Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

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The Novel That Isn’t a Novel—Do You Really Have a Story?

We have been doing a lot of talking about structure lately because if we as writers don’t grasp structure? We can never deliver story. Sometimes to see what a novel IS, it helps to look at what the novel is NOT. Thus today I am going to pick on the most common “novels” I see that really are not novels.

Hey, just because we wrote 85,000 words does not mean it is a story.

Sucks. I know.

The “My Book is About Inner Demons” Novel

Code for: I have no clue how to plot so I am just going to wax rhapsodic and hope if I use enough BS and glitter, it will work.

Nope.

It won’t.

Last time we talked about inner demons, but inner demons alone are not enough. Inner demons are NOT a story.

All dimensional characters have inner demons. The inner demon is not proprietary to the literary genre (literary folks just have more leeway to camp out there). Commercial fiction—the good stuff, not the throwaway stories—have characters who are dealing with very real internal struggles and who conquer them.

These internal struggles are tossed into a crucible by the plot problem that makes the demons outwardly manifest. The characters are not simply solving any problem, rather the perfect problem, the one that will force the existential crisis that prompts change.

When I see a lot of internal thinking and more thinking and even more thinZZZZZZZZZ…….

Where was I?

*wipes drool off keyboard*

Oh yes, thinking. This is not a story. This is self-indulgent tripe.

Most people are not self-aware. Yes, we all battle with inner demons every day, but even regular people hire therapists at a hundred bucks an hour to help give them some clarity.

Why humans gravitate to story is that we may never be able to name our own demons, let alone conquer them. But in the fictional world? Victory is possible.

In the beginning the inner demon is only going to be reflected in the world-view (paradigm) of the protagonist.

For instance, we may show a workaholic (a protagonist with a work or achievement-centered paradigm). If the character is thinking and musing, Gee, I really work too much. My kids are growing up without a father. My wife no longer loves me. This character is TOO self-aware.

In the beginning, the protagonist believes the paradigm works and will scream and yell and cry when we Author God, rip it away.

He believes success=love, fulfillment, etc.

It is only when the plot problem challenges this belief, shatters it, pulls the blankie away, that the character is forced to rethink the worldview and uncover the WHY. Why do I feel I am only lovable if I have a phat paycheck?

If the character gains this internal insight at the beginning of the story, there is no room for growth and it is cheating. The protagonist has been given insight without the existential crisis.

There is no golden fleece without the quest.

Part of the tension that will keep pages turning is that the reader, much like any therapist, probably spots the protagonist’s baggage from the get-go. The tension is wondering if the protagonist will reach awareness before it is too late.

Remember that the protagonist would fail if pitted against the antagonist (BBT) in Scene One. The protagonist must evolve into a hero in order to triumph.

The “I Have Two (or 3 or 4 or 5) Protagonists” Novel

Nope, we need to ask, WHOSE STORY IS IT?

Remember we have been talking about creating a CORE STORY PROBLEM for our novel. This means there is ONE protagonist. When I get manuscripts where a bunch of stuff is happening and there are three or four or five POVs and I have no clue who I am supposed to be rooting for?

This is a huge red flag there is no core story problem. ONE character has the role of the protagonist. The reason is structure.

In Act Three the protagonist evolves into a hero (presses on when all others would have turned back). He alone fights the BBT in Act Three. He is the one who undergoes the most change because he is the one to solve the core problem.

A slight deviation (exception) to this is what is called The Buddy Love Structure. A good example of this is Lord of the Rings and The Hobbits (Samwise and Frodo) are essentially grouped into one. Can they toss the Ring of Power into Mt. Doom?

Now, LOTR is a super complex plot. There are lot of other subplots and they are all essential for the success of Frodo and Samwise. Yet, in the end? It is their story—not Aragorn’s, not Gandalf’s.

It really is Frodo’s story (with Samwise being a super close supporting actor). Why? Aragorn, Gandalf, Merry & Pippin all have their own subplots which help get Frodo on Mt. Doom….but they don’t have the ring.

HE DOES.

