Tessa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I followed the Writing Fiction for Dummies book to the letter after I wrote my novel, all except the part about a scene list. I thought it would take too much effort. I realized yesterday that I need to shift the scenes around, and I so regret not writing that list.
I’m going mad with trying to figure out how it all connects if I move two of my scenes earlier (so that the REAL story question of the book is in the first quarter, and not closer to the middle). There’s ton of things happening in the first 1/3 to keep the reader occupied, and I’ve been dropping clues left and right, all carefully concealed to the best of my ability.
The real story question is basically if the kids should choose between good or evil, but up until then the reader will have thought that the story question is how to get home, since that’s what the kids have been doing up until about 1/3 of the story.
How to get home is the ultimate goal, and the story question of the whole trilogy (this is book one).
How important is it to have the true story question of the book in the first quarter as opposed to nearer to 1/3 of the book?
Thanks in advance. I’ll appreciate help with this.
Randy sez: That depends on which of the “five pillars of fiction” are most important in your novel. The five pillars are Storyworld, Characters, Plot, Theme, and Style. For a plot-driven novel, you really want the story question to be as clear as possible as soon as possible. For novels driven by one of the other pillars, it’s okay to be fuzzier on the story question and to delay it a bit.
Let’s look at a few examples.
THE GODFATHER is a novel about a Mafia family in New York in the 1940s. This novel is, in my opinion, driven by the Storyworld itself — a world of violent crime, backstabbing, and dirty money. The story question takes quite a long time to emerge: Will Michael Corleone ever be able to come home? And the novel would be a fine novel, even if this story question was never clearly asked or answered.
THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE is a novel about a man who has a genetic flaw which causes him to spontaneously travel through time, and it’s about the woman who loves him. I would call this a character-driven novel. As the story continues, it gradually becomes clear that it’s rather dangerous to be a time-traveller when you always end up at your destination buck naked. But the story is about the characters and their love for each other, which transcends time. Even if the story question were never asked, this novel would still work. So it’s okay that the story question only becomes clear late in the game.
THE DAY OF THE JACKAL is a novel about a group of terrorists trying to assassinate Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s. This is a plot-driven novel and a very good one. The story question is very simple: Will they succeed? The story question sharpens up early in the story to this one: Will the Jackal kill de Gaulle? This is remarkable, because the reader knows very well that de Gaulle was NOT assassinated. Yet the story works because the reader believes that the story could have happened, in principle, exactly as told.
THE SHACK is a novel about a man who spends a weekend with God in the shack in the Oregon wilderness where his daughter was murdered. This is a theme-driven novel in which the primary question is theological: How can a good and all-powerful God allow innocent children to be murdered? The story question is related to that: Will the protagonist come to terms with his loss or won’t he? But again, the story question is actually less powerful for the reader, who cares more about the theological question than a story question about one man’s loss.
It’s a rare novel that’s driven mainly by style, although I suppose I could think of one if I worked at it hard enough. In literary novels, style is very important, but generally they also have either a strong Storyworld, Characters, Plot, or Theme to carry the narrative forward.
So getting back to Tessa’s question, is it okay for her to finally make her story question clear at the 1/3 mark instead of the 1/4 mark? Tessa, if your story is strongly plot-driven, then you probably need to rethink things and bring that story question closer to the beginning of the story. Otherwise, you may be fine as you are.
Question for my Loyal Blog Readers: Think about the current novel you’re working on. At what point does the story question become crystal clear to your reader? Is it soon enough for the category of fiction you’re writing? Leave a comment and tell us!
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Timothy R. Greene says
I think it is more then okay for the story question to be pushed off until the 1/3 mark. In the novel I am working on now which is a reworking of my very first novel, the story question does not show up until half way through the first half of the second act. And it isn’t really clear until the second disaster.
My second book I wrote after my first novel, the story question is not clear until the very end of novel. There are many hints through out the book pointing towards the question, but the question is not clear until the third to second end chapter.
Personally the longer you can hold off on the question, the better, because it makes a mystery that you want to know. Especially when the hints a dropped at the right moment then you takes us away from what you just revealed so we don’t have time to really think about it. I would go ahead with the change only to see how it works. Then go with the one that you think works best. If it is going to be too much work and you like how the story is already then go with that. if you can’t convince yourself that it is worth the work to make all those changes then your characters are telling you something.
Hope that helps.
Randy, thank you so much for answering this. It must have taken ages to put all this together. I really appreciate it.
My story has a very deep plot – many plots really that come together in the end (with some continuing into the next two books), so I would say that it’s plot-driven. But. I’m also introducing a whole new world of towns, magic, and things like that, and that weighs so much in the story.
I deleted the entire first chapter and made chapter two into chapter one. That way my story started off much quicker. But the story question about which way to follow (good or evil) is on page 112, and the final page number is 254. *sigh*
As for Style novels, two writers come to mind, anything by PG Wodehouse or Douglas Adams.
Douglas Adams has his tongue placed so firmly in cheek that he says the meaning to life, the universe, and everything is “42”, an ironical riff on a book (or life!) having any meaningful story question. Brilliant.
Humbly, I’m trying to write in a similar vein. As I daily turn my soul inside out and staple it on the page, it’s hard for me to take finding meaning seriously.
Daniel Smith says
Interesting. On another blog someone made the following proposition. I wonder if you think it had merit, Randy.
It’s this: With respect to the plot-driven versus character-driven debate, all stories are either about an abnormal person in a normal situation or a normal person in an abnormal situation. Thus they are either character-driven or plot-driven, respectively.
What do you think? Can stories be defined this way? And this begs the question: which is better/stronger/more fulfilling for the reader? Are there exceptions (like Harry Potter – abnormal boy who acts like a normal boy in a fantasy world)?
Daniel Smith says
You might put Raymond Chandler in as a Style writer too. And maybe the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming for the same reason. (Although the style I’m referring to in both cases is really dialogue from the main characters…so it could be called character-driven as well…it’s hard to wrap your head around this pillar…)
This prompted me to peruse about half of The Drowning Pool – 133 pages or so – to see how many similes I could count. (I’m using the Vintage Crime Black Lizard edition from May 1996). I counted thirty four and no doubt missed a few. I haven’t done the legwork, but I think some of the later books might have a slightly higher ratio. That’s a lot, but in any case I would argue that many of Macdonald’s similes are so strong that they infinitely enrich the work. Not only that – they are so strong that they put many “serious” writers of fiction to shame.
Bob C says
Wodehouse, Adams and Chandler wouldn’t be as good without their distinctive styles, but their books would still work. Wodehouse would still have great characters, Adams would still have a great theme. Chandler would still have great plots.
The only book that I’ve read that really struck me as being built on Style alone is “Tristram Shandy”. There are characters, themes and even snippets of comic plot, but Sterne seems to deliberately use them to play games with the reader’s expectations, instead of using them to structure a coherent story.
A difficult act to follow, especially two centuries and more later. I think I’ll be sticking to the first 4 pillars.
I doubt you read comments on ancient posts, Randy, but if you happen upon this one, my thanks for your work, which I am reading my way through with enjoyment and interest.