Monday, August 12, 2019

4 Ways to Write a Better Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing a strong novel is about more than technical skills. It’s about storytelling.

I’d gather most writers started writing because they love to tell stories. Characters speak to them, worlds unfold in the their minds, and they see struggles to overcome problems and want to explore those problems. They want to share the amazing things they imagine.

Luckily, this is also why readers pick up a novel. They want to see what adventures we’ve dreamed up and what exciting tales we have to tell. They want to lose themselves in our worlds and characters same as we did.

When those two goals align, a book becomes magic. When they don’t, it sits unread and unappreciated on a shelf, or even a hard drive. And nobody wants that, least of all writers.

Although there’s no proven formula for writing a great novel, there are things every writer can do to give their story the best chance at being a great novel.

1. Remind ourselves it’s about the reader, not the writer

A novel’s job is to entertain its reader, but sometimes we get so caught up in the mechanics of writing that we forget that. We worry about technical issues and adverbs, structure and beats, characters and voice, but how often do we stop and ask if our story is worth reading? Are we:
  • Creating story questions for our readers?
  • Creating intriguing characters readers will want to get to know?
  • Creating a plot that will entice readers to keep reading?
  • Creating a story that’s about more than just plot mechanics?

Think about the novels you love and why you love them. Okay, now think about the novels you love as a reader, not a writer. Odds are you’ll have novels you admire for their craft and skill, and novels you love for the characters and the story. Some will overlap, but probably not all of them. What's different about the novels you love as a reader versus a writer?

I have favorite novels that aren’t well written. I have disliked novels that were exceptionally written. If technical skill was all that mattered, writing a bestselling novel would be easy. But it’s the intangible aspects that make readers love (or hate) a novel.

As you develop your novel, keep asking if it’s a story readers will be able to lose themselves in. Is this a novel you’d want to read if you hadn’t written it?

(Here’s more on Channeling The Reader’s Brain: What We Expect of Every Story)

2. Don’t give away the story

Sometimes in our excitement to share our stories with our readers we spill the beans before the story truly begins. We don’t let tension and anticipation build, and reveal the answers almost as quickly as we pose the questions. In our eagerness to show readers the cool things we’ve created, we give it all away and kill the wonder of the story.

Other times, we’re so worried our readers won’t “get it,” that we drop far too many clues and telegraph what’s going to happen long before it does. We steal our own thunder and make our plots are predictable as a knock-knock joke.

Neither of this help us create a strong story and a novel readers will fall in love with.
  • Trust your readers to “get it” and pick up on the subtle clues
  • Let the wonder of the world build
  • Let the secrets sit unremarked upon in plain sight and pique curiosity
  • Give your plot the time it needs to develop

When we reveal too much too soon, we don’t give our readers anything to look forward to. It’s that anticipation and need to know what happens next that keeps them reading, and once that’s gone, they stop reading.

(Here’s more on Message for M. Reader: Are You Telegraphing Your Plot?)

3. Make an emotional connection with the reader

Readers who care are readers who stay. The more they care about something in your story, the more likely they’ll read to the end and want more. If there’s nothing technically wrong with a novel, the most common reason readers stop reading it is that they just didn’t care about the characters or what those characters were doing.
  • Create characters readers can relate to (or be fascinated by)
  • Craft believable motivations for their actions
  • Give them real consequences for failure
  • Make them three dimensional people with strength, weaknesses, and flaws

Getting your readers emotionally invested in your novel will make them care about the story and the characters in that story.

(Here’s more on Double Jeopardy: Hooking the Reader's Brains and Heart)

4. Make an intellectual connection with the reader

For some novels it’s about the puzzle, not the people. Unraveling the details and untangling the clues are what keeps readers hooked. Predictable plots and obvious solutions don’t hold their attention, and they’re not reading for the deep emotional character journey.
  • Give readers an unpredictable plot that keeps them guessing
  • Challenge them intellectually
  • Don’t go for the obvious answers—dig deeper
  • Keep surprising them with interesting reveals and solutions

If the point of the novel is to resolve a puzzle (whatever type that may be), make sure it’s a puzzle with enough pieces to make it worth your reader’s time.

(Here’s more on 4 Reasons Readers Stopped Caring About Your Story)

Novels that do more that simply explain a plot are the ones that readers remember and talk about. Make sure your novel captivates your readers, and give them a story worth reading, and not just a story you wanted to write.

What are your favorite novels as a reader? What about as a writer? Is there a difference?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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. Great article, Janice! I love the topic of reader psychology and how to appeal to their brain chemistry to keep them hooked. A great resource I've found on the subject is Jeff Gerke's "The Irresistible Novel." He goes into detail on several of the points you discussed here.

    1. Thanks! I haven't read that, but Ill have to take a peek. Lisa Cronin's "Wired for Story" is also in that vein and very good. You should check out Bonnie Randall's articles if you haven't already. She write about psychology and writing fairly often, as that's her background.