12 Questions To Help Structure Your Novel: All In One Post

Here are the 12 questions, all in one place!

I often throw around the statement “Writing saved my life.” But what does this really mean? Below, I’ll be talking about one very specific way that writing saved me, and how important it is to all humans. When I was a little girl I used to walk in circles around my backyard, twirling my curls around one finger and sucking my lip and, most importantly, telling myself stories. When I made a “mistake” I forced myself to start over from the beginning. Obsessive Compulsive or Aspiring Writer? You be the judge.

Jokes aside, later I realized that this activity served a very specific purpose for me as a child—it alleviated my anxiety. But why?

In WIRED FOR STORY, Lisa Cron argues that story was crucial to our evolution, providing templates for survival in a dangerous world. “Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it.”

So by telling myself stories I was “preparing” myself for my future. I was helping myself “survive.” But I wasn’t content just telling myself these stories. I wanted to become a writer and share my stories with others so I would feel less isolated and alone. But how can we “seduce” others to care about our stories? We need to write stories that guide them in their own lives, that teach them how to “survive” too.

Cron says: “Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.”

“Nature’s way of seducing us.” What does this mean? You know that high you get from reading a great book that makes you want to turn the pages, keeps you up at night, makes you jittery all day to get back to the story? Lisa Cron links this to dopamine released by the brain as an evolutionary development to engage us with the story so we will learn something we need in order to survive.

Not just any story can make the brain respond this way. What’s key here is a “tale well told.” But what does that really mean? What elements of story must be present in order to fully engage the reader so they receive the dopamine rush that keeps them reading?

Below, we’ll be looking at the twelve questions I use to outline my novels, and applying the ideas from WIRED FOR STORY to them to see if these questions serve an evolutionary (survival) purpose.

1. The first question to ask yourself is: What is the main character’s gift? Often my students have written whole first drafts and don't know the answer to this question.

Sometimes this is because many first novels are autobiographical and most of us don't really value our own special gifts. Our friends do.  It helps to ask them.

Whether your character is based on you or not, usually they do have a special gift, even in a rough first draft, but it may not be developed or externalized enough. Meaning, if your character is intelligent, can you make them even more so? Can you show this intelligence through actions they take rather than just by telling us about it?  For example, can they solve a mystery that pertains to the novel?  In fantasy, paranormal, magical realism and science-fiction these traits can be externalized in dramatic ways. For example, a character can have visions, telepathy, telekinetic abilities or other "superpowers".  In realistic fiction we have to find ways to show a special gift in terms of every day life, and through action! 

This is important according to the 'survivalist theory" of storytelling because a reader needs to identify with a main character on an emotional level in order to go on the journey and identify the meaning of the story, at least in a subconscious way. Otherwise we won’t care, we won’t learn, we won’t “survive.”

Also, gifts can be the thing that allow the characters to survive. As readers, our interest is piqued and we begin to wonder how the gift will be employed to help the character survive. The character may not know or recognize the gift but the writer should know it.

An example: In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout is strong and loyal.  She is also innocent, which allows her to keep her faith in humanity in spite of everything that happens. Her innocence also helps save Atticus when the mob threatens him.  She is many other positive things (smart, spunky, funny) but for the purposes of this exercise let's focus on the first three traits.  Next week we will look at the character "flaw".  Hint: It works well if it is the flip-side or extreme of the gift.

2. The next question to ask yourself: What is the character’s flaw?  It is helpful if the flaw is the negative extreme of the gift.  In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout's flaws (the extremes of her strength and loyalty) can be seen as her stubbornness, wilfullness and pride, all of which get her into trouble.  The extreme of her innocence can be seen as naivete about the true nature of good and evil.  

Flaws are important in the "survivalist" theory of storytelling because readers need the character to get into trouble so we can see the worst case scenario of the story, and what to avoid in life  Flawed characters are interesting because they cause things to happen around them, which motivates the reader to turn the pages and satisfies the need for story.

