If you Google “book doctor” you’ll get pages of folks willing to analyze your book and tell you what’s wrong with it. While this might be a helpful option for some, not everyone can afford to pay for this type of advice. But never fear, because with a little objectivity (and a plan), you can give your novel a checkup all on your own.
One of the reasons a good book doctor is so successful, is that they look at a story without all the emotional baggage us authors bring to our own work, and can analyze the critical elements of good storytelling. (We love our words. Our words are perfect, aren't they?)
The first step is to look at your manuscript as if you've never read it before. This can be hard because you do know your story, so let it sit for a month or two before taking a hard look at it. That will give you some distance so it's not fresh in your mind. And be ruthless. Pretend you paid good money for this book, and you want it to be worth every penny. What's not working?
Is the Tone Consistent?
If you’re writing a light and funny romance, your book had better be light and funny. Long angst-ridden passages probably aren’t hitting the right vibe and might need to go. In horror novels, scary scenes played for laughs can leave your reader feeling like you're making fun of them and not taking your own work seriously. Tone helps hold a novel together, like a soundtrack playing in the background. It tweaks the emotion at the right moment and nudges the reader toward what you want them to feel.
- Does the opening scene convey the tone of the novel?
- Is that tone consistent?
- Does the imagery and word choice reflect this tone?
- Does the tone change over the course of the novel? Should it?
- Does the tone enhance individual scenes to bring about the desired impact on the reader?
Is the Theme Clear?
Theme is the unifying force of a novel. It's what the book is about, and without it, a story can feel shallow at best, pointless at worst. Themes are what keeps a reader thinking about the book long after they've put it down.
- What is the theme (or themes)?
- Are there examples of this theme throughout the novel?
- How does the theme deeper the character arcs?
- Is the theme stated clearly in the opening chapters of the novel?
- Does the theme tie into the resolution of the novel?
Is Your Plot and Structure Solid?
Structure holds a novel together. Each scene should move the story and plot forward, building on each other to form a cohesive novel. It's not just a series of dramatized moments from someone's life, but characters making choices that affect them and others.
- Does every scene have a goal and consequences if that goal isn't met?
- Is there an inciting event within the first 30 pages (or 50 for longer books) that puts the protagonist on the path to the rest of the novel?
- Is there a moment at the 25% mark where the protagonist makes the choice to pursue the story problem?
- Does something happen in the middle of the book that changes how the story problem is viewed?
- Is there a dark moment or set back at the 75% mark that sends the protagonist into the climax?
- Is there a clear "win" for the protagonist at the climax? Something they have to do in order to succeed?
Are Your Stakes High Enough?
Stakes makes or break a story, because if the reader doesn't care if the protagonist wins, they don't keep reading. Low stakes is a common problem with stories that aren't quite making it but the author isn't sure why. If your protagonist can walk away from the problem and nothing in her life changes for the worse, then your stakes aren't high enough.
- Will the protagonist's life change for the worse if they fail to achieve their goals?
- Are the stakes big enough to be worth the reader's time?
- Do the stakes affect the protagonist personally?
- Do the stakes escalate as the novel progresses?
- Are the stakes clear from the beginning of the story?
- Are their stakes in every scene? (doesn't have to be the same stake)
Is There Enough Conflict?
Conflict is an often misunderstood word. It's easy to assume it means fighting, but conflict is just two sides opposed to the same goal. It can be adversarial (bad guy wants to nuke the city, good guy wants to stop him) or friendly (sister wants to win the race, brother wants to win the race). It can be different approaches to the same goal between friends, or even conflict within yourself.
- Is someone or something opposing the protagonist in every scene?
- Is the bad guy working against the protagonist?
- Are there personal beliefs in conflict?
- Are there philosophical differences that cause the protagonist trouble?
- Is it ever too easy for the protagonist to achieve their goal?
- Do coincidences work to aid the protagonist instead of hindering them?
Is There a Strong Narrative Drive?
Narrative drive is the force that moves the story along. It's the reason the characters do what they do and makes the story feel as though it's going somewhere and not just wandering aimlessly.