One other way to know the story is about Hobbits? IT OPENS WITH THEM.

Structure dictates that the first character we meet (unless an obvious POV from a villain) is our protagonist. We are like baby chicks and we imprint on the first person we meet.

*imprints on Frodo Baggins*

As I mentioned a moment ago, exceptions would be introductions (whether in prologue or Chapter One) from the antagonist’s POV.

So if an unnamed killer is gleefully chopping up coeds to Madame Butterfly? We get that is probably NOT or protagonist/hero. Yet, I will see works like this where the book opens with the POV of a murderer and then I get the POV of a unit secretary, a wife and then, three chapters later, the detective.

NO.

If it is the detective who brings down The Aria Killer, we meet him off the bat. If we deviate from this, it confuses the reader.

***We also would need to ask why the hell all these other people have been given a POV.

Remember that with every POV we (the reader) need TIME to get attached. Additionally we as the reader, must also dedicate time into resolving that POV character’s problem and driving their arc. Like Blake Snyder said, “Everybody arcs!” But notice the word I keep using here.

TIME.

You have four or five or six POV characters? That is going to impact the overall length of the novel. Sure, Stephen King gets away with an 1100 page book, but can we?

And even in the case of two protagonists, one will be subordinate to the other.

Right now I am writing a Western Horror and I have the B story-line. The female bounty hunter plays a HUGE role in solving the plot crisis, yet it is my coauthor Cait’s character who will do the final face-off against the BBT. Also, just so you know, we have had to put this into a three-book series just because having multiple POV characters takes up space.

That whole time thing again.

The “But Lots of Bad Stuff Happens to Her” Novel

Bad situations are NOT a novel. Bad situations are not even conflict (but probably another post).

A novel involves a core story problem in need of resolution. Often what I will see are all these “pseudo-vignettes of bad things happening” with multiple POV characters and yet they are all roads that lead to nowhere.

This is not a novel, it is a mess.

Now, and we are getting to some advanced stuff here, there IS a vignette structure, but it is more than just unattached scenes of bad crap happening.

There is a method to that particular structure.

Often we see this structure when a GROUP forms the protagonist (Ya Ya Sisterhood, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Joy Luck Club), yet even then the GROUP will still have a point man (or gal). There will be an overall thematic point.

In The Joy Luck Club we have many vignette stories from all the members of the club, the mothers and daughters but, and this is a BIG BUT—two things make this different than The Novel that Is Not a Novel.

A true vignette will follow the rules of structure internally, meaning a protagonist presented with a problem who faces off and solves said problem by the climax of the story. It isn’t just scenes of passively reacting to bad stuff happening.

Additionally, the vignettes will group together to solve a bigger thematic problem.

Case in point. In The Joy Luck Club we open with Jing-Mei Woo who says this:

My father has asked me to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. I am to replace my mother, whose seat at the mah jong table has been empty since she died two months ago. My father thinks she was killed by her own thoughts.

The point of this entire novel is how the mothers left China trying to change, to set right the wrongs of their own mothers. Yet, though they changed geography, they’ve been unable to keep the same patterns from repeating in themselves and their daughters. The stories posit, Will they ever change? Can the chains of the past be broken?

And, though we get stories from many other POVs, it is bookended by Jing-Mei’s journey. Can she forgive her mother and get on that boat and meet her long-lost half-sisters or will she simply take her mother’s place and keep repeating the past?

The “But This is Really a Series” Novel

Often I will get “novels” where there either is not a core story problem, or there is kind of one….but the writer leaves off the book with a 1950s Batman ending. You know, protagonist is hanging off a cliff and all hope is lost, but the story is resolved if you read (buy) in the NEXT book….

Nope. That is cheating.

ONE CORE PROBLEM. If the book is a series, then there will be one core plot problem resolved by the entire series, but in each “entry” in the series, there is a core problem that must be solved to make it to the next leg of the adventure.

I get way too many writers who are fixated on having a series but they don’t even know yet how to write ONE book.

