Note: this post was originally part of a writing series, and some comments may refer to that.
When you’re beginning to write a novel, it’s a good idea to identify your genre. After that, just having a basic idea down before you start writing can really help. I suggest figuring out the following:
- a title (you can always change it, though)
- a short description (one or two sentences) of your story
- names and short descriptions for your main characters
Having these figured out will give you a clearer focus.
You know the other good thing about it? Once you’ve done it, when somebody asks you, “You’re writing a novel? What’s it called? What’s it about?”, you won’t stammer around like most of us do. You’ll feel confident as you answer, “It’s called Sofia in Soho, and it’s a thriller about a high-society wife in Manhattan who’s actually a Russian spy, but her husband’s on to her” (for instance.) And they’ll be so impressed!
Okay, let’s talk about each of these things a little more.
1. COMING UP WITH A TITLE.
You want something that conveys the mood of the story, and you probably want something that rolls off the tongue fairly easily.
If you are a visual person, you can play around with a fake book cover using GIMP or Canva (both free) or Photoshop if you have it. You can even print out a color copy of your design and hang it up where you’ll see it often, if you want to — that can be very motivating!
2. COMING UP WITH A SHORT DESCRIPTION OF YOUR STORY.
Screenplay writers call this the logline. You can take a look at 100 examples here — all winners of a logline contest.
You’re going to come back to the short description after you do a lot of writing, because it may change and shift. However, thinking about it critically up front will give you a solid place to start.
Here are three common story problems that writing a short description can reveal.
a. Not enough is happening.
Here’s an example of a description with this problem:
A girl struggles with mental illness, and her family doesn’t understand her.
It sounds like the end of the book will be exactly the same as the beginning. No thanks. Your novel is like a train, and most people are going to be mad if they expect a journey and instead wind up just circling the depot.
Now what if things change for this girl over the course of the story?
A girl struggles with mental illness, and her family doesn’t understand her… but among the misfits in the psych ward, she finds friends and hope for the future.
Is that too heart-warming for you? How about:
A young patient at a psychiatric hospital uncovers a horrific secret. But who’s going to believe a schizophrenic teenaged girl?
There are all kinds of possibilities! The point is, an issue or a state of being, all by itself, does not comprise a plot.
The other problem you may have with your description is…
b. Too much is happening.
If there is way too much story to describe in a couple of sentences without copious uses of semicolons and dashes, you probably need to focus.
You may be trying to fit six novels into the space of one. You don’t need to do that! You get to write more than one novel!
Alternately, you may not be sure which is your main plot and which are the subplots, and you’ll have to figure that out.
Here’s the third issue you may uncover, and it’s one I’ve struggled with before. (I’ve struggled with all of them, to be honest.)
c. There’s not enough conflict.
Let’s say your storyline is,
A veterinarian and a dog owner fall in love.
As a romance reader and a dog lover, I’m interested! But what obstacles does their love face? If they don’t have any issues, it’s not going to be an interesting read.
But let’s say it’s more like:
A shy veterinarian and a lawyer who’s cynical about everyone but her poodle can’t deny their feelings for one another.
That’s better, anyway. I can see how their character traits will be roadblocks. Whatever your story is, make sure that the short description includes a hint of conflict.
If you have no clue about your plot…
There are a few different things you can do.
• Think about a goal that a character could have – and obstacles that can get in the way.
• Browse master plot ideas. I have a list of romance plots here, a list of high-stakes plots here (which could be good for thriller, fantasy, science fiction, Western, or other genres), and more in my book Master Lists for Writers. Also, TV Tropes has this short list of very broad and basic plot ideas.
• Write down a list of ten of your favorite movies. (It doesn’t have to be your definitive top ten – don’t take too much time here.) What’s happening in them? Would you like to write about a similar thing, but in a whole new way?
Do what you need to do, and come up with your one- or two-sentence short description.
3. NAMING YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS AND WRITING SHORT DESCRIPTIONS OF THEM.
You may have only one main character. It’s very common to have two. If you have more than four, it’s going to be a challenge to make readers actually care about all of them, so fair warning.
If your story has an important antagonist or villain, you want to figure him or her out now, too. If you’re writing a murder mystery, do some thinking about the murderer and what motivates him. If you’re going to write a ghost story, think a little about who your ghost is, why she has a grudge, and what her end game is.
Give each of them a name, and write down a paragraph about each of them. You might talk about what they do for a living (or do all day)… what a few of their character traits are, positive and negative… what their hopes and dreams are… a few likes, dislikes, and fears… and what they care about most in the world.
If you have Master Lists for Writers, some of the character lists may help here. The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier, one of my favorite writing books, is a great resource… look at Checkpoints 8 through 10. None of the books I mention here and there in this series is required, however.
Just a few more thoughts on character creation…
This is a good time to think about whether your characters are different enough from one another, how they will get along, and how they will clash.
Who your character is may be part of what makes things so difficult for her. Maybe she planned out the next five years of her life in advance, which makes getting dumped by her fiancé even worse. Maybe she’s a scientist who doesn’t believe in anything supernatural, which makes meeting an angel all the more freaky.
People talk about “character-driven” versus “plot-driven” stories, but ideally, character and plot work together. Your characters should make choices based on their personalities and their priorities, and the events in the story should change them in some ways.
Some people like to mentally cast actors as their characters. (I do this sometimes.) Some people take inspiration from real-life people in creating characters, although it’s best not to admit this.
It’s great if you already know your characters as well as you know your real-life friends. It’s also fine if you don’t. Mine aren’t completely formed until I’m about halfway through a rough draft.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Happy Writing!