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Wednesday, August 23

Is Your Novel Exploring an Idea or Solving a Problem?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I have a file on my computer devoted to story ideas. Last count, I had around forty of them in various stages of development. Some are just titles, some are query blurbs, and others are multi-page summaries. Nearly all of them have one thing in common—they’re only exploring ideas.

Which is why they aren’t books yet.

The ideas that I did turn into books were all ideas that posed a problem the protagonist had to solve. They were stories, not just a cool premise.

I think this fine line is where a lot of writers stumble, especially when working on a first or second novel. It’s really a matter of premise versus plot. It can be hard to see that hazy distinction between a cool idea and a cool story, because often, the idea is what sparks our imagination and makes us want to write about it. We want to chase it down and see where it goes.

The trouble comes when all we have is the cool idea.

(Here's more on the difference between premise, plot, story, and the idea)

I probably see this most often in science fiction and fantasy, but any genre where the idea is central to the story can have the same problem. Let’s look at an example.

This past summer I read John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire. This is a novel with a great idea at its core (a collapsing empire on a galactic scale), which could easily have become a story that just explored that great idea. It could have focused on the minutia of how the empire was in trouble, it could have had characters lecturing on the aspects of why the empire was collapsing, it could have spent pages and pages on the ramifications of a galaxy-spanning empire on the verge of collapse.

But it didn’t.

It focused on the people caught in this problem.

All the coolness about the idea is explored, so readers do get the why and how and all the fun “what if?” stuff, but it’s done through the characters facing the problem. Scalzi gives them all things to do and problems to solve so the stories are personal, and readers care about what happens to the empire because they care about the people in it.

In contrast, I read Orson Scott Card’s Empire several years ago—another great idea about an “empire” that also collapsed (a near-future U.S. civil war), but it focused more on exploring that idea, not solving a problem. Halfway through, I started skimming, because I wanted to know who was behind it, but the novel overall didn’t have a compelling problem for the characters to solve. The novel wasn’t really about a particular problem, it just explored the question, “what would happen if a civil war between the right and the left broke out in America?” As compelling as that question was, it wasn’t enough to hold my attention for an entire novel.

The critical difference between these two novels is that one explored the idea, and the other solved a problem within the idea.

Tastes will vary, but to me, that made the difference between a great book, and a so-so book. It’s “What might happen if?” versus “How do we do X?”

Each question is valid and the best books usually ask both, but if all you have is the “what if” one, there’s a risk of creating a novel that only explores the idea and never gives the characters (and readers) a problem to solve. And since solving problems is what fiction is all about, not having one can kill an otherwise good idea.

(Here's more on getting to the heart of your story)

If you’re worried you might be exploring an idea and not solving a problem, ask yourself:

What is the protagonist trying to achieve? If you’re solving a problem, you should be able to state a clear problem with a specific goal driving the protagonist(s).

Do the characters have specific and personal things at stake? Idea-only novels often have low-to-no stakes or super high “happens to everyone” stakes, such as death. Since there’s no problem, there’s nothing personal for the characters to lose and no actual ramifications for failure.

Are there conflicts to overcome and hard choices to make? An exploring-a-idea novel typically lacks conflict because there’s no reason to oppose the protagonist. The plot focuses on discovering information and telling readers how things are and why it’s bad, so there’s nothing for the protagonist to do or struggle with.

How do you describe the novel? If the description is more about the “what if” idea and never mentions a problem, odds are you have a premise novel that’s just exploring the idea. Jurassic Park would have been a very different novel if it had been about “What would happen if a scientist cloned dinosaurs?” and not “Scientists and children must escape being eaten when things go wrong at a cloned-dinosaur park.” (And this example shows you don’t need a particularly well written answer to this question, as long as the problem is clear.)

The “what if?” is a fantastic place to start developing an idea, but don’t stop there. Find the problem within that great premise that will bring your story to life. The story is what matters to readers, and for that, you need a protagonist with a problem to solve.

Is your current WIP exploring an idea or solving a problem?


Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. 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 Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure 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 gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

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 comment:

  1. Excellent points.

    I'd like to add or emphasize one: "What makes these characters the most interesting ones to solve this problem?" Just as a big concept works best when it's narrowed down to a conflict, a conflict works best when the person trying to face it adds their own inner demons (or sheer misfit-ness) instead of being the obvious person to solve it.

    Larry Brooks calls an idea without the key character a Concept, and reserves "Premise" for when you have both. I describe it as going from "interesting that this has to be dealt with" to "interesting-squared that *he* has to do it."

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