The “My Book is About Abuse” Novel

If I had a dollar for every new writer who wants to write about abuse…

And, in fairness, there is nothing entirely wrong with that…except that many emerging writers missed my earlier point that a bad situation is not a story.

Shock factor is NOT story.

Thus, the detailed account of abuse or rape or incest or whatever must be more than just the bad (or horrible) situation. A good writer must overlay whatever the topic is she/he is addressing onto the plot frame and that is where the character finds his/her power.

Thus, I recommend that if these touchy topics appeal to you, find books that do this well and pay attention to the story problem chosen to help the protagonist conquer the abuse.

Remember that often those abused don’t recognize they are being abused, so that paradigm in the beginning is often VERY skewed. The plot problem reveals the truth the character cannot bear to see and propels her to FACE it and face her tormentor and triumph.

Well there are probably dozens of other versions of Novels that Are NOT Novels, but this is a decent enough overview. And remember, there is a learning curve to all this. I wrote my own share of Novels that Really Were Not Novels when I was new, too.

What are your thoughts? Other than that you hate me and want to stab me in the face? Hey, I am offering my Plotting for Dummies Class, so that might help and breathe. We have ALL been there.

I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

February’s winner of the 20 page critique is Dominic Scezki. Congratulations! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (12 point, Times New Roman, one-inch borders, double-spaced) to kristen at wana intl.com.

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43 thoughts on “The Novel That Isn’t a Novel—Do You Really Have a Story?”

  1. Janice M. WhiteakerJanice M. Whiteaker

    Love this post. I love hearing different explanations of plot but this post also sneaks into the area of character arcs which I’m always excited to read about.

  2. Krystal MillerKrystal Miller

    lol

  3. Maria D'MarcoMaria D'Marco

    I’ve cleaned off my screen — after the whole imprinting/baby chick thing, thus reinforcing my rule of no eating or drinking while reading Kristen.

    Great points, of course, and I love having them all together. Now, when I encounter non-novels in my daily editing, I will have the validation of your dayglo-highlighted list by my side.

    Thanks for sharing, as always…dynamite guidance!

  4. Liberty HenwickLiberty Henwick

    Thanks, this has got me really thinking: ‘In Act Three the protagonist evolves into a hero (presses on when all others would have turned back). He alone fights the BBT in Act Three. He is the one who undergoes the most change because he is the one to solve the core problem.’

  5. Carl D'AgostinoCarl D'Agostino

    I always wanted to asked Bill Clinton about how he choose the title for his autobiography MY LIFE. “So Bill, what’s the book about? ” I see many people offering a biography of their life these days. I often want to asked but refrain from doing it : Why would anyone want to read about your life. No one has ever heard of you and you have no accomplishments ?

  6. Scott PettyScott Petty

    This post is giving me LIFE! Well, giving my novel life, a better, fuller life. Thanks for the insight. I’ve read Story Engineering (best help ever!), but having your posts repeat and expound on those core competencies is so…empowering.

  7. Paul WPaul W

    I was guilty of some of this — mostly the multiple POVs (despite having one core protagonist) and starting off with a long serial, complete with flashbacks and cliffhangers oh my, before ever completing a standalone novel.

    Thing is, I still want to do those things, and I’m still working on that serial…

    But I’ve realized that I need to complete at least three straight-forward, standalone, single POV novels first. Get those basic skills down.
    One down, two to go.

  8. W. T. FallonW. T. Fallon

    Probably one of those worst books I’ve ever read was one I edited when in desperate need of cash. I was able to fix the spelling/grammatical errors, but the “plot” could not be salvaged, and it had a whole bunch of the things mentioned here. The main character was a serial victim, and the whole story was basically about her being abused by a man and saved by another man, who she then had awesome sex with. This pattern repeated over and over for the whole book, and ended with her and the savior guy living happily ever after. She was completely incapable of solving her own problems and had no real character development. If I wasn’t being paid to read it, I never would have gotten past chapter one.

  9. Deborah MakariosDeborah Makarios

    Since you asked for suggestions for post(s), how about how to develop a healthy productive writing life?

