Want to Know The Secret of a Great Novel?

“I’m writing my story so that others might see fragments of themselves.” – Lena Waithe, screenwriter for Bones and Master of None

Writing a Novel with Meaning

I’d already completed a basic creative writing course at my local college but realized there was still more to writing a novel. After liaising with Mary Adkins, author of ‘When You Read This’ for a previous blog post, ‘What the Authors are Reading’, I spotted her on-line course and investigated some more. It instantly appealed to me since Mary, a successful author, promises to share her insights into the novel-writing process. Mary’s also an advocate that you don’t have to stick to the conventional rules of creative writing to write a great story.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I’d already heard Mary talk about the fact that you don’t need to know the ending of your story when you first begin writing. This, in stark contrast to the often given advice that you should have your story fully mapped out before you begin writing convinced me to book onto it. It had reminded me of when I wrote Chaperones – Grace’s Story. One of the things that made me go back to my computer day after day was that I didn’t know exactly how the story would end. I trusted that the characters would lead me to the ending and they did. So, certainly for me, this way of writing created more excitement and kept the momentum going because in the very same way as any reader, I wanted to know how it would end and that pushed me on. That said, this isn’t to say that you can’t write a fantastic novel following the regular rules of creative writing, but more that, there are other ways to do so. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. It’s what works for you, the author.

Finding Your Story’s Central Question

So I’ve signed up to Mary’s ‘Show Don’t Tell’ course and already it’s got me excited and raring to go with my next book. During our introductory lesson, Mary highlighted how important it is to have a central question at the heart of a good story. After all, when writing 70-80,000 words in length, you need something big to carry you through writing something that length, something which excites you and something that you as the author would like to explore throughout the book. 

What she’s talking about are searching, philosophical, ethical questions that we, as human beings, want to find answers to and gain meaning from. These are questions that we don’t necessarily know the answers to and are continually trying to find out. These are also questions that we may also ask in secret and are scared to ask out loud!  Strong and powerful central questions often have ethical implications and there will be conflict and costs to them as a result. The characters therefore, have to make choices and we as the reader, agree or disagree with them and it makes us consider/reconsider our own choices.

And if you start to unpick some of the best novels ever written, you begin to see that at the heart of them, there is always fundamentally a central human question that we can identify with. Now, with this insight, I’ve started to think about my next novel on a much deeper level and all sorts of questions have started to come to mind.  The only problem is deciding which one to use!  Examples of some of these central questions might be:

  • Is there such a thing as ‘real truth’?
  • Is it important to have ‘belief’ in something? God/Mother Nature/inner belief
  • What would we be willing to sacrifice for love?
  • Is love enough or do we need more to be happy?
  • How do we reconcile family responsibility with love?
  • Can there be romantic love without lust?
  • How do we gain meaning from life knowing that our final destination is death?
  • What would happen if we listened to our hearts over our heads?
  • Can we really be happy and poor?
  • Where does the world come from?
  • Who or what are we?
  • Have we been here before?
  • Would we forgo our morals to survive?
  • Can we ever experience joy again after a terrible loss? A murder/betrayal etc.
  • Is simplicity the enemy of satisfaction or is it the essence of it?
  • Does unconditional love actually exist or do we always have conscious/unconscious conditions?
  • What if we could relive our life again?
  • Is the universe hostile or friendly?
  • How can you help someone move on or to fall in love again after you’ve died?
  • Is it possible to make someone fall in love with us?

The Greatest Books

Books, whose characters and stories take us on a journey exploring these deeper questions, are the ones that completely transport us, access our deep emotions and are the ones that stay with us, long after we’ve turned that last page. If you think about some of the greatest, most powerful books, this reinforces the argument. Think about Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’ which focuses on the importance of believing in something to survive.  When you read the ending, there are two possible conclusions, everything that happened in the boat was real or that it was all Pi’s imagination. The one that you believe comes down to your own beliefs and what you’d like to believe but either way, it pulls at our very core, making us question everything we believe in. It also makes us question the very importance of believing in something to survive.

Another story that comes to mind is the children’s classic, E. B. White’s ‘Charlotte’s Web’, which I probably read at about the age of nine. The story charts the friendship between Wilbur, a pig and, Charlotte, a spider and was the first experience I had where the main character in a book died. I can’t tell you how much it captured my emotions even at that young age and the tears that were shed at the end. Although aimed at a younger audience, the themes are very much geared towards adults too. Fundamentally, the book makes anyone that reads it question what they would be willing to sacrifice for friendship and additionally how we can reconcile moving on with grieving for a loved one who’s died.

These books all have strong, powerful central questions.  Try working out what they are?

Now it’s your turn. Add to the comments below and tell me your favorite book’s central question?

The Problem with Not Identifying Your Novel’s Central Question

Image by Monsterkoi from Pixabay

After listening to Mary’s insights about identifying a central question to the novel, an insight came to me! I realized that the reason why I’d stopped working on my second novel and why its collecting dust was for this very reason. I hadn’t identified its central question. As a result, I didn’t understand what the character and story were trying to resolve or understand and therefore, it had no direction. The story in itself couldn’t carry that amount of words and I lost steam, and then lost interest.

Identifying Your Own Novel’s Central Question

Image by Carlos Alvarenga from Pixabay

It’s clear that as an author, you need to be deeply interested in your novel’s central question, otherwise, you’ll lose motivation, quickly.  It may also mean that you need to go deep within yourself to identify a central question that you feel strongly about and one where you can bring depth and emotion to it.

When identifying what you’d like to write 70-80,000 words about, you could consider the following:

-Your conflicts

-Your desires

– Something that’s bothering you or someone you know

– Something deeply personal to you that requires a resolution

– A question currently at the center of your life

– A secret you have or that’s in your family

– An argument you’ve had with someone

– A mystery that you wish could be solved

– Something that confuses you

– Something that you’d like to learn more about

– Something you’ve repressed

– Something on the News

– Something you feel strongly about

– A current societal /ethical debate

– What are you ashamed about?

– What do you feel guilty about?

– Questions at the heart of your favorite novels/TV shows/films

– Human hierarchy of needs

Moving Forwards

Now I do have an idea for my next novel. I won’t divulge that just yet but suffice to say that after yesterday’s exercise, I’ve identified that it will be an intertwining story with the central question ‘what are the main characters willing to sacrifice for love?’ Just by having a clear question at its heart makes me feel more confident and hopefully, my writing will now have a direction and purpose to it. I do believe that the main characters will lead me towards answering this question, each in their different ways and with different outcomes so I’m very excited to begin this journey with them.

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2 thoughts on “Want to Know The Secret of a Great Novel?

  1. Thank you for this post. It’s made me think of what’s at the heart of my (largely unwritten) novel. I know what I want to write and now I ‘m aware of ‘the heart’ I feel more likely to keep writing.

    Liked by 1 person

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