- Does the protagonist have a plan of action?
- Is the motivation for that action clear?
- Is there a story point to every scene?
- Is that point clear from the start of the scene?
- Is the protagonist making decisions that change how the story unfolds?
- Are there story questions dropped throughout the story that readers want answers to?
- If you took the scene out, would the plot change?
Is There Tension?
Tension works on micro and macro levels. It's the big face-off between hero and villain, or it's the small nail-biting moment waiting to see if one character notices something. It's what makes a reader stay glued to the page to see what happens next.
- Is there tension on every page? (A reason the reader keeps reading)
- Is there tension between characters? (good and bad)
- Is there tension between characters and the setting?
- Are there moments when the protagonist is relaxed? (if so, how can you shake them up?)
- Is there an unanswered question in every scene?
- When one question is answered, does another take its place?
Are There Character Arcs?
Like plot moves the story, character arcs move the theme. Characters typically grow and learn something over the course of the novel and are changed forever by this experience. No growth can leave a story feeling flat.
- What does the protagonist learn over the course of the novel?
- What lie are they telling themselves/do they believe at the start of the novel?
- When do they realize it isn't true?
- What do they want most of all as a person?
- Does the external plot facilitate them achieving this personal desire?
- What are they most afraid of?
- When do they face this fear?
Are the Characters Fully Formed?
Characters are the souls of your story, and the more developed and real they are, the more drawn in to the story the reader will be. People are flawed and wonderful at the same time, with layers and complexities that often contradict each other.
- Are the characters flawed in ways that affect their decisions in the story?
- Do they have virtues that affect their decisions in the story?
- Do they have contradiction beliefs?
- Do they have backstories that have shaped the person they are now?
- Are those backstories relevant?
- Are the motivations plausible?
- Are the characters fully formed people or clichés or stereotypes?
- Do the characters have different approaches toward things?
- Are your supporting characters as developed as your main characters?
Does the Dialog Sound Natural?
Stilted dialog can stop a story cold or make it feel melodramatic and cheesy. Good dialog captures the essence of real life conversations without the awkward pauses and interruptions that actually happen.
- Do the characters sound like real people?
- Does each character have their own voice and style of speaking?
- Is there any "As you know Bob" dialog that infodumps or tells that should be cut?
- Do characters use language suitable to their status, age, or cultural situation? (for example, five year olds don't typically sound like college professors unless there's a reason)
- Is the dialog actual conversations or just two people stating information at one another for the readers' benefit?
- Are they telling each other things they already know?
- Are there empty dialog phrases slowing the pacing down? (pointless small talk)
Is the Setting Developed?
A well-develop setting and world helps draw the reader in and immerses them in the story. A badly developed setting or world leaves them confused and frequently jarred out of the story.
- Does every scene start by grounding the reader where they are? (where applicable)
- Is the setting clear from the start of the book?
- Are there enough specific details that show the setting, or is it too general for a clear picture?
- Does the point of view character share their thoughts and views on the world around them?
- Does the setting or world make sense?
- Are their people interacting with the world or is it just a backdrop?
- Is too much focus spent on the setting descriptions?
Is the Pacing Working?
Pacing is the speed at which the reader learns information. Longer sentences slow the pace down, shorter sentences pick the pace up. Dialog (internal and external) typically reads quicker than description and stage direction. Too fast can be exhausting, while too slow can be boring.
- Is the pacing consistent with the genre?
- Does the pacing speed up during major plot moments?
- Are there waves of fast and slow pacing throughout the novel?
- Is the pace quick enough to keep readers reading?
- Are there any slow spots?
- Are there any spots that are too fast and the reader has trouble absorbing the information?
- Are there any spots that encourage reading skimming that should be revised?
This is only a small sampling of possible things to look at, but they should give you a solid plan for examining your novel for trouble spots.
Do you have a favorite piece of advice you always follow (or give to other writers)? What things do you look for when you're critiquing or revising a novel?
No contest this week, but there will be one next Monday, so check back.