Too often I see promising writers who don’t know how to plot a novel. Writing a novel is a skill that is honed over time, and even the pros don’t always get it on the first try. The writer Nalo Hopkinson told me that you never really learn how to write a novel, you learn how to write that novel.
A novel works like this. A person has some kind of challenge put to them, something that disrupts their life and forces them to act. There are other ways to plot a novel, but this is the industry standard for popular fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. The problems should start immediately, but are best if they are minor. Save the knife fights and magic battles for later, after the reader has had time to get invested. In the beginning of a novel, we see misunderstandings, inconveniences, and mysterious developments. We see characters trying to solve their problems, and their best efforts make things worse.
These problems spiral and it becomes clear that what we thought were separate issues are actually related. This culminates in the protagonist being asked to make a difficult choice, for example between the safety of their family, and their political career. It should be big stuff, and it should show us who this person is. The events of a novel should comprise the worst day this person has ever had, often it takes more than a single day, but popular fiction demands to see people in extremes. That’s the juice that keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next.
Another way to look at it: The protagonist’s actions should come from the kind of person they are. Is your main character driven by a passion? Let’s see it. Are they timid from past traumas? Let’s see them find strength. What is it that this person fears most, and what happens when they are forced to confront it? Do they fall apart under pressure, or do they handle themselves with humor and empathy? A worthy protagonist will experience fear and doubt, but will act anyway. Their actions and the kind of person they are will feed the plot, and bring about the eventual resolution.
The protagonist of a novel should be the person who has the most to lose. Their motivation is going to come from that, and they should have enough resources (e.g. time, skill, friends) that they stand a chance at success, but not so many that it’s easy. They must weigh between actions they feel are right and the unfathomable cost if they fail. When Luke Skywalker is asked to trust the force as he shoots to destroy the Death Star, we know he can fail, but we trust that he won’t.
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