Monday, February 01, 2021

If Nothing Changes in Your Novel, You Have No Story

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

No matter how exciting a scene might be, if it doesn’t change anything in the story, it’s not doing your novel any good.

If there’s one thing that’s constant in all novels, it’s change. No matter what genre, a character experiences a series of events and things are different by the end of the tale. The more character-focused the novel, the greater and more personal this change is likely to be, but it appears in even the most plot-centric books as well.
  • A mystery starts off with a victim and ends up with a killer caught and justice served.
  • A thriller starts off with someone in jeopardy and ends up with people saved.
  • A fantasy starts off with a hero facing a quest and ends up with that quest fulfilled.

The “big change” is what the book is ultimately about, but changes exist at every structural level of the novel. Plot events change how characters act, character realizations change how the plot unfolds, information revealed changes how readers and characters see and understand the story itself and the people in it.

What if things don’t change?

Then all you’re really doing is describing a situation. “Here’s a story about these people living their lives and doing what they do.”

And this is why an exciting idea can fall flat when it’s written.

Change is what turns a situation into a story worthy of a novel.

Would you rather read a story about a guy who shows up at a party and goes home later, or a story about a guy who shows up at a party and gets arrested? The second story sounds far more interesting, because something has changed.

It doesn’t even have to be this dramatic to show change. Example two could be, “Or a story about a guy who shows up at a party and meets the love of his life.” Or a long-lost brother. Or a guy who looks exactly like him. Anything works, as long as something changes in the guy’s life when he goes to that party.

A lot of struggling novels only have the guy going to the party. Things happen around him, but his life doesn’t change. He isn’t offered any opportunity to be better, or learn, or solve a problem he’s having. He doesn’t have any deep, profound revelations about his life or his world.

He just goes to the party.

If you’ve ever gotten feedback from your beta readers or critique partners that said, “It doesn’t feel like anything is happening,” or “this section felt slow,” or something similar, there’s a decent chance it’s because nothing has changed. Figure out what changed and how that affects the story moving forward, and you’ll probably fix your problem.

(Here’s more on A Common Reason Novels Fail)

Change exists in every aspect of a strong novel.

A scene is nothing more than a small example of change happening. A character starts with a goal, has to do or experience something related to that goal, and then things change. It could be a small change or a momentous discovery that alters everything the character ever knew about themselves and the world.

In character-driven stories, the changes are typically more profound, as the character arc and the growth of that character are paramount to the novel. The character will have a flaw that’s preventing happiness, and it’s only by experiencing the events of the novel can that character find happiness and feel whole as a person. The novel is about watching that person go from unhappy to happy, unsatisfied to satisfied.
  • Lonely people find love
  • An unfulfilled life finds purpose
  • The downtrodden stand up

In plot-driven stories, the changes are typically external, with the change occurring in the world the characters inhabit. There’s a problem that’s affecting others (it can be anywhere between one person or all people), and that problem must change or else. The novel is about watching how a situation is resolved and the consequences of resolving it.
  • The bomb is disarmed and the city is safe
  • The evil overlord is thwarted and the land is free
  • The killer is caught and the victim is found

This is why change works in all genres and story types. It’s universal, because stories are about change at the core.

(Here’s more on Is Your Novel Exploring an Idea or Solving a Problem?)

Change is more than things that happened.

If all we do is talk about things that happened to a character, that’s gossip, not a story. And depending on what’s happening, it might not even be good gossip.

If a guy leaves his house and has five consecutive car chases, and ends up back at home by the end of it with nothing but an empty gas tank, then nothing has happened, even if those were five of the most exciting individual car chases ever written. Odds are by the third one, readers were skimming, because the chases didn’t matter. They didn’t change anything, they simply happened.

Which is super frustrating, because a common piece of writing advice is “make things happen to your characters.” It’s one of those annoying writing contradictions, because it doesn’t give you all you need to know. “Have things happen that change the situation and/or character and move the plot and/or story” is more accurate.

(Here’s more on The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Make Plotting Your Novel Way Easier)

Change is the point of the novel.

It might be external, such as saving the world, or internal, such as finding yourself, but the protagonist and/or the world they live in is different by the end of the novel than it was at the beginning.

Let’s say we’re writing about firemen (an exciting group of people). The entire book revolves around a crew sitting in the fire station waiting for the alarm to go off so they can go put out a fire or save people who need saving.

But the bell never rings.

No fires, no crisis, they just hang around and do whatever they normally do while they’re waiting for action.

That’s going to be a pretty dull book, and I’d bet no one would want to read it. But before you can say, “Yeah, but if the story is about the firemen themselves, and their relationships and what happens in the firehouse, then it could be a great book.”

Sure, if those relationships change. If not, it’s still reading about a bunch of guys hanging around a firehouse, waiting. If the situation at the start of the novel is six guys talking about their lives, and ends with the same six guys talking about the same lives and nothing is different, and nothing about the 400 pages we just read affected those six guys in any way at all—odds are it’s a dull book.

Reader’s Friend: “What happens in the novel?”

Reader: “A bunch of guys in a firehouse talk about their lives.”

Reader’s Friend: “Why?”

Reader: “No reason.”

Reader’s Friend: “Was there a point to it?”

Reader: “Nope.”

Change makes things interesting. Change provides the conflict to drive the story. If the characters or the situation is exactly the same at the end as the beginning (be it a scene or a series), that’s a big red flag there’s a problem and the story isn’t being served.

(Here’s more on 3 Reasons That "Perfectly Good Scene" Is Boring Your Readers)

Pro-Tip: If you took out the scene, how would it affect the novel?

This is a handy way to test the changes in a scene. If something changed, and the events in the scene made a difference on the story, cutting it would change that story. If nothing is affected, odds are nothing changed.

Also remember, not every novel needs a full-on soul-searching character arc filled with angsty growth, or an adrenaline-pumping, action-packed subplot to make it work. Quieter changes can be just as effective, be they an emotional change or a physical one. Mix it up. Some changes might be small, while others will have huge impact.

Just think about the changes in your novel and what they mean to the story.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine what changes in the first chapter of your novel. What’s different at the end versus the beginning? Do this exercise for each chapter as well.

What changes in your novel?

*Originally published on Pub Crawl, May 20 2015. Last updated January 2021. 

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. Absolutely true.

    And " 'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot." --E M Forster. Changes are the essential building blocks, and the step after them is to show how they're tied together by cause and effect.