Well, you choose some interesting characters, a scenic setting, a fun plot and a suitable period of history, and then you start writing … simples (as the Meerkats say). Right?
No, actually not so right, nor so simple (or simples), and (in my view) not very effective either.
The missing ingredient here is ‘story structure’. Oh no, I can hear you groaning, she’s going to go all technical on us, and here we are, creatively charged, bursting with ideas, fingers poised, ready to pour forth our bestseller …
Ok, that’s great, but just hang on to that motivation a moment while we take a quick taste of the missing ingredient.
Story structure is a concept used widely in film making, in TV reality shows, and, yes, in bestsellers.
Think of ‘Masterchef’, ‘Strictly’ even ‘Total Wipeout’ (a personal favourite) – what is it that makes you keep watching, what makes you switch on again the following night, the following week? Yes, you engage with the characters, but you especially engage with them as the challenges they face become greater and more difficult.
Think of the Grand National or the Horse of the Year Show – neither would make great viewing if the jumps got smaller as the course went on, rather than bigger.
Now think of your novel. Think of your characters lined up at the start, all they can see is the first jump (or problem/emotional issue/hint of danger – depending on your genre). Ha, they think, it’s going to be easy. But when they are over that first hurdle they find it’s not the end, there are plenty more jumps ahead, not just higher ones either, but wider, deeper, and much more tricksy ones too, like water combinations and doubles.
And that’s what story structure is, a carefully arranged series of hurdles and obstacles that your characters have to negotiate to reach the end of the story. The nature of these hurdles will vary depending on the type of novel you are writing. The protagonist of a thriller will face hurdles masquerading in the form of baddies (and often a nagging family issue too), the heroine of a romance will find a range of emotional issues standing in her way (and almost certainly a beautiful rival for Mr Right’s affections), characters in more ‘literary’ novels will come up against issues that challenge their humanity, integrity or even their spirituality. The main characters in my novels soon discover that it is their courage (mental, physical and emotional) that is going to be tested, as well as their loyalty to their friends and family.
So take the time to prepare your course, select your jumps, ones that will really test your characters. Then line them up, check your aim (especially if you are writing a crime thriller) and fire the starting pistol.