  10. LoraLora

    Great blog (the imprinting image is hilarious)! OK, so… I have so many people coming to me for edits… people who just wrote a book!!! Sooooo exciting!!! I start reading the first page or two, then I’m done. It’s beyond awful.

    Editing is my career, and I work with many excellent writers who have put in their time to develop their craft and–most important–are truly talented.

    But since anyone can write and self-publish books now, people think they are writers if they spent countless hours typing hundreds of pages of something. So I direct them to your blogs and classes, and I tell them they need to learn the concepts of good writing. I point out a few of their major errors (in the nicest way I can). Most of them write back sobbing over how hard they worked, how many classes they took, on and on. One or two will write back angrily, saying their work is professional already–I’m full of it. So I do a free edit of their first chapter, which bleeds red in almost every sentence. I never hear from them again. I’m sure they subject someone else to their torment, but I’ve learned not to step in the quicksand of wannabe writers who have no skill or talent.

    I wonder if you could do a blog specifically to help people understand if they are just storytellers or if they have the actual skills to be an excellent writer. I am a classically trained musician, and not everyone who wants to be a musician has what it takes. Yes, you can learn to hit all the right keys on the piano, but it may not be “music” coming out. The same with writing or any other creative endeavor. Sure, you can do anything you want today and put it out for the world to see, you may have family and friends who are huge fans and say you’re amazing, but it does not mean you’re truly talented or… that you EVER will be.

    I would love to have a post (by a highly revered author–you!) that will give people clear signs to know if they have true writing talent or not. These are people who aren’t even at the level to understand your blogs, and some of them have already published their books on Amazon (not selling), and think the books just need to be “polished” by an editor. No, they will never, ever, ever, ever work for a hundred reasons. Aside from listing the hundred reasons, which is a complete waste of my time and hurts their feelings, I think it’s important for people to understand if they truly have a gift they can nurture or not. It takes more than “passion” to become a successful doctor, engineer, professional sports player, clothing designer, chef, etc. But so many people believe they can write a book just because they have passion and type 100k words.

    Do you think you could tackle this topic? I desperately wish there was a specific test for wannabe writers to know if they should be pouring their life into writing or maybe doing something else that they have the skills for. What do you think?

    • AdamAdam

      I remember once attending a writing panel where people spoke about burnout as editors. They would honestly offer a very solid and thorough critique of the piece, completely rooted in the earnest desire to help, but receive only hostility in return. It’s really sad, but some people do not want to hear.

      I often preface any feedback project with a polite conversation with the author, discussing what their writing goals are, and whether they want me to be completely honest, or if I should temper and soften my remarks. In some ways feedback is it’s own narrative piece, with a target audience of 1.

      • LoraLora

        Adam, you are exactly right. I’ve learned over the years how to tell someone kindly and resectfully that their writing is not ready to be edited. I even spend hours (for free) outlining and explaining what their main issues are, giving them resources, and try to be as encouraging as possible. But, as you said, some people don’t want to hear that. And I don’t want to literally rewrite someone’s entire book for them. It’s frustrating and futile and does cause burnout.

        Unfortunately, I’m the type of person that has to fix EVERY error I see. I can’t split up copy edits from substantive edits or stylistic edits. I see it all simultaneously. So I have to choose who I will invest all of my time and energy into… or not.

        It’s the people I turn down (kindly and with specific reasons) who get upset. But I can’t in good conscience give these writers to another editor. They don’t even have BASIC writing skills. But from their feedback, they don’t want to learn anything–they want someone to do all the work for them.

        Now I have had many writers who were willing to put in all the time and effort to learn the skills they needed, and I’m SO proud of them! I’m happy to help anyone who is willing to work hard. It’s the others who I don’t know what to do with.

        I suppose even if Kristen herself wrote the clearest blog possible, those same people wouldn’t listen. Sigh. Thank you for your empathetic post. 🙂

  11. Peggy LampmanPeggy Lampman

    Great, great post! Meaty and on point. I have, however, enjoyed books with more than one POV. “The Help”, for starters. Does it work because the problem to solve is a shared one? That they are “in this together”?

