Is Your Fiction a Story?


In my novel, I just hang out.

With NaNoWriMo coming up in November, it’s a good time to brainstorm story ideas. But is the fiction you hope to write really a story?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are three ways to tell if the novel you’re writing is a solid story:

Arc or Episodic?

Some novel writers are not quite sure about the difference between story and what’s called episodic narrative. We think we’re telling a great story when we relate something funny or sad that Uncle Bob did at last year’s Christmas party. Yet if the “scenes” you describe don’t all relate to one another, each ratcheting tension (which is different than conflict), you might not have enough for a novel-length story. You can think of episodic narrative as “just one darned thing after another.” In a novel where random things seem to befall a character, it’s difficult for readers to know exactly what they’re following or rooting for. If you give your character a MAIN GOAL to reach for, readers will be more likely to keep reading. This MAIN GOAL is expressed in a story arc that sends the character on a quest for belonging, love, justice or other goals. The reader’s unspoken question should be, “Will Character win or lose the goal?” By setting an overall goal, your character’s scenes will all focus on some aspect of either getting closer to or farther from that goal. Think of your character’s goal as much as you do the character. Only expert writers can pull off a wandering, nothin-to-do character, and sometimes even they fail. A goal for your character is one way to keep your novel from wandering.

It’s Too Easy

I once had a student who wrote a story about a boy who wanted to play the French horn in the school band. So he did. If you award your character the goal, the story is over. You see, story isn’t as much about the goal itself as it is the struggle to overcome life’s obstacles. Try not to let your character win too early or too often. If your character wins, the tension is deflated. Only so long as there is sufficient tension (or suspense) will readers keep reading. Above, I mentioned a difference between conflict and tension. Conflict is a means to the end of creating tension to maintain reader interest. You place your character in scenes with an opposing force, so the goal can’t be obtained easily. Some writers have been brought up to be “nice,” and they worry about keeping the tension so high a cat fight will break out at any moment. The cat fight is the conflict, but the tension comes when readers worry about what’s going to happen: will the cats settle or will they fight? This unknowing is what keeps readers reading to find out.

Worthy Opposition, Worthy Goal

The goal of your novel must be worth the readers’ time. If the character wants only to brush his teeth, it had better be well-nigh impossible for this to happen. The story isn’t about tooth brushing. It’s about showing the courage, determination and strength to overcome the obstacles to caring for those pearly whites. The opposition, sometimes a bad guy, other times nature or oneself, must be able to bring your character to the brink of “all is lost.” If this poor soul who can’t brush meets someone who steals all the toothbrushes in the world, readers will be more likely to keep reading than if the biggest problem is that our toothy friend is lazy. Remember the SO WHAT? Rule: If the character can’t attain a goal, so what? What’s the worst that can happen? A strong antagonist or opposing force will help readers see the magnitude of the struggle and they’ll be more likely to root for the character.


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.

2 comments on “Is Your Fiction a Story?

  1. Bryan,
    Great comment! Although I’d never discourage a writer from trying a story idea (and really, failing is how we learn best), I agree that the easiest part of novel writing is the idea stage.
    Keep writing, everyone!

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