Fiction’s big-picture fundamentals are things that apply to the entire story or novel—characters, plot, concept, and structure. They are crucial to a well-told tale. It doesn’t matter how exquisite your sentences are or how interesting a character is. If the basic situation is a cliché, or the plot is confusing, or there’s no tension, readers are going to put the book down and walk away.
Big-picture fundamentals express the whole.
Just about every story has characters, and usually they’re human (although in children’s fiction, particularly, they can often be animals).
If you think about your favorite books, or a book you’ve liked recently, it’s probably the main character who comes to mind first. Learning how to write an interesting main character is a skill, and it can be learned.
So where do you start? Well, here are some things to think about:
- Wants (what they desire, and why)
- Obstacles (external, internal, interpersonal)
- Gifts (“good” traits, or strengths or abilities)
- Flaws (“bad” traits, or weaknesses, or inabilities)
- Context (time, place, community)
- Stakes (what’s at stake for them)
They aren’t really separate—nothing in stories is really separate from other elements. And you wouldn’t expect to know all this when you start a story or a novel. But it can help to think about these things as you write, because they will tell you more about what might happen, and what might go wrong.
What’s more important: character, or plot?
Both. Without a good character, nobody cares what happens. And without a halfway decent plot, we don’t get to see the character in action.
You can have ideas for the plot first, but you still need create a character to inhabit that particular reality and sequence of events, a character that people will want to read about.
Plot is how the story’s told: what happens, in what order, from whose point of view. Plot shows characters in action.
There are many ways to build a plot. I like the simplest one, which is to start with what you know. I’d suggest you write down everything you think might happen in your novel or story. No idea is too out there.
Then, really think about your character. Sometimes I start with just an image: a person on a train, or a cleaning lady in outer space. Then I think about what they want. The fuel for many stories is conflict and complications, which come from desires. This is bigger than the wants on a scene-by-scene level.
Third, look for a dilemma. In fact your characters’ desires can be, and often are, about a dilemma. Dilemma is a choice between two equally awful things.
The dilemma poses a large question, which playwrights sometimes call the central dramatic question. I won’t go into the central dramatic question in depth here, except to say that it’s what the reader wants to know by the end of the book. Example: Will Jane Eyre find a home with people she loves? Will Goldilocks get eaten by the bears?
In some genres the central dramatic question is easy to find. In murder mysteries, the central dramatic question is “who done it?” In romances, it’s “will there be a happily ever after?”
Stakes and Character Arc Help Create Plot
Stakes help drive the narrative, create opportunities for conflict, build tension, and keep the reader interested.
Stakes have to do with the “who cares” aspect of a story. If the reader doesn’t really care what happens to the characters, they’ll just put the book down.
Certain genres have big stakes—the fate of the human race hangs in the balance. Other stories might have what seem to be low stakes.
In both cases, it’s the writer’s task to connect the reader to the character strongly enough so that what matters to the character will also matter to the reader. In that way, stakes are tied in with characterization, credibility, logic, the skill of the writer, and the depth of the reading experience.
Finally, character arc. If you’re writing a standalone story or novel (vs. a series), the depth of the reader’s emotional involvement often hinges on the protagonist’s growth and transformation through ordeal. In my experience as a fiction editor, characters who grow through the story make it extra interesting, especially if it’s a one-off vs. a series character.
And the way to growth and transformation in many cases–in life, as in stories–is through an ordeal. I find in my own writing that my plots can be flat when I shy away from putting my characters into horrible situations. Don’t be afraid to make them suffer. Remembering not to protect your characters will help you create a more interesting reading experience.
We want real life to be easy, but fiction doesn’t work that way.
Concept and Premise
Concept is the big idea behind the story. It’s a way of thinking about the narrative that will help you make sure yours hangs together, and that you can explain it to someone else easily. That matters if you’re trying to sell a novel to people in publishing, or even trying to explain it to other writers or writing teachers.
There are other good reasons to think about concept and premise while you’re on the first draft.
Understanding how readers evaluate whether a book is up their alley, and learning how to describe it clearly and in an interesting way, can help you peel away the layers of words in the manuscript itself and get to the heart of what your story is about.
And that is something you definitely want to know. Not just to sell it when you’re done all the work of writing it, but to help you write it better for yourself.
Premise refers to a short description of the what happens to the characters in your particular novel–not what they look like, but what they go through. As writer and editor Sarah Cypher puts it in her very useful little book, the Editor’s Lexicon, the premise answers the question, why is this an interesting story?
It’s a concise description of the story that includes the character, the scenario, and the main conflict. Who it’s about, what their problem is, what they need to do to fix it, and what will happen if they fail.
To be clear, premise does not to be hooky or commercial, but it can be. If it’s appealing to a wide commercial readership, great. But writers don’t write books just to be successful writers. They write them because they want to tell a particular story.
Finally, structure. Two hundred years ago, in the early days of the novel form, the chapters had subtitles like, “Chapter 1, in which our hero is born,” which would show the reader how the book was built. Not so much these days, although one of the great things about writing fiction is you can try anything you want.
To my mind, any story or novel’s structure is not a rigid thing—it’s all fluid until you have completed the final draft, and even beyond that point.
The purpose of thinking about structure is to help you give the reader a compelling experience. It can also help on the practical level, while you’re writing, in that you might be able to see a progression in your story just by using three-act structure to sort the scenes you know have to happen into either the beginning, middle, or end.
But stories don’t have to be linear, though many of them are. And three-act structure isn’t the only way to write a story or a novel. Western writers have tended to lean into the three-act Freytag triangle screenwriting rules, which originate back with Aristotle. (This geekery around dramatic structure has been going on for centuries!)
Of course there are many ways to write a book other than “inciting incident, plot point, new information, etc. etc.” Real novels don’t necessarily fit the Hollywood mold.
The point with structure is to let the story’s organic shape be your guide AND to help it along, once you know something about what its organic shape will be.
If you are going for 3- act structure, do it as well as you can. If you’re doing something else, that’s okay. Do that as well as you can. Really think about structure as this container that will help you strengthen your story.