  12. A.C.FloryA.C.Flory

    lol – great post, Kristen. I think this is why even pantsters have to go back and ask the big questions, like ‘what is this book /about/?’
    I used to be a pantster. Now I accept that I’m a pantster hybrid. Still won’t outline, but my plots get a lot of blood, sweat and tears as the story unfolds.
    Really enjoy your no-nonsense approach to writing. 🙂

  13. Lanette KautenLanette Kauten

    When I first started my current WIP, I opened with the secondary character getting bullied while walking her dog in the park. Then the dog got loose and ran into (literally) the main character. Even though it was a short scene and I quickly spent a lot of time the MC’s POV, the opening needled at me. Sure, it was funny having a professor get run over by a mastiff, but something needed to happen before that. I looove my new opening in the protag’s POV and so do the students in my writing class. This is the guy everyone has to root for, so it only makes sense to introduce him first.

  14. Sean CarlinSean Carlin

    Great article, Kristen! And excellent advice on the “But this is a series” copout. I’ve heard people say, “But Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have an ending — it just tees up Return of the Jedi — and people consider that the best Star Wars movie!”

    Except Empire has a core story problem — “Will Darth Vader turn Luke to the Dark Side?” — that gets definitively resolved by the end of the movie. Sure, it opens up new problems that will then be addressed in the next movie, but the central dramatic question of Empire is resolved by the end of the film. On the same note, Back to the Future, Part II ends on a cliffhanger, but the central story problem — “Will Marty and Doc recover the sports almanac from Biff?” — is concluded before the credits roll. That’s where studying Blake Snyder’s genre requirements in tandem with his structural lessons (the “beat sheet”) can really help writers find a narrative spine for their concept.

    • Paul WPaul W

      Sean – I agree with your point and examples.
      A series structure I aspire to is that of Babylon 5: every episode tells a complete story, but they also add up to the complex epic novel.
      Sometimes the complete story is a ‘mere’ B story that gets the bulk of the episode’s run-time, while the ongoing A story gets less airtime and can end in a cliff hanger — but each episode delivers a complete tale with a story question that gets answered, with characters in conflicts that get resolved.

      • Sean CarlinSean Carlin

        Paul,

        I’ve never seen Babylon 5, but I’ve heard good things. In the ’90s, TV shows were really experimenting with structure, becoming more novelistic versus conventionally episodic as they’d traditionally been. NYPD Blue pioneered the A-B-C format in which you’d have an A-plotline that began and ended in a single episode, a B-plotline that carried over several shows, and then the C-plotline that ran for a season or longer. Buffy innovated the “season-long story arc,” in which individual eps might tell a self-contained story, but there was an overarching plot that played out across the entire year. It was a real renaissance time for TV, and shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead stand on the shoulders of some of that groundbreaking work.

        Sean

  15. AdamAdam

    “There is no golden fleece without the quest.”
    I like that metaphor. I often refer to stories as “earning their ending,” and I have asked myself “whose story is this?” One technique I’ve heard is “ask who has the most invested in the outcome of the conflict?” or “who plays the largest role in bringing about the resolution?”

    I once read a story where the author just piled on various hardships, and every effort the protagonist made ended in failure. In the end the protagonist could have literally slept through the entire story and achieved the same outcome.

    It was a very interesting read, and a thorough example of what not to do. Probably the only time I ever felt guilty donating a book to a library.

  16. Matt HutsonMatt Hutson

    This is a great article! You really have given us some great tips on plot and characters. I’ve just started working on my first book and I personally have never written one before. So what you’ve taught me here is that I really have to think about my characters and the arching problem of the story.

    The best I can do is just keep learning and trying and editing the story I have and hopefully the end result will turn out well. For me it’s a daunting task but exciting at the same time to just sit there at my computer screen and write a story that makes me happy and in turn will make others happy.

    Thanks again!

