3 Tests Your Novel Must Pass

imagesYou’ve lived an interesting life–maybe so interesting that people say it would make a great novel. But hold on–are you sure you ought to be the star of your story?

Writing Tip for Today: Many first-time novelists mistakenly believe that their autobiography can double as a novel. Here are three tests that any good novel (including thinly disguised memoirs) must pass:

SO WHAT? A Character Who is Desperate to Obtain a Goal.

No matter how interesting a life you’ve had, your story must show your protagonist (you) as being desperate to obtain something. Kurt Vonnegut once famously said to make your character want something right away–even if it’s a glass of water. What this means is that the mundane events in most of our lives don’t count as wants we’re desperate for. Many unpublished memoirs begin at conception or a young age, when the character doesn’t come across that important goal until much later in life. The Latin phrase in media res means in the middle of, and that that’s a better place to start: when the wheels are already in motion. Readers of novels or memoirs don’t necessarily need to know a character’s life story to understand how he can want to obtain a goal. Dream up the character, and while you’re deciding on brown hair or black, give him a worthy goal. This means something not too easily obtained. Ask yourself, “If my hero didn’t obtain the goal, so what?” Be sure the answer is important for you and the readers.

Who Cares? Give the Story High Stakes.

A goal not easily obtained, one that is constricted by time or a goal that seems out of reach piques readers’ interest. We all want to watch and see if this unlikely character-goal match-up will succeed. Think of it as you would a lopsided sports game–after the first half of a rout, fans stream out of the stadium because they know the outcome. If your protag (hero) wins things too easily, readers may not feel the need to stick around. If your character encounters a worthy opponent, one who presents a challenge the hero may not easily vanquish, the tension builds. As long as readers are unsure of the outcome of the struggle, they’re likely to be hooked (reading). By introducing a time constriction (ie, time is running out) you can impose conflict on an event that may have really taken much longer. It’s literally a race against the clock. And if your hero’s goals have implications beyond himself (such as a pandemic or something that affects many people), readers feel it’s an important goal and worthy of their time, as opposed to an autobiography of why you joined the football team (that is unless the team catches the pandemic’s deadly virus!). Again, if your hero doesn’t succeed, so what?

What’s the Big Deal? Worthy Obstacles.

If you are basing your novel on real life events, you must be sure the obstacles are worthy just as any novel must. If your Mom will be mad that you disobeyed, it’s only a worthy obstacle if your mom is Lizzie Borden and she might kill you. Just kidding. But as with your character’s goal, it’s vital to the novel to see the character struggle with the obstacles. It’s okay to emerge triumphant, but remember the game strategy: if readers guess the outcome right away, there isn’t much point in reading. Remember, if you use your own life experiences for the novel’s plot, you must make the character’s goal, stakes and obstacles pass the So what? Who cares? and What’s the Big Deal? tests.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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