Don't worry that a flawed (read: human) character will be unsympathetic.  Flaws will actually make them more sympathetic because we will be able to identify with them.  Of course, a really negative character will be hard to identify with. That's why their gift is so important.  (See last week's post)

Next we will talk about what the character wants and how this human desire will also help make the character easy to relate to.  Even an anti-hero can capture our hearts and minds if they have a flaw that makes them an interesting participant in the story, (rather than a passive observer) as well as a gift and a strong want that we understand.

What is your character's flaw? Is it an extreme negative side of their gift?  Does it get them into trouble? Does it humanize them?  Think about the gift/flaw of some of  your favorite characters in literature!

3. What does the character want? This is important because it gives us something to care about and vicariously fight for through the protagonist, especially if we sympathize with them—see Question #1. This can even help us identify with an unsympathetic character because basic wants humanize people and help us feel connected to them.

For example, if a father desperately want to take care of his family, we can understand his motivation for doing illegal and immoral things to get money. (This blog series is about books, so I won't mention a certain very popular TV show that deals with this, but I bet you can guess!) 

Remember that forming a connection between the reader and the character has "surival" purposes because a character who engages us also encourages us to want to keep reading and glean the important meaning from the story.

Wants can change over the course of the story, of course.  They should change, to keep the story interesting.  Make sure to start with a strong want from the very first page!  It might not be the main "want" of the story but we need something to attach to and route for. 

Think of want as something tangible and active, rather than deeper and more emotional. For example, finding a romantic partner, having a child, saving a house from foreclosure, overcoming an illness, rescuing a loved one, escaping a violent regime are all wants we can identify with and that have the potential to be built into an active storyline. 

The more active the main character is, the better.  I used to think that what made a character sympathetic was exposure to adversity, but I have learned that it is actually fighting in the face of adversity. We don't want to pity a character; we want to route for them. Again, this plays into the survival idea because an active character keeps us on the edge of our seat, turning the pages to find out what happens next.

In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout wants to go to school in the beginning of the book.  But her greater want is to defend her family, even if it gets her into trouble. Both are active wants, rather than just things for her to ruminate about. Atticus wants to teach his children about the nature of good and evil. 

What does your character want in the beginning of the book? How does it change? What other wants come up? Does your character pursue them actively?

4. What does the character need? Unlike the want, which the character is very aware of, the need is the thing that they are unaware of, the thing that is necessary for them to achieve in order to grow and reach the culmination of their arc (something we will address next time).  The need is important because it teaches the reader about the qualities that are essential to surviving in the world, but only if the character almost doesn’t survive.  We will look at this idea of danger and its importance in questions #6, #9 and #10 to come. 

Survival may not be literal—it can translate to: the things one needs to be happy or succeed at a certain quest. It can also translate to: the qualities one needs to be a better person, such as self-love, courage, kindness, the ability to face the truth, etc.  In MOCKINGBIRD Scout’s need is to develop compassion as a way to address the inequities in the world.

If you are writing an anti-hero, they may not ever find what they need.  However, we, as the reader may come to understand, through the character's actions, the importance of the qualities or traits that he or she never achieves. 

5. When planning your story, ask yourself, What is the character arc?

To define the arc, think of the state of mind that the character is in at the beginning of the book and their state of mind at the end.  Often it is from a "negative" state to a "positive" state (i.e. fearful to brave, isolated to connected, selfish to loving) unless you are writing a tragedy.  Think of your book as a series of scenes of conflict between the main character and the antagonists that push the main character toward the culmination of their arc.

To tie the arc to previous questions ask yourself, How does the central gift help the character reach the culmination of their arc?

Often the "flaw" shows up at the opening of the book and in the beginning of the arc.  How does overcoming the flaw help the character reach the culmination of the arc?  

Following a character's arc is important because it provides a reader with a template for what to do or not do in dangerous situations.

