What I Did Wrong with My Novel

March 22, 2022

As wonderful as it was finishing the first draft of my 70,000-word thriller, Before the Collapse, I was uneasy. Something felt off. I walked away and planned my next project. I gave it some time. I read something fun (The Murderbot Diaries). Then I returned to my book with fresh eyes. And crap, the ending whiffed.

The feeling of catharsis readers have when closing the book is my top priority. A lackluster sense of resonance means I have a structural problem with my overall story arc.

Plenty of non-structural issues

Again and again, I stubbed my toe as I read over my work. Awkward descriptions, inconsistent references, and confusing passages begged to be tightened up. But I held myself back from being pulled into line editing, copyediting, and proofreading until I first addressed the broken structure.

My hero failed to refuse the call

When studying the craft, I remember wondering: Why must the hero refuse the call to adventure? The explanation I found was incomplete. Refusing the call makes a hero more relatable. Readers better relate to a character reluctant to jump into a life-or-death struggle. Makes sense.

Well, there’s more to it.

A satisfying payoff at the end of a book lands best when the character overcomes their issue and sacrifices the thing they thought they wanted in order to obtain the thing they need. For example, in Disney’s Cars, Lightning McQueen rejects the idea he’s a one-man show and sacrifices the victory in order to support his friends. The refusal set up the tension. If he hadn’t been so resistant to the moral lesson for most of the movie, his growth wouldn’t have been a relief.

✅ The hard decision at the climax must resolve the struggle the protagonist had been resisting all the while.

Anticlimactic clash with the antagonist

Upending tropes can be cool but subverting structure is stupid. I thought it’d be refreshing to have my murderous antagonist square off against my hero’s sidekick. “It’s literary,” I reassured myself. It could get people thinking that the real antagonist was less of a bad guy and more abstract. Big mistake.

✅ The hero’s struggle against the antagonistic force draws out the conflict between what they want and what they need.

Nobody celebrated the hero’s change

On the way home from school with my son, we listened to the Finding Nemo audiobook. I realized a new lesson about resolving the want/need conflict. It’s not enough for the reader to see the hero make the hard decision. The hard decision needs to be appreciated by another character.

When Nemo hears that his dad has been fearless, “My dad did all that?!” that’s a big payoff. But the dad, Marlin, wasn’t even in the scene. Later, when father and son are back together, Nemo proposes a dangerous plan and Marlin hesitates. He just got his son back and doesn’t want to lose him again. When his son pleads for his dad to trust him and his dad squares his jaw and expresses support for his son, it’s a wonderful moment of catharsis.

✅ The payoff lands when a hero’s change is recognized through their relationships.

Here comes the next draft

Alas, I’m going to end up tossing chapters that I foolishly rewrote dozens of times. I indulged in polish in order to hone my craft. So replacing those pieces is going to sting. But here goes nothing.

Featured image from Pixabay

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