What makes a great book? Is it the story? The characters? The age-old conflict between good and evil? Or, perhaps, the thrilling richness of escaping into a fantastical new world?
From a business stand-point, what is it about a book that makes an editor or publisher sit up and take notice (or yawn and pour another cup of coffee)? Every truly wonderful story has that elusive element, the “X Factor,” if you will. But there are also key elements that almost always must be in place for a story to be effective.
In this two-part series, I’m going to put on my very fine editor’s hat and let you behind the scenes to see what I always look for in a manuscript. A doctor’s “check-up” for your manuscript, if you will, to see if it’s missing an appendage or two.
This week, in Part 1, we’ll look at the big picture questions you must know about your story, and next week we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of story structure and tension.
Elevator Pitch: Imagine you have 10-30 seconds between floors in an elevator to answer the question, “What’s your book about?” What can you say to “hook” the interest of a potential reader and make them say, “I want to know what happens to this character.”
(Editorial note: Do not try this in an actual elevator with an actual editor. Trust me. She just wants to finish her coffee and bagel).
Book Theme(s): What is the one, strong main theme of your story? No more than three, with a primary and two secondary themes. For example, the main theme of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is friendship.
Book Message: Can you sum up your book’s message in a brief sentence? For example, the message of the Lord of the Rings books and movies is,”Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
The message of the Lightkeepers series, YA urban fantasy by Kimberly McNeil: “If the ending’s not happy, it’s not the end. Turn the page.” The primary message of books 1 and 2 in the Destiny Trilogy, a space opera series by A.C. Williams: “We don’t need to know who we are to be who we are” (Nameless) and “Even when everything goes wrong, we can still trust God’s plan.” (Namesake)
You must know what message you want to communicate and to whom if you want to write an effective and powerful story.
Book Premise: What inherent conflict drives the plot and character development in your book? A hobbit must undertake a dangerous journey to destroy a dark lord and save Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings). A shy boy discovers he’s a famous wizard destined to save the world from an evil wizard (Harry Potter) A physically weak soldier with great courage and heart is souped up thanks to science and helps turn the course of World War II and defeat Hitler’s schemes (Captain America by Marvel).
Your premise must contain strong inherent tension or conflict and be easily summarized in a single sentence. If you can’t do that, you don’t know your story well enough yet.
Character Arc: Character is King. Every reader wants to experience the journey with your characters, to empathize with their triumphs and defeats and to grow with them throughout the course of the book or series.
A character’s growth throughout your story is called a character arc. Every character in your book needs one (or, in rare cases, be defined by choosing not to grow, which is its own kind of character arc) and it must be especially clear for your main character(s).
Where does the character start out? Where are they by the end of the book? How have they grown? What aspect of their personality or character (or physical disability) do they need to overcome to reach their goal? (In The King’s Speech, it was a speech impediment). What setbacks will they encounter, both inner and outer conflict?
The character arc should correspond to the points in the plot structure. A general rule is that if you can’t lay out a character arc in 1-3 sentences, you don’t understand it well enough yet.
Villain: Your story is only as strong as your villain. Does your book have an effective villain who is in direct opposition to your main character’s goals? A looming threat can be useful (i.e. The Eye of Sauron/dark lord) but there also needs to be a direct and immediate threat opposing your heroes (ringwraiths, a corrupting ring, Wormtongue, the madness of Denethor, orcs).
Your villains should be close and personal and named, even if the story is on an epic scale. Even epic stories are composed of individual characters, and it will only be as strong as those individual characters, no matter how awesome the plot.
So, there you have it! A super-quick checklist to see where you’re at in your novel-writing journey and if the skeleton of your novel is strong and solid. Trust me. You’ll thank me later. If you’ve discovered that your baby is missing a rib or two, don’t despair. Just consider it an opportunity to fix the problem, and move on.
Next week we’ll be looking at story and plot structure, and how to know if your story’s got what it takes. In the mean time, pop down to the comments and let me know what you’ve discovered about your novel and how you’re going to fix it! Keep writing.