For Scout, the arc can be defined as going from a somewhat prejudiced child to becoming a wiser, compassionate young woman (a classic coming of age arc.) Her strength serves her well here. Her love and loyalty to her family (as well as Atticus’ teachings and the circumstances she faces) help her fully open her heart to others and see the truth about Boo Radley.

6. It's interesting to me that many of my students don't know the answer to this question:  Who is the antagonist? Some people argue that the story problem or the protagonist's inner struggle is the antagonist but I would argue that this is not enough and that we must embody opposition in an actual physical foe. The story problem has to be expressed through character interaction and confrontation. The inner struggle is expressed through interior thought, dialogue and action but not inter-action. 

When we know our antagonist, and know him or her well, it is much easier to work on our novels.  A strong, dimensional antagonist adds tension, conflict and most importantly forces the protagonist to change.

Ask yourself, How does my antagonist interfere with what my protagonist character wants? How does my antagonist force my protagonist to achieve what they need? This is important because it provides obstacles to the character goal, raises the stakes and gives the reader the dopamine rush as they wonder, what will happen next? Mr. Ewell is the obvious antagonist Scout must overcome in the climax of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Boo Radley is the false antagonist at the beginning, and even Atticus can be seen as an antagonist in that he forces her to change. In my opinion, a love interest or parent or best friend antagonist is the most complex and interesting and dimensional. If they are generally a positive force in the protagonist's life you will want to add a more overt antagonist as well. 

7. How does setting help define or contrast with the story problem? This is important because it gives a specific context to the story. The reader can apply the story to their own world more easily if the world of the story feels real, plausible and specific. A clear setting helps the reader navigate their own world more clearly. Even though a story is set in the past, its story problem can be relatable to today’s audiences because parallels must be drawn. By the same reasoning, if a story is set in a sci-fi/future world, the emotional principles are still valid and accessible. As “animals with an instinct to survive,” we make sense of our world by looking to past experiences for clues as to what to do/not to do. In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the small town setting is a perfect place for Harper Lee to express her thoughts and ideas about prejudice and morality.

8. What style of writing will you use to tell the story? How is the character reflected in the style and through the POV? How is the story problem reflected? This is important because it will help us invest more deeply in the story so that we will be seduced into learning the things we need in order to “survive.” In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout's spunky voice can engage the readers, drawing them into the story without hitting them over the head with a theme or didactic message. 

Think about style elements that seduce the reader into the world of your story.  Is your voice fresh and natural and uniquely yours? Does it reflect the tone of the story? Is your imagery sensory and rich and do you avoid cliches?  Is the POV you've chosen the best one to convey what you want to your reader?  First and close third are most common and share similar advantages. But don't be afraid to mix it up, as long as you are clear and consistent and be sure not to change POV's at random, but always for a reason.  Are your sentences smooth, do they flow, is your syntax correct? What about your grammar?  Do you have a natural rhthym between description, action, dialogue and interior thought? Some of these things can be improved in your second and third drafts but you should have a sense of your voice right away. Try to write in the voice that comes to you naturally at first. After a few chapters, take an objective look and see if the voice is working. Analyze what works best and what isn't as successful and then put conscious effort into tailoring the voice as needed.

9. What is the biggest crisis of the book? (Dark night of the soul). How does it test the character? In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, perhaps it is the shooting of Tom Robinson, when Scout realizes the corruption of the world. This serves to open her mind and heart.

10. How does the climax demonstrate a push toward the resolution of the character arc? When Scout is saved from Ewell by Boo Radley she realizes the true nature of good vs. evil and not to fear what she doesn't know or to judge someone just because they are different.

11. What is the theme? Can you state it as a cause/effect sentence? If...then... Can you state theme in terms of character arc (and survival?)? If we open our hearts and treat others with kindness and morality and as our equals, if we protect the innocent, we will mature into wise, content adults in spite of the evil in the world.

12. How does the resolution of the book reflect the theme? Scout is safe and loved with her family and she has a friend—Boo Radley—and an open heart, all of which will help her "survive."