Welcome to The Toolbox, our newest online feature! In it, we’ll bring you indispensable tips from, and secret techniques of, established writers and long-time editors.
Our panel of experts this month includes Leila Sales (Mostly Good Girls, Past Perfect); Courtney Sheinmel (All The Things You Are; the Stella Batts series), Rebecca Serle (When You Were Mine), Jessica Rothenberg (The Catastrophic History of You and Me), and PLL’s co-heads, Lauren Oliver and Lexa Hillyer. At a recent writing retreat in upstate New York, the discussion turned to an all-important question: what to do when you have a great idea for a book, and you’re not sure how to proceed.
So for our very first Toolbox Trick-of-the-Trade, we’re starting with the basics:
I have a great idea for a book! What next?
A girl enrolls in a school, only to find it’s populated by aliens. A boy moves in with his uncle and begins to suspect that his cousin is a serial killer. A mermaid mates with a vampire and becomes a vampmaid.
If you’re like many writers, chances are you might have a killer idea for a story—and no idea where to begin. After consulting with our panel of experts, we recommend that you remember the Five C’s:
Character: Who is your main character? A 14-year-old girl? A 103 year-old-vampmaid? A rapscallion 13-year-old boy with a penchant for trouble? What kind of character appeals to you? What do you feel most able to write because of observation and experience? Consider carefully the kind of emotional aspects of character that appeal to you. Insecurity? The search for love? The desire for adventure? It is far more important to know that your 14-year-old protagonist is a little shy and secretly believes she is uglier than her classmates, than to know right off the bat that her nose is slightly too big for her face. Note, however, that knowing your character’s emotional characteristics helps you define their physical ones. More importantly, knowing the character will help you figure out what needs to happen next. There must be something the bo y wants, something that would make the girl feel less insecure, something that could feed the vampmaid’s ancient bloodthirst.
In the words of Rebecca Serle: “One of the first things I do when I have an idea for a book is sit down and write a prologue. This helps me get into the tone of the book and the voice of the character. It’s kind of like a mini-monologue, where the character states how she’s feeling and what she wishes had gone differently, what she regrets, what she’s proud of. It helps me figure out where I want the story to end up—how I want my character to change—and that gives me something to write toward.”
Community: Is your protagonist an only child? Are there important secondary relationships that define him/her, such as parents, siblings, friends, a well-meaning babysitter, a relationship with a baseball coach who turns out to be an alien wrangler, or a vampire-mermaid crossbreeder? Defining your character’s community can help you better understand your main character, and it will also help you determine context. Where does this story take place? A typical American suburb? A different planet? An abandoned zoo? Will the setting and cast perhaps offset the attributes of your main character? For instance, a guy with big dreams may live in a small town. A girl with agoraphobia (fear of leaving the house) might live in a huge city she’s too terrified to explore.
In the words of Courtney Sheinmel: “The first thing that comes to me is the character, and I always want to know, before I can really begin, who her friends are, what her family is like, who she keeps close. This also tells me more about who she really is. Once I have a sense of her community, her story is much easier for me to tell.”
Context: What is the situation your character finds herself in? Maybe the mermaid-vampire realizes the ocean is drying up. Maybe the athlete has gotten a terrible injury. Maybe the girl longing for adventure has run away and gotten lost. Much of your story will emerge straight out of this situation—it’s the context that tells you why the story has started now, at this particular moment in the character’s life. Likely, something has recently and drastically changed, causing your character to embark on an unpredictable journey. The context is often referred to as the “what if.” What if you took character X and put her in situation Y. Chances are, in order to deal with the situation, your character will need to do something. This will be your main narrative thrust—the character’s goal. And it all comes out of the context.
In the words of Leila Sales: “I spend a lot of time daydreaming about what it would take to make my idea make sense. I keep asking myself why, and what’s the point. What kind of emotional message do I want to convey? In Past Perfect I knew I wanted to write about a girl getting over an ex-boyfriend, and I wanted to write a book set in competing reenactment summer camps. But it wasn’t until I realized I wanted to write about Nostalgia, as a theme, that I was able to build in enough context to start plotting out the book.”
Central Conflict: There are no plots without conflict; it is the driving force behind all great books, novels, and plays. Sometimes, conflict is represented by a specific antagonist. The antagonist embodies the opposite set of emotional values and characteristics you’ve established for your main character. (Think: Harry Potter and Voldemort; Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader; the Little Mermaid and Ursula.) Sometimes, the conflict is a physical obstacle, like a maze, through which the character must navigate, or a mountain that must be climbed, a treasure that must be found, a grail sought. Often, it is an emotional obstacle—a sense of guilt and fear.
If you’re good, it will be some combination of the three. But in each case: the Central Conflict is a force that keeps the main character from easily accessing his or her goal. If it were all that easy to attain, your book would be quite short.
A MAJOR mistake many writers make early on is letting off the main character too easily. Always remember: it is much more interesting to read about someone overcoming challenges than it is to read about someone who doesn’t have to try very hard. If everything happens just like they planned, things tend to get boring. Conflict also allows the main character to prove herself, to surprise herself and the reader.
Knowing the Central Conflict will help you define the smaller obstacles throughout, and then the lucky reader will get to witness your character as she circumnavigates these obstacles. And guess what that’s called? A plot!
In the words of Jessica Rothenberg: “My ideas always start with the question ‘what if?’ I always want to know how a character is going to grow, what her struggle is. I try to imagine what crazy things are going to happen to her along the way, and how each thing is going to force her to adapt or change—ultimately she needs to learn something unexpected about herself or about life.”
Take a look at the two examples below:
1) Uncool Carla wants to go to prom with popular boy Peter, so she asks him and he says yes, and they go.
2) Uncool Carla wants to go to prom with popular boy Peter, who is dating mean-girl Arielle, so she launches a desperate plan to break up the golden couple, which immediately backfires and condemns her to social purgatory. Totally mortified and repentant, she attempts to reconcile Peter with his ex through an increasingly elaborate scheme…only to find herself falling for him for real.
In example one, character (Carla & Peter), community (she’s unpopular, he’s cool) and context/goal (she wants to go to prom) are there, but no conflict. It’s unclear how to turn that sentence into a book.
In example two, conflict has been inserted. We have the antogonist: Arielle. We also have a central conflict: wanting to reconcile Peter with Arielle so she can redeem herself vs. wanting Peter for herself. Now everything she does in service of her goal of bringing Peter and Arielle back together is also creating new obstacles for her, as prom night looms closer and closer.
Character, Community, Context, Central Conflict—these will take your idea out of your head and onto the page. Happy writing!
Let us know in the comments if any of these tips work for you and if you have any questions you’d like to see answered in future editions of The Toolbox, be sure to let us know here or by tweeting at us at @paperlanternlit.
Check out some photos from the retreat that inspired this edition below!