Monday, June 24, 2019

Just Another Day: Writing the "Slice of Life" Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some stories are more challenging to write, and crafting a slice of life tale is one of them. Here's an updated look at what makes or breaks a day in the life of a character novel.

I have an uncanny ability to read a lot of the same types of books over a short period of time with no intention of doing that. Maybe I'm just in the mood for that type of story then and pick up books that are similar.

Because of that, I often get interesting perspectives on what makes stories of a certain type work and why they didn't.

This happened a few years ago with several slice of life stories. The ones where the focus is more on a character's journey through a period of time, and not so much about that one big bad problem that needs to be resolved.

Slice if life stories can be a lot harder to pull off than your typical plot-driven novel, because character growth isn't all that exciting in and of itself. It's the results of that growth, and the struggle to achieve that growth within a particular situation that's intriguing.

There are reasons, however, why these internal stories are just as gripping as their action-packed counterparts.

A Relatable Character's Journey

Some journeys are universal, and readers can relate to it no matter their background or personal experiences.

Carter Finally Gets It takes place during Carter's freshman year of high school. His story goal (plot) is to have sex--but had the book been one escapade after another with him hitting on girls it would have been a tedious snore.

Instead, the quest to have sex is used as a wonderful metaphor for Carter becoming a man. He enacts plans to make himself more appealing to the opposite sex, and thus get him laid, and this drives the story. Along the way, her learns about who he is and what kind of man he wants to be.

I don't think it would have worked as well had he been a senior, because he'd have been almost 18 and already a man by many standards. Making him just 14 made a huge difference. It was putting him at the threshold between being a kid and being a man, and setting it in a very awkward time in someone's life, that allowed this journey to happen with such resonance.

You don't care if he actually has sex or not, you care about his journey over the course of this year and how he grows because of it. Caring about the journey is what made this work.

(Here's more on Why Character Arcs (and Growth) Make Readers Care)

A Desire to Witness the Character Growth

If the point of the story is to see the character grow, that growth matters.

In It's Kind of a Funny Story, the story's focus is on the days leading up to a suicide attempt, and the five days the protagonist spends in a mental institution.

You know going into the novel that the protagonist tries to kill himself, so you're curious why, which drives you through the opening setup chapters.

What really made this book work is that the reader figures out early on why the protagonist is hurting so much. Part of the appeal (and hook) is seeing what it will take for the protagonist to realize it, too, and if he'll be able to change it.

The goal isn't about him suddenly solving his depression and living happily ever after, it's about discovering what depressed him in the first place and how to take those first steps to recovery. The conflict was with himself, and you really want to see him figure it out and help himself. Wanting to see the character change is what made this work.

(Here's more on The Triangle of Likability: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive)

An Fascination with an Event in the Protagonist's Life

For stories that cover a specific event, the event is a big draw. In Life As We Knew It, the story is about a cataclysmic event that changes the world.

While there is a "survive" goal driving the protagonist, there is no major conflict to resolve. She's not going to fix what's happened and it's not going to magically revert back. It's all about how this event changes the protagonist. But the event itself is so compelling that it really hooks you.

The world needed to end for this character to go through this internal change. It drew focus to the simple things in life we take for granted and really allowed for a change in both the reader's and the protagonist's  perspective. It made you wonder how you would act in this same situation. Curiosity about the event and the protagonist's ability to handle that event is what made this work.

(Here's more on Story Rulez: Things Every Story Needs to do)

A Story That Almost Worked

Although I hate to say anything negative about another writer's work, there is one book I think is a good example of one that didn't quite work for a very specific reason.

I'm a huge fan of the author (his novel, Godless is one of my favorites), and there are a lot of good things about this particular novel that makes it worth reading, but one element turned it from a great slice of life story to a what was the point then? story.

In Rash, the teen protagonist is sent to a work camp-type prison and exploited for the very reason that sent him to prison inn the first place--his anger. It has all the great potential for a character growth story, because this sentence affects the protagonist in a way that will force a change and let him figure out who he is. The dystopian future setting is compelling and interesting, so even as an event story, it works.

The problem (in my opinion of course, tastes will vary) is a subplot that suggests a much larger resolvable goal that's never developed. It goes from being an intriguing "ooo, what's going on with that interesting detail and how will it connect to the exploitation plot?" to a deus ex machina.

