Writing can be a tough job but you know what’s even more difficult? Self-diagnosing what’s not working in your novel. Maybe you’ve sent it to beta readers and gotten some negative feedback. Or you’ve been slogging through the writing but it just doesn’t seem to be tying together the way you planned.
So how do you figure out what’s wrong with your book? While there could be a myriad of potential issues that are very specific to the book you’re writing, this is a good time to go back to basics. So grab a pen and paper, take some notes, and let’s dive in.
1. Examine Your Plot Structure
When you’re trying to suss out if your book is working the way it should, the very first thing you need to do is examine your plot. First of all, it should have one. As obvious as this seems, you’d be amazed with the number of books that are problematic because they don’t have a plot. In other words, nothing happens in the book.
So what’s plot?
A plot is a series of inter-connected events that tells what happens in the story. These events are causally linked: one event causes the next, then the next, and so on. The plot begins with an inciting incident that spurs our protagonist into action to get a goal. As the protagonist chases this goal, the events of the story present tougher and tougher obstacles until the whole story reaches a pivotal moment—the climax—where the protagonist either reaches his goal or fails.
Describing a character’s journey does not equal plot. Yes, the character could be experiencing interesting things along the way. But plot must include that series of escalating obstacles, or conflict, keeping our protagonist from his goal.
2. Sketch Your Character Arc
Hand-in-hand with your plot (the what) is the character (the who). Determining your character arc is a vital part of understanding if your book is working. While your character is inhabiting the world you’re creating, that character must have a goal and personal stakes.
As your character fights to achieve their goal, the character is growing and changing and learning. That changing is the character arc. If your character leaves the story the same person they started, the story loses its power. This is why it’s such a great idea to build flaws into your characters, so that they must struggle against those flaws as they face obstacles. In fact, the obstacles that are presented to the character can be things that really bring out your character’s flaws. That’s juicy, great material to give us insight into who your character is and how this experience is causing a change.
3. Tend to Your Beginning and End
Once you’ve examined where your book should start and how it should end both with the character arc and the plot, it’s a good opportunity to look at how the beginning and end are working.
Your beginning should include a strong sense of who the character is before or when the story starts. This insight into their “green” or normal world, helps us better understand as readers what the character wants to go back to. On the other hand, if their green world is miserable, it can help us understand their goals and why they desire change. Either way, shortly after you begin, something should disrupt this green world: your inciting incident. Once this disruption happens, your character should have no choice but to proceed with the stories events to get their goal.
The end of your story should give readers a satisfying conclusion to the problem you’ve created for your character. The conflict you’ve created throughout the book needs to reach a boiling point, one where the character will either reach his goal or won’t. If the characters don’t succeed in their goal, readers should be satisfied with understanding why their lack of success makes for the best ending. This rewards your readers by offering them a denouement, where they understand what the ending means for your characters.
These concepts are often the main places that present trouble areas for writers. But once you’ve addressed these issues individually, it’s time to dig deeper and work on more nuanced writing craft: well-crafted prose, point of view, description, and dialogue are all important to that. But at the end of the day—that’s just editing. Get your structure right and you’ll have established a good foundation on which to build your story.