In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,
Many beginning writers fall into the trap of thinking too small with their stories. The resulting projects lack multidimensional characters, tension, and stakes. The whole novel goes from point A to point B with only a few bumps in an otherwise straight line. None of the characters experience deep, seismic shifts in their lives, beliefs, or identities. And I fail to care even a little bit about the story because there’s not much of one.
If your reader doesn’t care about your story, it’s over.
There’s no way around it. There’s nothing you can do about it. And it doesn’t matter that you think every sentence of your story is lovely, that your use of setting is stellar, that your POV work is ambitious.
There needs to be a story that readers care about. And you need to write characters they connect with. I’ve struggled a lot in my writing life throughout the years, but one thing I’ve tried hard to do well when it comes to my short stories and novels is writing compelling stories with three-dimensional characters. Stories that make you keep flipping through the pages. Characters you can relate to.
I would much rather read a novel that’s just so-so written but has an amazing story and unique characters than read a novel that’s beautifully written but has no story or characters I care about. Something needs to pull you through the narrative. Something needs to keep you coming back. I’m a slow reader and often need a week or longer to finish a novel.
I can’t tell you how many novels I’ve started reading that I enjoyed for a few chapters… but then lost interest. I’m sure the same thing has happened to you, too. Sometimes I’ll make it halfway through a novel and then still give up. And with more and more years that go by, and less and time it seems, that book really needs to keep me hooked from beginning to end.
Such is why it’s important for you not to think too small with your stories, and instead think big.
But what exactly does it mean to think big with your stories?
You might think this means you need to write a giant epic fantasy novel that takes place in a whole new world with robots and cyborgs and magical lands and apocalyptic winters and death-defying action scenes.
No. Thinking big with your story doesn’t mean the story itself needs to be big and epic. You can still tell a realistic contemporary novel about a romance. You can write a suspense thriller that takes place in one day. You can tell a simple story about friendship and growing up, you can really do whatever you want when it comes to the actual idea.
What Mary Kole is discussing in that quote is that you need to go beyond your basic story idea in order to write a truly compelling novel. It’s not enough to just come up with an idea you love and tell the story in a way that offers little in the way of obstacles and tension and surprises. It’s not enough to come up with a cast of stereotypical characters we’ve read in a hundred other books.
Sure, just getting a first draft of a novel completed is a major first step and worthy of celebration. A lot of people can’t even get that far.
But if you want to be published, you need to start thinking bigger. Imagine you’re the reader of your book. Would you want to read every page? Is there any place in the narrative you might find yourself drifting?
Kole talks about stakes in that quote. I believe having high stakes in a novel is immensely important. High stakes can be a lot of things, of course. It can be life and death for your protagonist externally or internally. It can be winning the state championship game, or getting the girl, or just surviving middle school. But the stakes need to be there somewhere, in every chapter hopefully. You can’t write a story that grips the reader without any stakes.
Stand out from the pack by thinking big, not small, with your latest story.
When it comes to your latest narrative, don’t just do the obvious. Don’t take your story from point A to point B in a way that twenty other writers would, too. Do something original. Throw obstacles at your characters. Tell your story from a POV that might not be expected. Include a twist in chapter five, not necessarily chapter twenty-five.
There’s a lot you need to do in order to be a published novelist. So many struggles you’ll face along the way, like I have. You can follow all the rules, do everything you think you need to, and still get rejected. You can write the best story you can, revise it to death over the course of two or three years, and still get rejected. You can sign with an awesome agent, have your work pitched to equally awesome editors, and still get rejected.
It’s why one of the first things you should do when you start a new project is think big, not small. Think about ways you can stand out from the pack. The idea itself doesn’t have to necessarily be super original, but the way you tell the story should be. You should tell the story in a way that no other author would.
You might not deliver on your first novel, or your latest novel, whichever number that may be. It might take you a few more. I just finished the first draft of my twentieth novel… and I’m still trying. I’m still going for it, thinking big every time.
If your dream is to become a published novelist like mine is, just keep writing, keep growing, and keep thinking big.
As long as you don’t give up, you’ll get there eventually!