Last time, I talked about the big decision you must make when writing your story: Is your story idea/premise a brilliant one? What makes it brilliant? Is it something people will want to read? Don’t delude yourself into thinking that just because you’ve written a novel you think is fantastic that others will agree with you. Do not believe that even if it is a great novel that everyone will love it. No, not even Twilight, and The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter books were loved by everyone. And the classics that you were made to read in school and that your teachers all swore were superb? Go check out the Amazon reviews for some of those. We’re not saying that these books are not good, only that, good or not, not everyone likes them.
What’s my point? Just this: If not everyone likes great books with great story ideas, what are your chances with a mediocre story idea? Just saying. When you decide on your story idea, make sure it’s good enough to give you a fighting chance.
The decisions do not end there. Even the best of story ideas can be ruined by making bad decisions when writing it. These include who is narrating the story, how many narrators (character viewpoints) you will have, whether it will be told in first or third person, which verb tense you will use (past or present), and what style and voice will it be written in (light, dark, serious, humorous).
Lest you think that the basic story premise itself will dictate the style, you’re wrong. A vampire tale could just as easily be light and humorous as it could be dark and serious, and I’ve read both types. The same can happen with murder mystery or a romance. Not everything needs to be locked down in the beginning, but you’ll save yourself a lot of time later if you try to make intelligent choices initially. It’s a lot easier to change a novel from first person to third person partway through it than if realize it at the end. Sure, a lot of authors end up doing a complete rewrite for other reasons, but the fewer changes you have to deal with will make things much easier. And trust me that I know this from experience.
How you begin? Well, presumably your story premise is more than something vague like “a vampire story” or “a romance.” Do you remember STEP 2 from last time, where you need to create fascinating, memorable characters? Many of your decisions will be taken care of once you do that because the character personalities will help dictate the story’s needs. Let’s work through an example.
You’ve decided to write a romance novel. What kind of romance is it and who are the main characters? For a romance we need a boy/man and a girl/woman (unless it’s a gay romance). How old are they? Teens or adults? Is this the boy next door that the girl (now an adult) who had a crush on him since high school (potentially boring), or is he a mysterious hunk who just moved in next door after his elderly parents recently passed away, and no one knew they even had kids?
At this point, presumably, you have more than something this broad and vague. If not, you have some serious work to do before you can begin. DECISIONS must be made to narrow down the story. You don’t need an outline (although a brief one can help guide you), but the last thing you should do is to just start writing from a vague idea. Granted, some writers can gradually work through a story without know what’s coming in the future. Most of these are experienced writers. More likely you, as a novice, will end up wasting a lot of time and find yourself doing an extensive rewrite after your test readers tell you that “it’s a nice story, but…”
For sake of our discussion, I rather like the mysterious hunk who moved in next door. Why is he mysterious? We could dip into the realm of paranormal romance, if that’s your thing, and make him a vampire, or a werewolf (or some other were-creature), or even a witch/warlock on the run and hiding for some reason. If that’s not to your taste, then you can go with a different kind of secret, one that’s more normal.
Let’s say that you now have made your choice of interesting story and created interesting characters. Here is where you should be making intelligent choice before proceeding. Who will tell the story? Romance writers often like to flip viewpoints between the man and the woman and will use both in the story (hopefully without headhopping). However, if one of those characters has a secret, then going into that character’s perspective will force you, as a writer, to reveal the secret.
Why would you have to reveal it? Any good story must seem natural. As a general rule, if the character into whose heading you’re taking the reader knows something, then the reader must know it as well. And if you’re using a first-person narrator who is deliberately withholding that information, then it will seem forced to the reader or that you’re cheating. That’s how you annoy readers and lose them.
After you decide which character(s) will tell the story, you must determine the perspective: first or third person. Keep in mind that first person is more intimate, and unless you want you reader very close to the character, use third person.
Before you make the decision to use first person, please read this post:
Now we have the choice of present tense or past tense. Unless you’re comfortable with writing in present tense and have a specific reason for doing so (not all readers appreciate present tense and some find it annoying), then use past tense. It’s difficult to go wrong with third person, past tense, especially if you’re just starting out, but I strongly suggest writing out one chapter and offering it for critique to see if your choice works. If you’re not comfortable showing your work at that stage, then write your first chapter in two or all four combinations and see which feels right: third person, past tense; third person, present; first person, past; first person, present. Next time I will do that with a passage to show you the differences.
Note: There is another choice of perspective: second person. I recommend avoiding that until you’re more experienced, though. Second person can yield some stunning writing and effects, but quite a few readers will not be comfortable with it.
What’s left to decide at this early stage? Not much really. It might be helpful to experiment with the style, diction, tone, and voice of the first chapter. Will it be light, dark, serious, humorous—or some mix of these?
Next time, I’ll delve more into some specifics to give you guidance on making choices that might save you grief later on.