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 lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post. Head-hopping bothered me in two novels I read this year. I do like the classics with omniscient POV’s, but fast head hopping is something else entirely. Makes me dizzy.:-) Both books would have been more fun to read if each scene stuck with only one POV.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, somewhat counter-intuitively, omniscient is actually one of the most difficult POVs to do well.

      • Linda Binkley says:

        I hope I am leaving this comment on the proper place. Thank you for the very deep and detailed post. I always get so much from your posts. Please keep them coming. Linda Writer-in-Progress.

      • jancat051066 says:

        About head-hopping: I’ve noticed a trend where some Romances will be in one POV for the first half of a scene then in another for the rest of the scene. Specifically, the shift begins with a new paragraph and seems to work. It’s not jarring like when the shift happens in the same paragraph. Is this a new thing? I’ve yet to write a scene like that. Thoughts?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s not head-hopping if the shift in POV is indicated with a scene or chapter break. Romances usually feature both leads POVs, so this is accepted, even encouraged.

  2. My pet peeve is the author lowering the stakes after the midpoint, such as making an antagonist less keen to afflict the protagonist, perhaps to finish the story sooner or to protect the protagonist. It ruins the reading experience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the Midpoint should be one of the most amped moments in a story. Everything ratchets higher after that.

  3. Julie Jones says:

    So many great points in this post! I’m bookmarking this one.

  4. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing the benefit of your reading experience this year! I once went to the B & N website, chose a genre, and read the opening chapters of everything on the page (one or two per author). I was amazed, & bored, by the number of times the story began with out-of-context dialogue followed by “I’ll explain” or “Let me explain” or “Maybe I should explain”, or some such variant. It was a great lesson in what not to do.

  5. Brenda Felber says:

    You’ve explained some things that I felt in some of the recent books I’ve read. I’m going to focus on reading with my “writerly brain” more fully engaged🤓Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We often hear writers lament that what they’re learning about being writers ruins the reading experience for them. There’s some truth to this, since our awareness of bad writing inevitably (hopefully) grows. But it’s also a blessing, since it allows us to sort through the “bad” fiction and appreciate the really good stuff.

  6. Very helpful. Thanks for this post. I am new to both reading and writing fiction. Can you give an example or two of some light/popular/accessible novels that did a good job in these points you described?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Terry Pratchett immediately pops to mind. He wrote deceptively “light” comedic fantasy that was always about more than it seemed on the surface. His books Guards! Guards! and especially its sequel Men at Arms are great examples.

      • Mary Nuttall says:

        I agree about Terry Pratchett, and those Discworld titles in particular. I have often recommended them as entry points into the whole Discworld universe, because they work so well on many levels and are so engaging. These 2 titles deftly give just enough setup to understand the setting and no more.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Not all of Pratchett’s stuff is as tight as those particular entries, but everything I’ve read from him is worthwhile.

      • Ah yes, Terry Pratchett. Night Watch (I think that’s the English title, I read it in Dutch) was haunting me for months.

        I also liked his book about soccer, I have no idea what it’s called in English. On the surface a fun story about soccer, but at the same time he shows great insight in human nature, society, and hooligans.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s the thing about Pratchett: on the surface, he sometimes just seems silly, until you realize the wealth of insight he brings to the table.

  7. Stacia Ahlfeld says:

    Awesome post! I agree with the “average novel” cliche problem entirely. Some of my other favorite authors do it sometimes, and I get so disappointed. Thank you for setting a higher standard!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, unfortunately several of the books that disappointed me this year were anticipated sequels to amazing first books.

      • Leslie K Simmons says:

        What kept coming to mind while reading this post (and reading several novels that met the criteria of NOT being above average) is, how do they managed to get published in the first place? With so many people out there trying to get published (with probably some fairly awesome stuff never making it), why would a publisher put something out that is just ‘blah’?

        I’d be interested in seeing a post about making a killer submission to a publisher that will get them interested in your work…and about how to make those first 50 pages compelling enough to peek their interest. Of course all the basics you talk about, but any special tips you might have?

  8. Lorilyn Roberts says:

    Great post.

  9. Casandra Merritt says:

    Multiple POVs are hard to do well. It seems like a good idea at first, but some stories would have a much tighter focus using limited. I considered doing multiple POVs, but then I realized that my favorite stories are almost always ones that use limited.

  10. Sherry Rector says:

    Great post, Katie. Thanks. I have 3 pet peeves that I became aware of while reading books by 2 very well-known, traditionally published fantasy authors and one of my favorite SF authors (also well-known and traditionally published).

    The first fantasy author started her book out with the protagonist sitting in a communications center, or headquarters, reminiscing about the past and speculating about what was happening during a battle that was currently raging. Then different characters started coming in (one at a time) to take a break or get a wound bandaged. They would grab a cup of coffee and sit down at the table with the protagonist to discuss the war. No action. Everything was happening off-screen. I was getting fairly bored by the third chapter, but I kept reading because she was a popular author so I figured it had to get better. By half-way through the book nothing had changed. People were still coming in just to talk to the protagonist about the war that was going on outside. That was it for me. My state of mind had progressed from anticipation, to boredom, to annoyance, and then anger that the author had wasted my time. Keep the action on the page.

