In my work as a fiction editor I often give writers the same piece of advice: focus, focus, focus on your core story. There, I said ‘focus’ three times. And here’s an image of someone focusing, too. That’s how important I think it is!
What do I mean by ‘focus on the story’? Well, a useful question to ask before you put pen to paper, and to keep asking yourself as you’re going along, is:
What is my story about?
It’s a simple question, but even for classic novels (perhaps especially for great novels), it can throw up a simple answer. Ideally you should be able to sum up your story in a sentence or two.
Jane Eyre is about a quiet governess who falls in love with her curmudgeonly employer. When it turns out the man is married, Jane does the honourable thing and leaves, even though she has nowhere to go, but is later rewarded with her happy ending.
Perhaps you might think it’s shallow to ‘reduce’ a classic to a line or two. What about the complicated themes that run through them? But it’s the story that’s key in a novel. If you have a moral or a theme or something deep you want to say, the story is your medium.
Pixar are the world’s animation experts and masters at storytelling. Here’s how they put it: ‘Trying for theme is important. However, you won’t see what the story is about until you’re at the end of that story. Got it? Now rewrite.’
Some people think reducing the classics to a ‘mere story’ means somehow demeaning them, and that ‘proper’ novelists don’t have to bother with something as trivial as a storyline, which is only for commercial fiction and films. After years of editing fiction, my view is that story is key.
Here’s Pixar again, on the rules of storytelling: Once upon a time there was…… Every day, ……One day……Because of that, …… Until finally……
Tolstoy was a classic storyteller. Here’s War and Peace in a paragraph. (If you haven’t read this brilliant book, there are spoilers ahead.)
Once upon a time there were three Muscovites – lively Natasha, stiff soldier Andrei and bumbling Pierre Every day, they socialised, fell in love, made mistakes and lived their lives like any others One day Napoleon invaded Russia Because of that, their lives were turned upside down, they were forced to face their mistakes, and stiff soldier Andrei was killed Until finally peace of a kind descended and to everyone’s surprise, bumbling Pierre married lively Natasha (which would never have happened without the war)
There, that’s War and Peace in a nutshell. (To be honest, my feeling is Tolstoy lost focus in the last 200 pages, and he should have cut them, but up till then it’s a classic story!)
Why is it so important to focus on the story?
Many writers have a great idea for a story. Let’s take the poor orphan who becomes a governess and falls in love with her employer, only to find out he’s keeping his wife in the attic.
Great story – until you start to write it. What’s so exciting about being a governess in an isolated spot? While the wife is a secret in the attic, there’s nothing much going on at Thornfield except embroidery and boring French lessons (apparently).
Here’s where a novice writer might think – I know, let’s introduce another character to liven things up! Maybe a new vicar arrives in town and runs off with housekeeper. That would add interest. Or perhaps Pilot the dog gets rabies and bites the postman. That would definitely have readers on the edge of their seats…
…Or would it? The trouble is, readers have picked up this book to get to know Jane Eyre, and the minute she meets Mr Rochester we want to know more about their developing relationship. We want to know all about these key characters. We want these key characters to have depth, and their relationship to have spark. While the vicar is running off with the housekeeper, we are failing to learn about Jane and Rochester. Too many random events like this, no matter how exciting in themselves, actually cause the reader to lose interest, rather than turn the pages.
Tips for keeping the story focus
- Avoid the temptation to inject ‘more interest’ with storylines that are unrelated to the key characters.
- Be brave! Don’t create characters and then ‘run away’ from them to introduce someone new. Keep your characters in the spotlight and get to know them.
- Put your key characters in situations that test them. These situations don’t have to be dramatic. Even a quiet gathering of friends at home can be the source of tense undercurrents (for example Rochester’s party at Netherfield).
- If you introduce a new character, ask yourself what is his/her purpose?
When Charlotte Bronte introduces Blanche Ingram at Netherfield, for example, it’s not just random. Blanche highlights Jane’s qualities by her coldness and avarice. She also forces Jane to realise just how much she cares for Rochester.
- Ask yourself what would happen to your key story if you removed one of your characters. If the answer is ‘nothing’ then why are they there?
- You’ve just had a brilliant idea! You want to use it, because it’s just so excellent. But ask yourself if that idea really belongs in this particular story. No matter how wonderful, you can’t just shoehorn them all in, or they’ll just become random fluff. Keep the brilliant idea for the next book, and focus on the story and characters you have.
- Remember, a book isn’t just a series of great scenes. A series of scenes, no matter how well written, will start to become dull. A scene has to be there to drive the story forward or reveal something about one of the characters. If it doesn’t, cut it, no matter how hard that is.
- This might seem contrary, but don’t worry if, after a while, you think your story is losing focus. Perhaps the story you first thought of isn’t the one you’re going to tell. This is where a rewrite and reworking comes in, but as you rewrite, ask yourself what purpose every single scene and character serves, and make a conscious decision about whether you keep them in or not.
Perhaps I’ve made this seem like hard work. But writing a book is hard work. Don’t let that put you off! If you have an idea for a story, start writing.
It’s only when you’ve started writing that you can see where you need to fix things, and you won’t write at all without the courage to make mistakes.