Write Your Novel #3: What Do I Write?

What do I write?

You may be one of those lucky people who can sit down and just start writing and the words just flow – but there’s no adhesion. It’s just a bunch of words that have nothing behind them. Your characters don’t interact with each other, your timeline is all over the place, you have no clue what you’re writing about. You are stymied.

You can keep writing and hope something eventually comes out of all this, or you can come at it from a journalist’s perspective. Ask the questions that start with: who, what, where, when, how:

  •  WHO is my story about?
  • WHAT is my story about?
  • WHERE does my story take place?
  • WHEN does the story take place?
  • WHY should readers (i.e. editors and agents) read this story?
  • HOW is this story different from, and the same as, others in ‘my’ genre?

Let’s look at these a little more in depth. The first, WHO, refers to the characters. The people who populate your story. For right now, since we are at the very beginning of the story, just make notes on your main characters. There should be no more than two (three for a romance) – the protagonist(s), also known as the hero and/or heroine, and the antagonist or villain. Keep in mind that in some stories, the villain may not necessarily be a person. In some stories, the setting becomes the villain. These are usually ones where the hero is fighting something fierce like a storm or his/her environment. You can also jot down ideas for secondary characters. We’ll go into more depth on creating characters next week. For now, just write down some ideas.

WHAT is my story about? I’m going to throw out a scary word here – theme. Before you run screaming into a dark corner, let me explain. Theme is nothing more than what your story is about. Most themes are very basic – love, security, happiness, and so on. There are three main types of theme out of which all the minor ones grow: physical, mental, spiritual.

Physical themes include things like money, health, home, warmth…anything that gives physical comfort. Survival stories often revolve around this. Mental themes are emotional – happiness, love, companionship. Most romances are in this category. Vengeance also lies in this theme. The last one is spiritual – this is a little more esoteric, answering the questions like “what is the purpose of life?” “Why are we here?” and so on. These are often more literary stories, where the main character is trying to figure out a deeper meaning for his or her life.

So, when someone asks you what your story is about…Do you mumble something like: Well, it’s about this girl who runs away from home and gets caught in a storm and ends up in a strange place with weird people and…

“The Wizard of Oz” is about security, home, love, and acceptance. “There’s no place like home” is the perfect line to explain the theme of the story.

Think about what you want your story to be about and jot that down.

Before I go any further here, let me advise you to have a file folder or notebook or something useful that you can use to make notes and keep them all in one place (remember in the first lesson when I talked about organization?). You’re going to be glad you had this all set up.

Okay, back to our journalistic questions. WHERE and WHEN are similar in concept in that they both deal with setting. Whether you set the story in a real place or made up one, you’re going to need to make notes on where it takes place. What is unique about this place? What does it look like? We’ll do a lesson about world building later, but for now, just make notes on the location of your story. This can be as broad as just the name of a city or state, or as specific as an address. The “when” of the story is not just about year, but also season and time of day. You’ll need notes on these later for your timeline.

WHY should readers read your story? What makes your story unique? Different? Why should someone shell out their hard earned money for your book as opposed to someone else’s? Why are you the perfect person to write this story? Though you don’t really need this to write your story, it will become helpful later on when you do submissions or promos. HOW is similar to this and something you need to think about. HOW is your story similar to others in the genre and how is it different? These are important questions to answer, again for the purpose of submission and/or promos.

So here is your homework for the week:

Read a book.

  1. Look at the journalist’s questions and answer them as well as you can. This will be the basis of your story.
  2. Go for a walk, or if it’s too cold, go to a mall and study your surroundings and the people. Make notes of anything unusual or interesting that you might be able to use to enhance your story.


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