    A male dragon was the first character introduced in the second fantasy author’s book. For the first 5-7 pages, this male dragon was contemplating whether or not his human male was okay and when he would return. Then the dragon started obsessing over whether or not he should go out and look for his human, or just wait for him to come back. His thoughts ran along the lines of: “He told me to stay here, so if I try to find him, he might be upset with me. But what if he’s in trouble? I would never forgive myself if he was killed! Oh, dear me! What should I do?” He sounded like an overly-emotional creature ready to burst into tears who couldn’t make a decision if his life depended on it. Not my definition of a dragon or a strong character. The first chapter was so annoying that I quit reading and gave the book to Goodwill. Don’t create pathetic characters or waste time dithering.

    The SF author is a Hugo Award winner and has some excellent books on the market, so I was looking forward to his new series. Unfortunately, the first book of this series was bland, underdeveloped, and disappointing. My impression was that he or his publisher figured he could just kick back, throw a few words onto the page, and not worry about making this book exceptional. Since the author’s reputation had already been established and he has a lot of fans, the book would sell anyway. Much as I liked his first series, I am unlikely to purchase this new series, particularly at traditional publishing prices. Don’t bore the reader.

    Sorry for the long-winded rant! I tend to overwrite. I’m working on being more concise, but it is a struggle.

    • Unfortunately, too many authors are being influenced to the “write to market” and “rapid release” trends and are not producing quality books, although they would disagree with that statement. Readers trade hard-earned cash to be entertained by reading for a few hours. Authors need to keep their end of the bargain and provide well-written stories.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great rundown of problematic story openers. I hope everyone reads this.

  11. Great post. Some things I think I am doing subconsciously. Like characters with agency. I like the idea of things not turning out as they should because individual character’s agendas and back stories motivate them in ways that do not fit in with other characters.(without dwelling too much on back story) I like the idea of things heading off in one direction until something happens to pull the rug out from under a character in an unsuspected way. But hinted at for the eye of the reader. I am now reading books and the enjoyment is diminished when I see the climax happening structurally too late (even though understanding it has to be this way for the way the individual plot progresses). Or writing peppered with the word “that”. Or an Historical Romance which has soooo much historical research and detail bogging down the plot. Before I would read and think it was interesting and something to learn from. Now I wonder how it was accepted by the publisher. Point taken about repetition. I have been guilty of this too. A character who wallows too much in the past. I’ll be reading this post often. So much to remember. Many thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Repetition is such an easy pitfall to stumble into for authors, simply because we take so comparatively long to write a book. Descriptions that a writer may ingest all within the space of an hour may have taken us years to write. Often, we initially include the repetition merely as a reminder to *ourselves.* But this is where attentive editing comes into play.

      • Mary Nuttall says:

        Attentive editing… YES! It’s ok to ramble & repeat in a first draft in order to get a story out on the page, but going back later to cut out repetition and fine tune the whole story is essential. Some of the disappointing genre fiction I read would be far more successful with sharper editing.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Ultimately, good writing–and even more, good editing–is really just about learning to recognize and chop the self-indulgent bits.

        • Totally agree. Even some best-selling traditionally-published authors don’t seem to be edited very well these days. I wonder if it’s something to do with getting a book out on a certain date rather than making it excellent.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            There’s definitely something to be said for the art of staying young and hungry.

  12. Mary George says:

    Thank you, Ms. Weiland, for another priceless checklist.
    Yup. What the unsuspecting could-be author finds out after writing that first novel, is that most – if not all – of your ten points listed will have been infringed upon. The amount of deleting, rearranging, clarifying, re-phrasing and rewriting is demoralizing, because sure enough, we dove off the cliff with an irrelevant backstory. Or two. Had our main characters engage in an artful conversation that foreshadowed something, but ended up going nowhere. Missed the opportunity to get to the hard truth behind the protagonist’s reasons for doing what she did – or did not – do. Took the story down Too Predictable Lane. Didn’t rewrite enough to embellish and stylize all those robotic data dumps.
    What I mean to say – admit – is that there is shame in writing. Writing badly. And at the same time, lacking some semblance of story, to qualify the first (and second, third and fourth) revisions, or what LaMott refers to as the “sh*tty first drafts.”
    Well, here’s the truth: every time someone like you calls out other writers to “fix it!” as in: “umm, you can delete this,” or “what does this have to do with the story?” or “can you turn up the argument here, and have him call her on the lies,” or, “doesn’t sound like something she would say,” – every time you remind us to do better, some of us will. That’s what repetitive revision does. With the right feedback, a writer always has the opportunity to take that revision to the next level, to align the story with the best words. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hear, hear! It *does* feel demoralizing sometimes. But don’t look at it that way. Look at as one of the many stepping stones that *will* lead you down the path to being a better writer.

