Novel writing is tricky; there are countless essential components that all need to mesh cohesively to produce a great result. The key to reaching that goal is to ask a lot of questions.
Starting a novel is asking a question. What if …? What would someone do if …? What if the world was like this and this happened …? Those initial questions lead to more questions, which shape and bring life to characters and story. Questions are the key to story.
Over thousands of hours critiquing and editing manuscripts, I’ve noticed that there are some questions I seem to ask a lot, which tells me there are some general gaps that many writers have in common in their novel-constructing processes. As you work on your next fiction project, keep these questions in mind.
Where is this scene taking place?
A reader shouldn’t have to ask this question, right? The writer is thinking, Isn’t it obvious? I know where this scene is taking place.
Unfortunately, readers can’t read your mind. The biggest problem I see in novel scenes is the lack of sufficient information to help the reader “get” where a scene is taking place. Just a hint of setting, shown from the character’s point of view, can do wonders. And what’s usually missing is not just the locale but the smells and sounds, a sense of the time of day and year, and exactly where in the world it is.
How much time has passed?
So many scenes dive into dialogue or action without letting the reader know how much time has passed since the last scene. Scenes needs to flow and string together in cohesive time. It’s important to know if five minutes or five months have passed, and it only takes a few words to make that clear. Don’t leave your reader confused.
What is your character feeling right now?
This is a biggie. It alternates with “How does your character react to this?” I often read bits of action or dialogue that should produce a reaction from the POV character, but the scene just zooms ahead without an indication of what the character is feeling or thinking.
For every important moment, your character needs to react. First viscerally, then emotionally, physically and finally intellectually. If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk or you feel pain streaking through your back.
Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character. (Click to tweet this idea.)
What is the point of this scene?
This is a scary question. Not for the editor — for the author. Because if there’s no point to a scene, it shouldn’t be in your novel. Really.
Every scene has to have a point: to reveal character or plot. And it should have a “high moment” that the scene builds to.
What is your protagonist’s goal?
If she doesn’t have a goal, you don’t really have a story. The reader wants to know your premise as soon as possible, and that involves your main character having a need to get something, go somewhere, do something or find something.
That goal should drive the story and be the underlayment for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds a novel together. It may not be a huge goal, and in the end, your character may fail to reach that goal — you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.
There are, of course, a whole lot more questions than these, and many are just as important to crafting a powerful novel. If you can get in the habit of continually asking questions as you delve into your novel, you may find they will lead you to the heart of your story.
What questions help you develop your stories?