from concept to story

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For the entire course of this year, we’re going to forget everything literary agents tell you not to do when you’re querying them. As a matter of fact, we’re going to forget literary agents even exist! We’ll remember literary agents and their likes and dislikes when the time is right, but at the very, very beginning of your first novel, forget them.

Tropes and heavy sections of back-story can be weeded out later with edits. The most important way to begin a novel or short story is to write for the sheer joy of storytelling.

You must experiment to find your own way into your story, but I’m going to share some techniques that have made writing a novel easier for me. I put a great deal of planning into my novels before I write the first word, so when I begin to write, I have a general map of how I want the novel to progress.

Here are three important things I think about:

Theme. Write the kind of novel you would like to read. So ask yourself:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What are some of your favorite themes (redemption, falling in love, good overcoming evil)?
  • What kind of story can you write using those themes?

Don’t let anyone tell you genre fiction is bad or not real writing. The important thing is that you love your theme and your characters. If you do, your passion will be reflected in your novel.

Point of view. What voice will best carry your story: first person, third person limited, or third person omniscient? Can you show everything through one character’s point of view? Then first person might be your best choice. I prefer third person limited, because this viewpoint gives me the ability to use multiple characters and their points of view to tell my story. Perhaps the most difficult of the three is third person omniscient, but this can be very effective when done well. Jesse Bullington used third person omniscient very effectively with his novel The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is also an example of third person omniscient.

Characters. Think about what kind of protagonist will best convey your theme. Will your protagonist be male or female? Who or what will be the opposing force in your protagonist’s journey? What is your protagonist’s major flaw? Don’t do a character sketch at this point, just bounce some ideas and jot down your thoughts.

When I interviewed Alex Bledsoe and Lisa Mannetti, they talked about the importance of finding their protagonist’s voice when they begin their novels. Initially, An Autumn Tale was going to be a young adult novel told from Peter’s point of view, but I could never find Peter’s voice. Lucian stole every scene I tried to write, and it was his voice that spoke to me the strongest.

Here’s the trick that helped me find Lucian’s voice for An Autumn Tale: I wrote three short scenes from first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient points of view for three characters I had in mind for An Autumn Tale. The scenes that flowed smoothly and gave me my strongest storyline were from Lucian’s point of view.

Now you try. Pick the protagonist of your novel and write three short scenes from first person, third person limited, and third person omniscient points of view for your protagonist.

Which character speaks to you the loudest? Which point of view feels the most natural for the story you want to tell? Were you surprised by what your characters had to say?


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4 Responses to from concept to story

  1. lawrenceez says:

    Hi Teresa,

    Thanks for your interesting article. The section on voices really rung true. The problem is, I love writing in the first person (as I’ve done in my second novel) but I don’t feel comfortable working in the first person narrator of a female character (current novel). I just can’t bring myself to do it. At present, I’m building up the central character in other ways.

    The revision is going well, I think. I’m at the 27,000 word stage.

    Hope your new year was good.



    • Teresa says:

      That’s really funny, Lawrence, because I love writing in third person limited, but my next novel is coming to me in first person!

      I’m so glad your revision is going well. I’m working through my last three chapters, then I’ll have a final edit before I send mine to beta readers. I’m already gathering notes for my next novel and writing these little articles remind me of the tricks I used when I was getting started with An Autumn Tale.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Lindsay says:

    Nice post!

    I usually start out with the character, figure out what they want and how it can get them into trouble, and go from there. 🙂

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Lindsay, so nice to see you.

      I love books and stories that start with characters, and you’ve outlined the same formula I use. My problem is that sometimes I start to love my characters too much to be mean enough to them. Of course, I always get over it.

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