  17. DJ AustinDJ Austin

    Your mention of Steven King reminds me of When A Movie Is Not A Movie, the perfect example being Maximum Overdrive. His one (and only) foray into directing demonstrates all your points, though the first five minutes is worth watching to see Marla Maples creamed by a watermelon and my father, the bridgemaster, reciting his immortal line, “Can’t you see we’ve got a situation here?!

  18. Debbie JohanssonDebbie Johansson

    Thanks for this post Kristen. I like your explanations and examples, which make it so much easier to understand. I will be putting my plots and characters under a lot more scrutiny now – I certainly don’t want to be making the mistakes you mentioned.

    You’ve asked for suggestions and I was just wondering if you would write a future post about writing short stories/novellas as this form has made a bit of a comeback lately?

  19. Leigh J. A. OwensLeigh J. A. Owens

    Man, I sure did fall in the toooooo many protagonists category when I was younger. In my current WIP, I wound up changing it from 3rd person to 1st person, and I think that that helped me figure out one protagonist. Originally there are five main characters all going on a quest, and yeah, the whole thing is a mess that veers off course of the main problem without real internal strife because I keep trying to have at least three or four protagonists. I think the real trouble with multiple protagonists is people get confused with the idea of having multiple main characters with multiple protagonists – that was my problem. There are still three main characters, but only one protagonist. The POV guy. The other two MCs are critical ancillary characters, but ancillary nonetheless.

  20. Bryan DaweBryan Dawe

    Whee…me, crash and burn
    I haven’t written a lick since Saturday when I got a critique.
    I suppose it could be as simple as your blog.
    As one of the replies suggested there are enough no talent wannabees turning out pages as to make her ask for a blog that I guess would be a checklist to see if you had any talent.Would that it was that easy.
    Hopefully in the course of the book most authors become enamored of their characters and perhaps unable to see flaws in the telling. In my case I cut at it every time I read it. Without the help of that poor maligned editor, where would we be. POV changes in my work because there are story lines all connected to the protagonist, but where she doesn’t appear in that chapter. In some cases it’s easiest to slip into straight third party. For instance, I have a scene where a soldier chasing the protagonist catches up to her but is injured (killed) in a fight with she and her companions. We will see him again the next day but alone in the woods when he turns out to be severely concussed but not dead. POV for his story switches to the narrator because there is no one for the character to interact with. In another chapter we meet a family who will become important to the character, since they are traveling together there is interaction where we learn more about them as secondary characters to the main story line. The overall is still third party.
    The protagonist runs from beginning to end as does the core problem. It’s hers from the start and hers when it’s solved.
    I’m going to finish editing the last third, then I’m turning it over to some unsuspecting pro (actually she knows it was a nanowrimo effort). Let’s see how much of a “snowflake” I am.

  21. Linda Maye AdamsLinda Maye Adams

    I’ve been surprised at the number of women writing novels about abuse. I get that it crosses into the inner demons … but there’s a problem. How many novels can you find on the market that are about this? It’s just not something a reader wants to escape to.

  22. John GreerJohn Greer

    Kristen,
    “As I mentioned a moment ago, exceptions would be introductions (whether in prologue or Chapter One) from the antagonist’s POV.”

    I have a story line where I use one of the protagonist’s relatives to introduce the story in the prologue. This relative is decidedly not the antagonist (although there is a very antagonistic sister foreshadowed). The genre is SF/Fantasy and I developed the prologue this way to help clear away the bulk of the backstory. I dislike letting backstory interrupt an otherwise interesting narrative, especially as it’s too tempting to stop and explain something that any reasonable person can figure out from the context. It made for a rather lengthy prologue (and I don’t title it as a prologue), But it sets up the protagonist’s culture, religion, lineage, family conflict and birth so that Chapter 1 can begin with the action.

    Thoughts?

  23. Jenny HansenJenny Hansen

    Yo! Liking the new digs over here, Kristen. 🙂 No more Warrior Writers. (I know you’re wiping that brow, thinking “at last!”) I’m about to recommend your book and your blogging class. I’ll backlink here if it fits. Hugs!!

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