The 10-Step Checklist to Writing an Above-Average Novel

10 STEPS TO WRITING AN ABOVE-AVERAGE NOVEL“Anybody can write a novel.” Writers sometimes hear that statement from dismissive nonwriter family and friends. Rightfully, we dislike the insinuation, since we know full well how much education, talent, skill, effort, and dedication is required for “anybody” to write a novel. Still, there is a certain measure of truth in the idea that “anybody can write a novel.” An average novel, that is.

A above-average novel though?

That’s something else again.

Or actually, is it?

I believe every one of us has the opportunity to write not just write a book, but something that rises above the pack to truly meaningful and impactful storytelling.

But doing so starts by recognizing the common mistakes, pitfalls, and stereotypes that dog mediocre fiction.

Get Started on a Amazing, Above-Average Novel With These 10 Steps

First: a little personal background on this post. For me, this year was one of major transitions, including a big move. As a result of all the craziness going on in my outer life, I wasn’t feeling too ambitious in my reading (although I did crack Proust). This year, I read a lot of what I call “popcorn” fiction. In other words, easy reads. And… I was disappointed by almost all of it.

The problem wasn’t that these stories were lightweight—that’s exactly what I wanted them to be. Rather, the problem was that they all suffered from unnecessary contrivances and cliches. And the most interesting thing was that, for the most part, they all suffered from the same contrivances and cliches, regardless of genre.

Now, before someone comes back with the inevitable response that “lightweight” fiction need not be concerned with the finer nuances of great literature, let me put forth my absolute disagreement. We need good fiction. We need cerebral classics like Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time, but we need good “light” fiction just as much. Indeed, “light” fiction has the opportunity to be tremendously impactful, if only because it is so accessible.

Just as much as we need heavy-duty stories that offer complicated critiques of society, we also need simple stories of romance and adventure—ones that are not dumbed down or sloppily presented. Entertainment and intellectualism should not exist at polar ends of the spectrum.

The most intellectual fiction should optimally be the most entertaining. And the most entertaining of our stories should optimally be the most impactful.

That’s why today I’ve collated some straightforward solutions to the top ten problems I noticed in “average” fiction this year. The primary antidote to almost all these problems is simple awareness. If you, as an author, can learn to spot these problems, analyze their existence in your own stories, and consciously work your way past them, you’re well on your way to writing an above-average novel.

1. Have a Plot

This one should be obvious—especially to writers of genre books. But not so much, apparently.

So what is plot? That question, of course, is one we talk about a lot on this blog (most recently in this post: How to Choose Your Story’s Plot Points). But today I’m going to sum it up like this: plot is a well-structured story with a cohesive point.

Most genre stories at least pretend they have a plot (the boy and the girl fall in love, the space captain fights the aliens, etc.). But too few execute that plot consciously on every page and every level of their story (i.e., plot > character > theme). Too many rely on random events and coincidences (e.g., the boy and the girl just happen to keep bumping into each other around every corner) that strain suspension of disbelief.

2. Give Your Characters Strong Desires and Goals

The fastest route to a solid plot is via your characters’ desires. What do these people want? I don’t mean some general principle like love or peace. And I don’t even mean just a plot goal (e.g., kill those aliens!). I’m talking about making sure every scene features a solid, driving, urgent desire and a resultant goal.

Too often, writers let characters wander around aimlessly (e.g., the depressed female lead is staring out over her favorite view of the Golden Gate Bridge again) or with only nominal goals (e.g., the space captain is on a routine inspection). This can be because the authors didn’t originally know what was going to happen next. Rather, they just turned their characters loose on the page and waited to see what happened. That’s fine in the first draft, but the rambling needs to be cleaned up in subsequent drafts.

Give every single character in every single scene a strong desire and a related goal—then turn them loose on each other.

3. Make Sure Your Characters Spend More Time Doing Stuff Than Talking About a) What They’ve Already Done / b) What They’re Going to Do

Whenever I find myself reading a needlessly wordy, rambling narrative in which nothing is actually happening, I often think of the wise words of Mattie Ross in True Grit:

I’m not paying for talk!

A character’s internal narrative is important. Readers want to understand a character’s inner landscape and inner process. In the hands of the right author, this kind of internal narrative can, in fact, make up the majority or even the entirety of the book (although never, I daresay, in genre fiction).

However, it’s important to note that characters who are interesting enough to move the story forward via large chunks of meaningful philosophizing are entirely distinct from characters who sit around rehearsing unnecessary information.

The greatest culprits of “unnecessary” information fall into the following two categories:

1. Backstory

Learning how to properly disseminate backstory information is an important (and often tricky) skill for authors. My rule of thumb is “never share backstory until it is necessary to the plot; until then, just drop delicious hints.” But even if you have, in fact, waited until the perfect moment to share backstory, you must still be on guard against repeating it. One book I read this year spent what I estimate was fully a quarter of its word count having its protagonist either think about or talk about her tragic backstory—the same information over and over and over again.

2. “Sequel” Scenes

The “sequel” half of scene structure (i.e., Scene: Goal > Conflict > Outcome; Sequel: Reaction > Dilemma > Decision), in which characters react to previous events before deciding how to respond, is vital to a well-structured story. So much character development happens in these scenes. They are also vital to creating a sense of realism via an unbroken chain of cause and effect.

However, it is far too easy to fall into the trap of using these scenes either to simply rehash the dramatic events that just happened or the characters’ plans for what will happen. Both of these almost inevitably fall into the category of “telling.” Readers only need to be told once—and when you can show them instead of telling them, always show them.

