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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?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? 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 Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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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."