Novel DNA

- by ria, on Wednesday, 4th August 2010, 6:39pm

It seems the world does not want this post getting out, but I promised it last week, and I’m not going to stall any longer. I have a cold and my brain isn’t working quite as well as it should, but I’m not going to let that stop me. Still, I may come back and edit this post some time when I’m feeling a little more myself. Anyway, on with the post.

This information has been cut from two posts already. I kept thinking it would fit with other topics, but it is so important it needs its own post. It fits in with the kind of post-theme I’ve got going on at the moment of outlines and ideas and inspiration.

Before you start a novel, (or mid-way through, or at the end (not advisable – if you do it at the end you will have lots of rewrites)) you need to figure out what drives your plot.  I gathered this information from a lot of agent (as in literary agent) blogs I read, where they try to give us baby writers advice about what makes a story.

What forms the soul of a novel?

To answer that, you need to ask a bunch of questions:

-what is your main character’s goal
-what prevents him reaching it, i.e. conflict
-how does he choose to overcome that conflict
-what are the stakes of his actions, both personal and public (why should he bother trying to achieve his goal)
-what consequences arise from the choices he makes

That’s it. Answer those questions and you have a fully formed novel-soul. The answers to these questions are your novel’s DNA. They are the most essential things to a good story.


Your character’s goal is what propels him forward. Things like staying alive, saving his village, rescuing the princess. It is the one thing he works towards for the whole novel. It is the force pulling him onwards through the story.


Conflict is anything that gets in the way of your character’s goal. It could be something external, the antagonist who wants the opposite of what he does, the demon threatening his village, the dragon guarding the princess. Conflict can also be internal: maybe he doesn’t see himself worthy to achieve his goals.  He doesn’t see himself as a hero and he struggles against his own thoughts and emotions, which try to turn him away from his goals. Add conflict in where ever you can. It makes things interesting. But bear in mind that goal vs. conflict is the most boring thing in the world if there are no consequences involved (I’ll get to that in a bit).


If the goal is what moves the story forward, the stakes are what powers that movement. (That was a bad example – shush, my brain isn’t working.) The stakes are what motivates your character to go out and achieve his goals. It’s all fine and dandy to make your MC (main character) go out and slay the dragon, but he’d better have a powerful reason for doing so. No rational person faces a dragon just because.

If he doesn’t kill it, the dragon will eat his mother / burn down his village / kill him. To make things really interesting, there have to be stakes that matter only to your character, as well. He’s lost faith in himself as a warrior. If he doesn’t kill this dragon to prove to himself that he is still brave and strong, he will never be able to look anyone in the eye again. That’s very simplistic, but I hope you get the idea.


You character must decide how to overcome the conflict that prevents him reaching his goals. He must be proactive about this. There is nothing worse than when someone else comes in and forces him down one path or the other. He must be responsible for whatever happens because of his actions. This makes things dramatic, especially if his choices are hard dilemmas. He must choose the better of two bad options. And things must happen in the world because of the choices he makes.


All decisions have consequences. There’s nothing worse than reading a story where nothing changes. Your character defeats a dragon, the consequences are many injuries, a free princess and a new sense of self for your hero. He had learned something about himself. Half way though the story, he didn’t think he could do it. He doubted himself so badly that he let the dragon destroy his village. His mother got eaten. But now all that doesn’t seem so bad, because he has made sure it can never happen again.

I personally love heartbreaking consequences. Someone dies, someone has a revelation about their actions, the world changes irrevocably. Heartbreaking doesn’t mean it has to be bad. It could be wonderful. I find sappy romance movies where the lovers finally admit their love for each other heartbreaking.

So that’s it. The five things that lie at the heart of every novel. The things you absolutely must pin down before you start working on your plot. The things that will keep you writing and keep your story moving forward.

See you next week.

tags: , ,
category: pre-production, writing

1 potential comment | leave a comment (via the sidebar) | follow this post’s comments |

« »