4. Ruthlessly Chop Dramatic Subplots That Only Exist to Create Exciting Climaxes

An oft-referenced screenwriting principle is that of creating an emotional “B story” to augment the plot’s main “A story.” Although this approach offers some immediately practicable benefits, I dislike its suggestion that there can be “two stories.” Bottom line: every piece of your story must contribute to the big picture of plot and theme. If any subplot doesn’t do that, then it doesn’t belong.

Very often, genre stories will include a suspense subplot (commonly seen in romance novels) or a relationship subplot (commonly seen in action novels), either of which matters very little, if at all, to the story’s overall thematic presentation. That’s problematic in itself, but when these decidedly minor subplots are then leveraged into the all-important limelight of the Climax, just to provide an extra punch at the end, the story’s overall cohesion fractures all the more.

5. Make Your Characters Earn Their Romances

If your story features a romance, make sure you’re representing it with realistic nuance. Create realistic relationships, in which both people fight their demons in order to be together; in which both people make mistakes and suffer the consequences; in which both people have to earn their happiness together. Because, seriously, I swear I’m gonna die if I read one more wish-fulfillment romance in which some ridiculously hot, but utterly vapid guy doggedly pursues a self-absorbed heroine just because she’s the heroine. (And vice versa.)

6. Give Every Character Someone to Talk to

What’s the most interesting part of a story? Everybody’s mileage is going to vary a little on this one, but I’ll bet most of us would agree our favorite parts are where characters get together and talk to each other. Dialogue is one of the most entertaining and most utilitarian aspects of any story. So much can be accomplished with good dialogue—everything from character development to plot advancement.

But this only works when one character has another character to talk to. And it works so much better when the two characters doing the talking actually have a relationship of some sort and therefore something at stake within the relational aspect of the scene.

This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many books scatter their fantastic characters to the four corners of the globe, effectively preventing them from talking to each other for the entirety of their stories. So just tell me this: which would you rather read: a story in which the two best characters talk to each other regularly—or a story in which they don’t?

Put your best characters in a room together. If you can’t do so for plot reasons, then it’s time to create another interesting character.

7. Include Only Purposeful POVs

Point of view is a complex subject, so I’m not even going to get into basic principles and pitfalls, such as avoiding head-hopping. Rather, since this is a post about how to make the jump from average fiction to above-average, I’m going to talk about a one-up tactic: managing POVs to create an overall effect.

In short, don’t include scenes from random POV characters. Even those characters whose viewpoint you purposefully choose to use throughout the story need to be chosen to carefully present the plot to optimal effect. Recent trends aside, the best principle for above-average POV usage remains: the fewer, the better.

8. Make Sure All Characters Have Agency

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is Karpman’s “drama triangle”—a social model that calls attention to the negative ramifications of casting ourselves and others in one or more of three relational roles: villain, victim, and hero.

So many of our accepted narratives are hero-based: somebody needs to be saved, so somebody else has to do the saving. Although this model certainly lives up to its name in providing drama, it also further ingrains social mindsets that are ultimately damaging.

Recent decades have offered a lot of kickback against the presentation of female characters in the victim role of a “damsel in distress” who needs to be saved by a “hero.” I believe this idea should extend to all your characters. Naturally, it’s only realistic to put certain characters in situations where they require aid (even rescue) from other characters, but challenge yourself (as I’m currently trying to do myself) to make sure all characters have agency. All characters—even those most physically helpless—should be given responsibility for their own fates. It’s phenomenal how much character development can result from just this simple mindset tweak.

9. Play By Your Own Rules

This one is important for all authors, but particularly for those writing multi-book stories. Whether you’re creating complex magic systems or simply sharing a character’s backstory or even just applying foreshadowing hints in the first part of a story—you must be consistent. Readers trust you. They believe that what you tell them is so. If that turns out to not be the case, even if it’s just the result of negligence on your part, the results can vary from a simple intellectual wrinkling of the nose to an emotional chucking of your book. Either way, it’s not in anybody’s interest. You made these rules for your story; it’s only fair you remember to follow them.

10. Have Style

You can get an A+ on all of the previous nine principles of above-average writing, but it probably won’t matter if readers end up labeling your book “bland.” Truly memorable stories are usually less memorable for what they share than they are for how they share it. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean you need a gimmick, but it does mean you need panache. This starts with creating charismatic characters, moves on to find its foundation in solid control over every structural decision, and ends with a distinctive narrative voice.

***

Ultimately, being able to write an above-average novel requires nothing more than the commitment to keep learning what an excellent story looks like—and doesn’t look like. Keep your writerly brain turned on whenever you read a new book. Take note of what works for you, what doesn’t, and how you can employ those lessons in your own fiction to strengthen the best bits and eliminate the weak parts. Here’s to each of us writing our personal best story in the coming year!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is a common pitfall you noticed in the novels you read this year—and why do you think it kept these books from being as good as they might have been? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. “1. Have a plot”
    Well, that sets the tone fast.
    This article’s interesting because much of what you discuss is brought up in Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman’s How Not to Write a Novel. Considering those two were editors, and that they said they tend to not publish novels with these problems makes me wonder if what you were reading went through the traditional editorial processes.

  2. Nana Kwarteng says:

    You’re a genius, KM. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. This checklist rounds up perfectly the things I need and the things I have to remind myself of in my current WIP. Excellent post. Here’s to a very productive 2019.

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