  13. So many great ideas here. This post is a keeper.
    I agree with you, intellectualism should not be divorced from entertainment.
    Of the ten, ‘having style’ is probably the hardest to get right.
    Great post, K.M.!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the “it” factor is arguably the hardest, if only because it’s the hardest to define. It differs from author to author, so there isn’t always a defined set of guidelines for achieving it. Readers may not be able to explain it, but they always know it when they see it.

  14. Regarding No. 5: one of my critique partners helped me immeasurably by asking me “What’s his motivation for falling in love with her?” Figuring out the answer to that question (and its corresponding opposite) didn’t require changing my plot, but it did mean that I had to put stuff on the page that was previously only in my head. Maybe only in my subconscious.

    In too many romances, the only motivation they have is that they’re attractive, or they’re convenient. Or they fall in love because their author made them. That’s unsatisfying.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point. This is an tremendously easy pitfall to stumble into–one I’ve fallen into myself on occasion.

  15. Ms. albina says:

    Great article. You are a great writer. My current WIP Leilani’s tells her grandchildren about her life by asking her questions about Leilani’s past. The books that I don’t read are vampires and werewolves or the hunger game series and I don’t like books by Stephen King because his books at to scary and also to weird for me to read even though I have seen the movie the stand which was a movie that he wrote as a book which I didn’t like.

  16. This is a great checklist!

    This year, I had three books with the wrong protagonist. The intended protagonists didn’t have a goal, they didn’t move the plot. Other characters did, and they would be better and more interesting protagonists.

  17. I feel the same way about a lot of the books I’ve read this year!! I keep seeing the same problems over and over, and it really dampens my enjoyment. Just because a story may be “light” in tone or content doesn’t mean that I don’t expect a certain level of quality there; and if I don’t find it, I’m annoyed.

    So I can only assume (and hope!) that readers will be just as discriminating when I publish my own novels. 😉

    Biggest common problem I’ve seen: Romances that aren’t worth rooting for and that drag the whole story down.

  18. Casandra Merritt says:

    I recently got Structuring Your Novel and Creating Character Arcs for my birthday. I just thought I should let you know: When I opened one of them, a page literally fell out. That was probably a coincidence, because it hasn’t happened since. But I also noticed several typos in the workbooks, such as squished together sentences. Otherwise, everything is very well put together on your part. It might be something with the publishing company. I thought you might appreciate me telling you so you could let them know.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sorry about the page! Sounds like it was a bum copy. I’d be happy to see it replaced for you if you’d like.

  19. I expect exceptional content here, but this post is exceptionally exceptional, but not very unexpectedly so. Nice work!

    My peeves: A prize winner in a highly prestigious competition had a double negative on page 2 that went completely against the author’s intent. How did that get past an editor? I have a theory, but…

    A well-known author’s minion made 3 major procedural errors in a police procedural: (1) failure to immediately interview everyone at the crime scene, (2) failure to cover a back door on a stake-out, and (3) not finding a large secret room in a main building. “Boy, I don’t know how we missed that!” says the #2 cop. I told him, but he, being fictional, didn’t hear me. My neighbors probably did.

    I downloaded two scripts of Oscar nominees last year. I didn’t get to page 20 in either one.

    I suspect there’s a sort of Gresham’s Law of Literature to the effect that bad writing drives out good writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I very much agree with the “Gresham’s Law” notion. However, I have a lot of optimism that we’re currently at the beginning of a swing back to enhanced quality across mediums.

  20. Casandra Merritt says:

    No need! I’m sure that rarely ever happens…only to me. It’s called birthday luck lol. But I am still very satisfied with it overall. I have a question about beginnings. In a historical novel, how long can you possibly go without mentioning the date and year (the first chapter, opening line)? It seems kind of boring to open a book with a date, but how long can I put it off without confusing readers?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Unless the specific year is important, you just need to establish the general period via context–and that needs to be done immediately. But I usually cheat and stick in a brief header under the first chapter–e.g., Surrey, England, 1820.

  21. Casandra Merritt says:

    Sounds like a good idea. They do this in movies all the time.

  22. I really like this post. And I agree with you about every character being able to have his own fate in his hands, characters are more interesting when they are both the victim and the hero

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It kinda goes back to the old dictum about “every character being the hero of their own story.”

  23. This is a great list!

    The note about character agency strikes a chord with me (Some cheesy guitarist humor. You’re welcome 😉 ). If a character’s only purpose is to be rescued by the hero, then he or she might as well be an inanimate object.

    I’m also a sucker for true stakes. So many books have stakes that could be so good, but lose their power because the characters have escaped (unscathed) from similar circumstances in previous scenes. That’s probably why I love good scene structure so much (Disasters! Cue the maniacal laughter of an author as they write their protagonist on a battlefield, lying among the bloodied bodies of his comrades as the antagonist skips off with a smirk on his face 🙂 ).

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