Saturday, February 24, 2007

How To Write a Truly Compelling Novel

While exchanging emails with one of my critique partners yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me that we were discussing something I'd never addressed on this blog before: character change/growth.

When I first began writing, I concentrated on telling the story. For me, that meant focussing on external events. Only gradually did I realize that the internal journey was as important as the external one.

Now when I structure a novel, I try to pay as much attention to my characters' internal goals as I do their external goals. For a book to make sense, the writer must know what happened to motivate the protagonist and the antagonist to action. However, for a book to be truly compelling, the writer must show how those external events change the protagonist and antagonist.

As an example, think of the movie Star Wars. Let's look at two of the main characters, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

Luke starts out as Princess Leia's champion; his goal is to save Leia from Darth Vader's clutches. The external action is non-stop. Luke and his companions tumble from adventure to adventure. Along the way, Luke trains to be a Jedi knight like his father before him. Viewers watch Yoda scold Luke for his impatience and urge him to slow down and listen to "The Force" inside of him. Yoda's doubt that this young man will ever become a Jedi is obvious.

At the culmination of the film's action, it falls to Luke to save the day by destroying the Death Star. In that moment when Luke abandons his instrumentation panel to trust his fate and that of the Rebel Alliance to The Force, the viewer knows he will become a Jedi.

Han Solo is first seen as the consummate swashbuckler. His external goal is to earn enough money to pay off his debt to Jabba the Hut. When he earns his reward for Leia's safe return, he prepares to leave. Luke begs him to stay and help the Rebel Alliance. Han refuses, shaking his head at Luke's idealism. It's a sad moment for the viewer when Han leaves the action.

Then at a critical juncture when all the Alliance's hopes (and Luke's life) are at risk of being destroyed, Han appears to save his friend. He's learned that the value of friendship is more important to him than money. In that moment, Han's internal and external goals coincide.

As I said at the outset, external action can make for a good story. But think of Star Wars without Luke and Han's growth arcs. It just wouldn't be as compelling.

Focus time on your characters' internal goals and motivations. Give them a growth arc. Let your reader see how the protagonist (and perhaps the antagonist) is changed by the events of the novel.

I found this hard to do the first time. It is becoming almost second nature now. And I'm convinced it's worth the time and trouble. When you begin to focus on internal growth, inconsistencies in your characters' behavior just pop out at you.

Re-read your manuscript with an eye to what is going on with your characters internally. You'll find places to add their thoughts as to why they did something or the conflict they're having in making a decision. It's the beginning of writing in deep POV.

Good luck.

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