The element is never explained, and all it does it save the protagonist for no reason the reader can figure out. This didn't work because a single plot element hijacked the story and suggested that solving this element was the point of the book, which was then never resolved.

(Here's more on 5 Ways to Tell if a Subplot is Leading You Astray)

A "Why Should I Care?" Story with No Point

This final example is a movie, but it's a solid example of a bad slice of life story.

In Skyline, a small group of people wake up to an alien invasion. This group has a goal driving the tale, but there's clearly no way they can do anything about the invasion, and before long it's clear no one can do anything about it. The aliens are going to win.

The movie then becomes one scene after another of the small group getting smaller until the heroes are captured. At this point I actually thought, "Ah, it's an end of the world tale, like a horror movie, okay, that's different" but that wasn't it either.

It ends with the implication that the pair of heroes' fight goes on even though it's futile.They were just going to keep fighting until they died, and the Earth (and thus the human race) would be destroyed by aliens. This didn't work because the point of the story was to watch people go through a lot of horrible situations that didn't resolve anything or get anywhere.

(Here's more on What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes)

How Can You Tell if You Have a Slice of Life Story? 

Sometimes you write a slice of life story that wasn't meant to be a slice a life story. This is a close cousin of the premise novel, where the novel focuses on an event, or a time, and there isn't a major goal to solve. Feedback likely includes comments such as, "nothing happens" or "what's the point of the story?" or "what's the protagonist's goal? or even "what's it about?"

If you think you might have one of these novels, ask yourself what the story is about.

If you describe it in a way that is clearly about the journey and growth of the character, then you might have a slice of life story. If you have a specific event or problem (the conflict) that needs to be resolved, then you probably don't.

In a slice if life, the plot itself doesn't matter as much, because solving that external problem isn't what's driving the protagonist. There will be goals, and things to do, but no one "big issue" that the book is about. Something emotional is the compelling factor. If there's something solvable to pursue, odds are it's not slice of life. 

(Here's more on It's An Idea: Taking Your Novel From Premise to Plot)

Genre Stories Aren't Typically Slice of Life Stories

If the story is genre (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, historical, thriller, etc.), there's a strong chance it's not a slice of life novel, because genre stories tend to be about solving an external problem.

Even if you have character development and growth, the plot is the point of the book. As my examples show, you can have a slice of life with a genre story, but by their natures, genres are genres because they're about something tangible that can be resolved.

A Warning When Writing a Slice of Life Novel

It's possible (and easy) to describe your story in a way that makes it seem like a slice of life, when it really isn't. You'll often see this when the story is dipping into premise novel territory.

If you end up with a description about a character dealing with or going through an event or situation, such as, a woman deals with the aftermath of her son's death, you might want to explore it further. Is the story just going to show how this woman deals with the death, or is there a greater meaning?

If by the end she just gets over it, or learns to accept it, you might have a premise novel brewing. But if your ending is about how that woman is changed and why, then you're probably on track for a slice of life story. It's a subtle difference, but a common reason why some stories just don't quite work and you're not sure why. 

(Here's more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

Slice if life stories are difficult to write well. It's hard to make a reader care about a character enough to want to see them living their day to day life. It's tough to have enough conflict to drive the plot without that conflict becoming the driving force of the story. But they can be very rewarding stories when done well, because they do tap into things the reader can relate to and care about.

Have you ever written a slice of life story? Was it harder or easier for you than a plot-driven novel? 

*Originally published 2011.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks for clarifying the difference between genre/plot and slice of life (character). Great post.

  2. Oh, you didn't like Rash? I absolutely love Rash, but I do agree with your criticism of it.

    Also, I'm so glad you linked to your premise novel post. I was looking and looking for it and couldn't find it. Thanks.

    This post actually raises a funny question to my mind. Does the first Harry Potter book have slice of life elements? If you try to pin down the main goal, it's pretty easy. "Don't let Voldemort get the stone." But that goal doesn't appear for a pretty large chunk of the novel, and even after Harry and the gang are aware of a mystery to solve, they still spend a lot of their time playing Quidditch and tangling with Malfoy. (I may be misremembering the events of the book.)

