Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Five Ways to Grow Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week I talked about what changes in your scenes, and reader Maria D'Marco made a wonderful comment about how stories grow in all directions. This is something that's easy to forget as we try to get from the opening scene to wrap up closer, and it's worth further discussion.

Much of writing a novel is about forward momentum, so we often think of our stories as straight lines, or lines with curves and arcs. But they're really more like trees growing solidly in one direction at the start, then branching out into a tangled mess (in a good way). Branches merge and split, they cross over each other, they rub together and leave scars, and they come up against things they can't grow past or get around.

Just like a tree, growing a novel can take any path you choose. It can be as textured and knotted as you want, or have an elegant and direct purpose. However you grow it, look for ways to make it as lush and alive as possible.

For the following questions, I used "three places" as a starting point, but feel free to add as many (or as few) of these as you feel your novel needs. Three is a great number for establishing patterns as well as mini arcs.

1. Plot Growth

Most plot advice focuses on getting the plot from the beginning of the story to the end (even here), because that's what plots do. But plots also take twists and turns and head in unexpected directions. Think of the plot like the trunk of the tree. It's the foundation, the base that everything comes from, heading for the same place even if the path there gets a little tangled.
  • Find three places where the plot can go in the opposite direction from where it's headed
  • Find three places where the plot can continue where it's going, but for completely different reasons
  • Find three places where the plot can entangle another plot point
  • Find three places where the plot forces the protagonist to make a hard decision

(Here's more on creating plot twists)

2. Character Growth

People are just as messy as branches, changing their minds and heading in the wrong direction. We may call it a character arc, but it rarely moves through the story that gracefully (or succinctly). Characters do irrational things and act in ways that go against their better judgment.
  • Find three places your characters can make a bad decision that sets their goal back
  • Find three places your characters can make a good decision that turn out badly for unexpected reasons (hint: this could connect to the entangled plot point)
  • Find three places your characters can act irrationally
  • Find three places your characters can act the way they want to act for their character arc

(Here's more on character growth)

3. Relationship Growth

Secondary characters are often overlooked in a story, but how they co-exist with the protagonist can deepen a novel and create new branches of story. Look at the relationships in your novel--how does your protagonist get along with her fellow characters? How do those relationships grow over the course of the novel? What do those secondary characters teach the protagonist? What does the protagonist teach them?
  • Find three places where your protagonist can help a secondary character
  • Find three places where your protagonist can hurt a secondary character
  • Find three places where your protagonist considers the feeling or goals of a secondary character
  • Find three places where your protagonist disagrees with a secondary character
  • Find three places where your protagonist is wrong as it pertains to a secondary character
  • Find three places that establish the type of relationship the protagonist has with a character
  • Find three examples of good relationships
  • Find three examples of bad relationships

(Here's more on developing secondary characters)

4. Information Growth

Novels are full of information, and how that information is conveyed can fertilize a story or stunt its growth. Too much too soon and there's no mystery for readers to solve, too little and readers are confused about what's going on. Information is like the leaves on the tree--the right amount makes the story lush and inviting, and hides the twists and turns that lie below the surface.
  • Find three places where information can shock or surprise the protagonist
  • Find three places where information can hint at what's to come
  • Find three places where wrong information can deliberately lead the protagonist astray
  • Find three places where the protagonist can discover information she shouldn't have
  • Find three places where the protagonist can learn information, but it comes at a price
  • Find three places where what the characters think they know is wrong
  • Find three places where the character's views or perceptions change based on new information

(Here's more on revealing secrets)

5. Tension Growth

Whether it's achieved through conflicts, stakes, or unanswered questions, that sense of anticipation will grow throughout the novel and bear fruit during the climax. Think of it as the new growth that ends with a blossoming of color come spring. We don't know when things will start to bloom, but after a long winter we can't wait for it to happen.
  • Find three places where the stakes can be raised
  • Find three places where someone can make a mistake with repercussions
  • Find three places where someone can be evasive
  • Find three places where someone can prevent the protagonist from acting
  • Find three places where the protagonist can face self doubt
  • Find three places where the protagonist is flat out wrong
  • Find three places where the protagonist is headed blindly into something that will hurt her
  • Find three places where someone goes against the protagonist's wishes (a betrayal, a good intention gone wrong, a disagreement, etc.)

(Here's more on raising tension)

At some point in either you drafting or revision process, it's not a bad idea to step back and look at how you're growing your novel. Is it lush and leafy or is it a stick with a few twigs on it?

How do you like to grow your novel? 

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I'm working on a manuscript I began at NaNoWriMo, and your post has given me much to think about on how to grow my manuscript into a novel.

    1. Most welcome, glad it helped. Sometimes just looking at the story from a different perspective can spark new ideas.

  2. Such a great post, Janet! There's so much in here to work with. I definitely have some thinking to do. Thank you!

    1. Thanks! Glad it got the creative wheels turning.

  3. Great stuff, as always! Looking forward to applying these tips and seeing what grows out of them. :D

    1. Something good I hope! Sending good writing vibes your way.

  4. This is AMAZING stuff!! Thanks!!

  5. Honestly, Janice. i can't keep up with all your great blogs! Saving this one for reference later!!

    1. Thanks so much! Some days I feel the same way (grin). Knowing the articles are helping folks makes it easier though.

  6. This is very helpful. I bookmarked it for later. I am going to have a novel writing workshop for my writers circle before the next nanowrimo and I think this would be a great exercise.

    1. Very cool, you'll have to let me know how it goes.

  7. Hi Janice
    This is a great post, so many ideas to take away. I like the 'three places' approach. It encourages the growth without sending you off on too many tangents.
    In response to your question, I pants, so for me growing my novel comes with the decisions my characters make. Sometimes I help them make them, having a clear goal or plot point in mind, but often they'll go off and do something entirely different, just for fun. :)

    1. Three is just a great number in a lot of ways. It gets the easy quick ideas out of the way and allows for something with more depth to pop up. Naturally anyone can do more (or less) if they wanted to.

      I bet pantsers are natural novel growers. The entire process is organic.

  8. Great article. I hadn't considered this before but you're spot on about growth in novel. Used your list to check over the novel I'm working on and I seem to be on track (or branch). Thanks for sharing.

    1. My pleasure. Glad you're on track with your own work.

  9. This is a fantastic list...thank you! It'll really help my next editing pass on a novel where the "saggy middle" is driving me bonkers.

    1. Glad it was helpful. If you're having trouble with middles, I suggest looking through these articles on dealing with saggy middles. Might help!

      Middles drove me nuts as well until I figured out if I have a major turning point in the middle, that breaks it up and gives me something to plot toward, then plot away from as the characters deal with the consequences of that major point.

  10. Great post, as always. I feel I've written the "trunk" and this post will help with the "branches". Thanks so much!

    1. Most welcome. I love how you describe that. Trunks and branches. What a great concept.