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Learn the "bones" of story

Monday, September 7, 2020

How to Focus a Novel: 3 Key Things

Ever take a look at your story and notice it's wandering here, there, over the river, through the woods, and all the way to grandmother's house?
Whether you are brainstorming, writing, or revising, it can be difficult to discern what belongs in your story and what belongs on the cutting floor--what is a good, appropriate idea, and what is a less-than-good, not-quite-appropriate idea.
Unless you know about the holy trinity of writing. 
What is the holy trinity of writing, you ask?

Well, nothing . . . 


(Spoiler: I'm the only one who calls them "the holy trinity of writing," so don't use that term elsewhere unless you want strange looks (which, let's be honest, sometimes makes life more exciting 😉).)

With these three elements, you should--theoretically--be able to evaluate what content belongs in your manuscript and what belongs in the recycle bin (oof, so harsh). 
Have I always thought of these three elements as the holy trinity of writing? 

Definitely not.

In fact, years ago, I would have scratched my head at one of them.

But as I've grown and gained experience, I have found this fact to be largely true:

Everything* in the story must connect back into one of these three components.
*Well, "everything"--you know how writing "rules" are.

Character (arc)

Plot (cause and effect events that make up "what happens")

Theme (what character arc + plot is teaching us about life)

99% of what you write should be touching and progressing one of these things, and often, all three. 


When you have and know all three components of your story, you are able to brainstorm better or evaluate better. 
You are less likely to wander down roads that lead to hundreds of pages needing to be cut.

Knowing each of these three things will help you refine everything you write. The good news is, you don't have to know everything about each of these topics. (Well, at least not until the end, perhaps (though some writers may even argue against that).)

What You Actually Need to Know About Character

Often newer writers will write scenes that don't actually progress the story. When asked why the scene is there, they may point to the fact that it provides characterization.

But just providing characterization usually isn't enough.

Characterization is often surface details and, sometimes, irrelevant personality traits. While that has a place, the most important thing about your protagonist is how he or she changes (or . . . doesn't change) and the way they do (or . . . don't . . .).

The character arc (or lack thereof) is the most important part of character when crafting a story.

If you are writing a protagonist that "changes," he or she will start with a misbelief, flaw, or inaccurate worldview that will do more or less a 180 by the end of the story. 

If you are writing a protagonist that is "steadfast," he or she will start with a belief, trait, or worldview that will then be tested through the story. In the end, he or she will stay true to that belief/trait/worldview, regardless of the cost. Typically, a steadfast character will grow by degree, not a 180 flip. (Though it is true that some steadfast protagonists may not grow at all.)

As the plot progresses, it will need to illustrate how your character changes or holds steadfast.

Because of this, one of the most critical things to know about your protagonist, is how he is at the beginning of the story vs. how he is at the end of the story, and which belief/trait/worldview is being challenged or called into question.

Even if you do not know how the story ends yet, you should probably have at least an idea of what the character is like in the beginning--which will give you a clue as to what aspect of him is going to be challenged in the story.

If a scene or idea feeds into or illustrates that, then it's a better than one that does not. If a scene does not illustrate that, then its significance may be called into question. 
However, as long as the scene hits one of the other components, it has a chance of being safe.

What You Actually Need to Know About Plot

Plot is a series of cause and effect events, at least to some degree. Sure, there are exceptions, but almost none.

Once you understand that plot is cause and effect, you'll be able to avoid random, irrelevant events that can make the story convoluted. Every event must somehow connect into another event--even if that is strictly based on how the character arcs or what the theme is saying.

Sometimes you may come up with a great idea for an event--you can use it as long as you can find a way to make it connect significantly. (And what makes something significant is its cause-and-effect potential.)

To put simply, plot isn't just random good ideas. It's events that feed into one another.

To start a story, you at least need a premise.

When Fa Mulan learns her weakened father must go to war to fight the invading Huns, she secretly disguises herself as a man to take his place.

The premise of Mulan already suggests a series of connected events.

Because her father is called to war, Mulan goes in his place.

Now the events in the story must build off that concept. They can build in surprising ways. But they need to somehow connect.

If you know the character arc and the theme, then you can also use those to evaluate what ideas for events will work better than others to focus the story.

For example, if your character needs to completely change by the end, you'll be better off picking events that will provoke that change.

If your character needs to be steadfast, you'll be better off picking events that will challenge their steadfastness--that will make it very costly to remain steadfast.

In each scene, something important needs to change in order for the plot to progress, for the story to move forward. If nothing important changes in the scene, then it probably doesn't need to be in the story.

(One rare exception is if the point of the scene is to illustrate a lack of change.)

Every scene should have a turning point that leads to new decisions, in order to move the plot along. 

If it doesn't, it may need to go.

What You Actually Need to Know About Theme

How the events play out and change the character teaches something to the audience (whether or not you want it to). This is the theme.

What do you want your story to say?

It's okay if you do not know right away, but the character arc and the events of the story will often at least suggest a topic for a theme.

Maybe you don't yet know the teaching, but you can at least come up with a topic (or a few).

For example, in Mulan, a theme topic that emerges is gender roles--because she's going to have to pretend to be a man.

Through the course of the story, the theme topic will need to be fairly explored from different perspectives.

So in Mulan, we see various perspectives on gender roles.

When brainstorming, writing, or revising a story, it's helpful to keep in mind what the theme topic is, so that you can pick characters and situations that will explore and question that topic. If you are deciding between content or need help focusing the story, an idea that feeds into the theme will be better than one that does not.

The thematic statement (the overall teaching) will come at the end of the story.

If you are writing about a "change" character, he or she will exemplify the opposite of the thematic statement at the beginning of the story, and change 180 through the events, by the end of the story (typically).

If you are writing about a "steadfast" character, he or she will exemplify the true thematic statement at the beginning (typically)--although his or her understanding of it may need to be refined. This will then be tested and challenged through the events of the story, but in the end, the character holds to the truth. 

(There are exceptions to both of these, but I'll save them for another post.)

What happens in the story needs to explore and feed into the theme. 

Once you have an idea of what these three things are, everything in the story needs to connect back into them--at least one of them, but often, all three of them.

This means when you know what all three are, you can write a stronger story more intentionally.

And you are less likely to write material that ends up needing to be cut anyway. 

Or if you are revising, you can make your story tighter.

All in all, understanding the holy trinity of writing--character, plot, and theme--will help you refine and focus your story into more of a masterpiece.

And if you would like to learn more about this concept in depth, Lisa Cron talks about much of these same ideas in her book Story Genius.


  1. Awesome post! FYI - Lisa Cron also has a video series up on CreativeLive.com where she goes through the Story Genius process and more.

    1. I love her approach in Story Genius so that sounds awesome! Thanks for sharing!


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