Perfecting your plot and protagonist: how to overcome those first draft hurdles

As the Christmas season looms, lots of us will be hoping to find time to work on our manuscripts. Or perhaps you won NaNoWriMo this year – congratulations! – and are now beginning the editing process. So what can you do to stop your novel stalling on two of the most common problem areas, plot and character? We asked our Writing a Novel tutors for a couple of simple exercises to help.

If you’re feeling like you’ve lost your plot, Sarah May has got you covered:

‘Does it feel like your story’s going nowhere? Losing direction? Has no future? Writing is like being in a long-term relationship. You’re up so close that after a while you lose perspective. Back in the beginning, when you first had that brilliant idea, writing felt amazing. But now you’re like… tell me again, why did I decide to write this book? If this is you, then now is the time to pull back and take a look at the bigger picture.

To quote Margaret Atwood, story centres on a dramatic question that must be answered. At the heart of most stories there is a protagonist who has to overcome obstacles in order to resolve a problem. So, the dramatic question is nearly always, “Will the protagonist achieve their story goal?”

This is the question you want readers to ask. The question that is going to keep them turning those pages. It’s the question that needs to drive all your plotting. In fact, every scene you write needs to ask this question.

Here are some examples of dramatic questions:

The Old Man and The Sea: Will Santiago catch the fish?
The Hunger Games: Will Katniss win the Hunger Games?
The Silence of the Lambs: Will Clarice Starling catch Buffalo Bill?
Pride and Prejudice: Will Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr Darcy?

Now you need to work out your dramatic question. A single sentence will do. Once you have it, write it down and stick it to your desk. A partner’s forehead. The cat. Or get a tattoo. This is your narrative compass.’

 

If your plot’s all nailed down but it’s the people within it you’re struggling to develop, try this exercise from Shelley Weiner:

‘Where and how do we find the characters that populate our fiction? In the days of free roaming and carefree congregation (i.e. pre-Covid – remember those?), we’d observe people in the streets, on public transport, in cafes, in theatres; we’d watch and listen and speculate. Now, like most things, we’re forced to do it online.

So here’s my character-seeking exercise, adapted to our times:

Your central character eludes you. You know she’s lonely and troubled, you have a vague idea of her place in your story, but you don’t quite believe in her. Solution? Open Google (or any other search engine) and search for, say, ‘lonely, troubled young woman’. Select images and see what comes up.

You’ll be confronted by page upon page of potential characters in various stages of gloom.  Without thinking too hard about it but making sure it’s not someone you recognise or a renowned/infamous personality, pick an image, enlarge, and focus on her face.

Invent and write down your answers to the following, as fully as you can:

Name?
Age?
Background?
Dark secret (we all have one …)?
Aspiration – what does she want?

As you write away, your character will come into being – vivid, powerful, effective.’

Sarah and Shelley are both tutors on the January iteration of Writing a Novel. Applications close 31 December.

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