    So, basically, what I'm trying to ask is "Is there such a thing as a functional goal driven novel with prominent slice of life elements?"

  3. Elle: Most welcome, and thanks!

    Jane: I loved Rash right up until the end. I really wanted to know what the deal with the AI was, and was so disappointed that it never went anywhere. It had such wonderful potential.

    I've actually never read HP (I know! gasp!) so I can't answer that, but maybe someone else can help you out there.

    I think all novels have slice of life elements, so yes, you can. How a character lives their life is often important, as what's going on in the novel is usually a disruption to that life. The compare and contrast between "regular life" and the "new life" they find themselves is can be quite compelling. The trouble comes when the slice of life parts don't add anything to the story, then they feel pointless. But as long as they do something to enhance the story, they can work great.

  4. WOW! I'm going to write each story example from your post on flash cards and then go over and over the differences until I have them all memorized. I loved this post!!!!

  5. In Skyline (partial spoilers below), I completely agree with you. The ending left you wondering, WTF??

    But, I think it was more a slice of life story than an action movie. The male protagonist learns in the end what is really important: his wife and their unborn child. Not his career, not their lifestyle, his wife and child were the only things that really mattered. He's so convinced of this that he's able to continue fighting for them even after he's eaten.

    The way the director pulled it off in the movie was just silly and messy and the viewer can tell that he was too engrossed with the action and special effects to really tell the story.

  6. I cannot tell a lie...those slice-of-life stories just don't pull me in the way plot-driven novels do. Too much of an internal story and I just start skipping huge chunks and thinking, "Yeah, yeah. Get to the good stuff."

    On the other hand, apparently, I've written a slice-of-life story in my wip--though I didn't exactly know that till I read this post. And now I know exactly why it's not working.

    Back to the manuscript. ;-) Thanks, Janice!

  7. Thinking about it, that pizza in the image looks tasty.

  8. Oh, and had you heard of Yotsuba? I hadn't read it myself, but it's well-known among manga fans.

    1. Yes! Yotsuba is my favourite manga! The child is so adorable!

  9. Judy, thanks! Glad it clicked so well for you :)

    Eric, I think if the director approached the entire movie that way, made it more of a character piece, it would have been better. Battle: Los Angeles was more along those lines actually, and more enjoyable. I'm all for action scenes, but I like at least a little story with them :)

    Cathy, same here, unless they've very well done. Will Grayson, Will GRayson was another SoL story that was fantastic. Glad the post helped with your current SoL WIP!

    ChihuahuaO, I know! I've had pizza twice this week. I wonder if this is why? I haven't read any manga, but I hear good things. I really need to try one of those.

  10. Thank you very much for writing this!

    I always have a hard time trying to fit my stories into pre-made plot structures, or even trying to categorize some books I've read into those same structures.

    Now I'm thinking that can happen because I read lots of Slice of Life stories and that I write them, too. I can be wrong, though. I still do a lot of research on plot structure, how to plot and various plot elements... I think of ways I can adapt those to fit my fiction works, and it helps me brainstorming lots of times, although I recognize I can't always find some elements in my stories...

    I still don't know if I'm actually writing Slice of Life (although my stories are mostly about a bunch of different episodes happening to characters, making them change and grow, with a little mistery and angst in the middle of that), but this post has made me feel more comfortable with my stories, and my pseudo-plots. Also, because I LOVE Slice of Life stories, thinking that I'm actually writing some makes me smile. Even if is just for a bit...

    PS: English is not my first language, so I apologize for any grammar errors that I may have made.

    PPS: Thank you so much for this post. It has open my horizons and made me consider something I think I couldn't have considered if it weren't for you... I'll do some research on S. of Life now and try to discover how to improve those stories and if I'm actually writing them.


    1. I'm so glad you found this helpful. SoL stories are always more challenging because there's usually not that one goal driving the whole book. The character arc plays a much more critical role. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is an especially good example of having something external to drive the plot (the show) that isn't really what the book is about. Though on a thematic level, it still is. Worth studying if you like writing these types of stories.

  11. I think both Ann Tyler and Wally Lamb are masters of the slice of life.

    1. Nice! Thanks for the names for anyone wanting to read more stories like this.