character is plot, plot is character.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The story plot of your novel can evolve out of your characterization. However, a character will not necessarily evolve out of your story plot. My philosophy is this: if character matters so much to the reader, it must matter even more to the fiction writer.
Although I started out as a story plot writer, I couldn’t sell a book until I learned to create interesting, complex, and believable characters. In the words of literary agent Ethan Ellenberg, “If you move people emotionally, you sell books.” (US News & World Report, Nov. 6, 1995)
But what do you think? Are you a character writer or a story plot writer? Which do you tend to read for, a novel’s characters or its story plot? Let us know your thoughts about fiction writing in the comments section, below.
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Here are the links to the fiction writing tips in the How to Write a Novel series: