I’ve been writing novels for the last eight years. It’s been a long road, and I still haven’t gotten one published. Why? Because I thought the plot of my novel was the most important thing in the world.
And I was wrong.
Now, I want to teach you all the misconceptions I had when tackling my first book. This will be my first post in a 12-part series on how I structure and write my novels. Hopefully, you’ll be able to learn something from my mistakes.
I started writing novels thinking that I needed an exciting plot, one that went at break-neck speed toward a very obvious climax and that my characters would grow and change along the way without much say from me. In many of these early drafts, that was the case, but the character growth was steamrolled by action, action, action, and no recovery time.
Why was this a problem? Because without that downbeat, that recovery time from the events happening to your characters, there is no time for growth. And while you might be reeling at the idea of setting aside the gorgeous plot you’ve laid out in your head, I advise you to listen again:
Your plot is not as important as you think.
Your Characters are More Important
Everyone stresses the importance of plot on a lot of writing blogs. They may not say it directly, but one of the golden rules of writing is:
“Hook me in the first five pages.”
~ Noah Lukeman
This seems to get misinterpreted to mean that something exciting has to immediately happen within the first five pages of your manuscript. Which gets further misread in most cases to mean you’ve got to start your book off with some crazy plot twist, something exciting, something ground-breaking.
And while all of these things are good intentions, it may be hindering the most important part of your book: your characters.
If you have an explosion on the first page and we haven’t even met your protagonist, we’re not going to care that his brother was killed in the blast. We’ll have no attachment to them, no glimpse into their relationship, that will make us feel the loss we’ve witnessed.
So consider how to start your book off right by introducing the reader to who your character really is. Their character is shown through what they notice, how they interact with others, or even their internal dialogue.
But please don’t start with the following cliches
- Waking up
- Going to school (YA specific, unless your school is unique)
- Looking into the mirror/pool/ocean/anything reflective
- Backstory galore (I don’t care if you’re writing fantasy, you still don’t get to do this)
None of these show the reader who your character is from the get-go. These are overused openings and will get your manuscript shoved to the bottom of the pile. Or worse, instantly rejected. (Trust me, I read over 900 query letters while interning for a literary agent. These openings get really old really fast.)
Consider putting your character in a slightly abnormal situation in your opening. They’re at work but something’s gone awry, they’re at school and a new kid arrives/natural disaster happens, or they’re working on one of their favorite things.
Give us a situation that a reader can get into your characters’ heads, and you have a hook. What that scene might be, depends on the character and (honestly) the reader’s tastes. But give us something that your protagonist cares about.
Your Plot Is Less Important Than Other Elements
By giving us nothing but a break-neck plot, you’re not giving us a reason to care about the sequence of events because we haven’t connected to your characters. I’ve seen so many writers make this mistake, and honestly, it’s almost so often that I’m starting to consider it a right of passage. If you do this, don’t get discouraged; you’ll learn when it happens (your beta readers and critique partners will surely point these spots out), and you’ll learn how to avoid it (using character interviews, changing the opening, or even changing your narrative POV). Get good enough and you may even be able to make fast-paced plots work to your advantage.
By working on developing and understanding your characters first, you’ll be able to have your break-neck plot but we’ll care. After your readers are attached, you can add in some explosions and a World History lesson. As long as it fits into the proper pacing of your story.
If you or someone you know suffers from over-plotting and under-developed characters, send them this article or share it on social media. Because it’ll save them a lot of time to learn this now rather than eight years later like I have.