Thursday, January 17, 2008

Novel Problems

Posted by Lynne Griffin

How do you feel when you hear the words problem, conflict, argument or confrontation? To some, thems fightin words, to the writer they are part and parcel of writing a strong story.

Rarely in my roles as wife, mother, business woman and teacher do I shy away from problems. I'm not one to think problems are bad things, merely situations that need a closer look and a creative plan for resolution. With clear and kind confrontation, my husband and I grow closer after we solve a home maintenance problem, or a disagreement about our stance on a parenting issue, or a difference of opinion over a business decision. Once the problem is identified, only then can we develop a strong, well thought out plan of attack for working things out.

Like any relationship, readers can have problems with novels too. And for the writer, to know them in advance is to solve them. Turning the other way, thinking you can avoid facing the fact that something doesn't work is as unwise a thing to do with your story, as it is to look the other way when a friend is upset with you.

In the magnificent novel Atonement, by Ian McEwan, the novel lives and dies on the strength of the character, Brionny. The central potential problem of this novel, in my opinion, is that it rests on whether or not readers will have empathy for this lonely girl, with a vivid imagination and a crush on an older boy, who propels the story forward by altering lives. Trust me, McEwan delivered.

As did Donna Tartt, in her wonderful novel, A Secret History. One potential problem in this novel related to stakes and tension. Because the author tells the reader in the first chapter who murdered a major character, Tartt had to work hard to keep the stakes and tension high enough to keep readers reading.

From the very beginning, writing Life Without Summer, I was given feedback that the structure I chose was a potential problem, as was my novel's theme. I looked at this as a gift, and I actively used readers' concerns in crafting and revising the novel. Without a doubt it is a better book because I took the challenges on. I think it's better to know the potential problems of your novel, facing them head on as you write, then to be blindsided by them later when the novel potentially falls apart. Likely there will be enough minor details and/or plot elements to contend with later on.

I've come up with a few examples of potential novel problems, ones I believe are important for writers to be aware of, right from the start. Feel free to add others in the comment section of this blog post.

  • If you're writing a voicey piece, how will you sustain it throughout the novel so readers won't tire of it?
  • If you're writing a novel over a long period of time (Think London, by Edward Rutherford) how will you transition the work to move time forward and still keep readers interested?
  • If you're writing in multiple points of view, how will you help the reader keep characters straight? A confused reader will put your book aside in favor of one that takes the reader by the hand.
  • Again, if you're writing from multiple points of view, how do you avoid having readers like one character better than another. You don't want them sighing when the next scene or chapter involves the less likable one.
  • If you're writing a period piece, how do you make it relevant to today so that readers can relate?
  • If setting is central to your novel, how will you vary it enough to keep readers from skipping descriptive passages?
  • If you've come up with a wild idea for a plot line, is it believable? Is the reader pulled into the fictional world so deep they'll buy your explanations for how plot unfolds?
  • In the crowded marketplace, you've got the first page or two to hook readers, does your beginning reach out and grab?
  • With any work, how do you make the middle of your novel interesting enough to keep readers hooked until the end?
  • Does your ending satisfy?
When it comes to potential novel problems, I suggest a bring it on philosophy, rather than turn the other way tactic. That's one of the many reasons I treasure my friends at The Writers' Group. In knowledgeable and compassionate ways, they tell me like it is. And I know my work is better as a result.


Amy said...

Thanks, Lynne! I've been a lurker on this blog for awhile, but this entry needed a comment. It gave me the boost I've been needing to attack my plot again after a rather hard critique. Thanks for the inspiration.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Thanks Amy, I appreciate you coming out of hiding. And even more pleased the post helped you commit to tackling a revision.

Best, Lynne

Carleen Brice said...

Great post! I had problems in Orange Mint and Honey that I hoped I solved: the mother, a recovering alcoholic, used to be a "bad" mother but now is not. My problems: How to make her daughter's (the POV character) pain valid and real without making the mother completely unlikable? How to get the mother's side of the story across when she's not a POV character? We'll soon see if I pulled it off!

Therese Fowler said...

So many good points...

I like "bring it on" as well--seems to me this is how we court originality.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Your examples of novel problems will really add a realistic view to my post, thank you! BTW, have I told you how much I love your title, Orange Mint and Honey?


Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


So many good points...

The teacher in me took over as I wrote my post yesterday. You can't take the teacher out of the writer, I guess.

Yes, like you, I think an open mind and a willingness to face novel problems may very well be the seed of originality.

Thanks for commenting--Lynne

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