The Biggest Problem Facing the Beginning Novelist—And 6 Tips for Avoiding It

Creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action.  All those elements have to come together in one story. 

One story.

Not a series of episodes. 

As creatures of the television era, a lot of us tend to think in episodes rather than one long story arc. I know I do. My first book, which I worked on for a decade, contains what is probably my very best writing. Every scene is honed to perfection. 

But it's not a novel: it's a series of episodes. I had story, but no plot. The book is unpublishable. No wonder it got over 300 rejections. 

It took a very kind agent to read the whole thing and tell me what was wrong before I put it aside. "It reads like a sit-com" is what she said. Finally, that "aha" moment: I had episodes; not a novel.

I know I'm not the only writer who fights the episode habit. Episodic storytelling is the number one problem I see confronting the new writer. And sometimes seasoned authors run into the problem, too. 

One of my favorite movies about writers is Wonder Boys, based on Michael Chabon's prize-winning novel.  In the film, Michael Douglas plays a writer who can't finish his book.  Everybody assumes he's blocked, but—as we discover when he opens a closet stacked with reams of typed pages—the problem is he can't make the story end. 

I'm willing to bet that Michael Douglas's character's problem was episodic storytelling. 

Look at the trouble TV writers have ending a series. The weak last episodes of Seinfeld and The Sopranos come to mind.  And don't get me started with Lost...

Episodic storytelling happens when one scene doesn't generate the problem of the next scene.  You could shuffle the scenes around and pretty much the same things would happen. 

E.M. Forster illustrated this in one of his famous lectures on novel-writing: "'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and then queen died of grief' is a plot."

You can just as well say "The queen died and then the king died." But the "dying of grief" makes no sense in reverse order. 

To write a successful novel, you need a plot. Just the one. Each scene needs its own story arc, but we also need one over-arching plot to compel us from scene to scene. 

So how do we do that? 

Here are a few things I've learned that helped me kick the episodic storytelling habit:

1) Start a novel with the ending in mind. I always do this now. After my disaster with the Novel That Would Not End, sometimes I even write the last scene first. It never ends up being the actual last scene, but it helps me enormously to have it sitting there as a goal. 

2) Write lots of short fiction before starting that first novel. If you think of your novel as a short piece stretched out, it can help you keep that plot in mind. If I'd spent that decade writing short fiction instead of polishing up that endless collection of chapters, I'd probably have reached my career goals much faster.  (And I'd have a ton of stories that can be published again and again. Stories have a long shelf life and are now pure gold in the age of the Kindle Single.)

3) Write a logline before you start.  I'm not telling you to outline. I know we should, but I can't bear to outline myself. Stories are so much more interesting to write when you don't know exactly what's going to happen. But you want to have the basic story in your head.  Try plugging your idea into this formula: When______happens  to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.  (More on loglines in my post on Hooks, Loglines and Pitches.) 

4) Make sure your story has an antagonist. Again, just the one. This doesn't necessarily mean a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash bad-guy. But you need a force working against the hero that's powerful enough to keep the plot going for an entire novel. Your hero can't just slay a new dragon in each chapter. He needs to live in constant danger from the Big Momma Dragon who never lets go and can't be slain by ordinary means. And Big Momma Dragon has to get meaner and more dangerous as her little dragons get vanquished.

5) Create characters who act rather than are acted upon. The protagonist's actions and choices should cause each new event. When you have a hero who causes things to happen by her actions (no matter how stupid) the story is propelled forward. You can do E. M. Forster one better with something like: "The king died, then the queen faked her own death to run off with a hot young dragon-slayer."

6) Consider writing your first novel in a genre with built-in structure. Romances and Mysteries have firm story structures. Romances need a HEA (Happy Ever After ending) with lovers united. Mysteries have to end with the revelation of who dunnit.  This doesn't mean you have to give up your favorite genre. Women's fiction can have a traditional romance story structure. So can historicals, fantasy and sci-fi. The mystery structure can be used in almost any genre from chick lit to scifi, and the unsolved mystery doesn't have to involve murder.

Many thanks to Pip Conner for his email this week that sparked this blogpost. He asked how to deal with that nagging feeling something isn't right with the WIP--even though you've been polishing forever. I told him most first novels have structure  problems. It's always worth a check of your story structure if something doesn't seem "quite right." 

Ask yourself these questions: 

That scene that doesn't quite work may turn out to be a detour that moves us away from the plot and you may have to eliminate it. (Don't you hate that? Remember to save it for another novel or a short story someday.)

Obviously, it helps if you start the novel with some of the above things in mind, but even if you didn't, you can often fix a structure problem if you step away from the manuscript and re-examine it later with fresh eyeballs. 

Here's what I advised Pip:  

My strongest piece of advice is this: put it in a drawer and walk away. Close the file and don't look at it for two months. Go read a book in your genre. Then read another. Then read some books on story structure.

Robert McKee's STORY--although it specifically addresses screenplays--is the structure Bible. (But I just saw the Kindle edition is $23--yikes--so get it from the library.) Another oldie but goodie is James N. Frey's HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL. And Kristen Lamb's blog  has some fantastic advice on structure and the antagonist. Do a search on her blog for "The Big Boss Troublemaker." And if you're a techie sort, GalleyCat has a whole list of programs this week that help you outline your novel.

Then start a new book or story. Do not open that file for the whole two months.

When you get back to that old WIP, I'll bet you'll see a solution.

How about you, scriveners? Do you have recommendations for some good books or blogs on story structure? Have you ever written a Novel That Would Not End? Do you struggle with structure in your novels? 

COMING UP ON THE BLOG! Next Sunday we're going to present "LAURIE McLEAN'S CRYSTAL BALL"-- a visit from the dynamic literary agent Laurie McLean of Larsen-Pomada, talking about what she sees coming up in the publishing world. And on December 16th, we'll have our annual visit from Romance author and uber-blogger Roni Loren talking about how authors can best use Facebook and Twitter.

OTHER NEWS: I'll be interviewed at WRITE IT SIDEWAYS on Monday, November 12. and I have a GOLDEN REVIEW at Indie Authors Anonymous on November 14. Plus I have a guest post about traveling off the beaten path in the UK at the READERS GUIDE TO E-PUBLISHING on Thursday November 15th

And don't forget that SHERWOOD, LTD, a Camilla Randall mystery, is FREE on Kobo and Smashwords. The Smashwords blurbitude didn't come out quite right--so it's credited to Saffina Desforges, who wrote the forward. But it got a nice review the first 24 hours it was up.

Reviewer David Keith said "It's not yer typical whodunnit, nor is the protagonist anything like a cop. Ms. Allen (or Ms. Deforges, as the case may be) has crafted a wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills to suspicion of everybody in the book." FREEEEEE!

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