Plotting Fiction: Novellas And The Story Question (Novella Series 3)

When you’re plotting fiction, here’s the essence: your plot is what your characters DO.

We discussed developing characters in our second article in this novella-writing series, Writing Short Fiction: How To Develop Characters (Novella Series 2).

When you focus on what your characters do, and WHY they do it, plotting your novella is simple, even if you’re a dedicated pantser, as I am. (Mostly.)

Plotting fiction: create a goal for your main character

As soon as possible when you’re writing and plotting fiction, establish that your main character has a goal he’s desperate to achieve. He must achieve this goal; if he doesn’t, his life as he knows it is over.

The central idea of your novella: will your main character achieve his goal? is the story question.

The all-important story question keeps readers reading

The story question is the beating heart of your fiction.

It keeps readers reading. Readers know how important his goal is to your main character, so they want to know whether he’ll win through.

Often, you’ll hear literary critics bleating about how badly written a bestselling novel is. When you analyze such a widely-panned novel, you realize the author established the story question EARLY and narrative drive compelled readers to tear through the novel.

Critics lashed Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. They screamed “drivel” into the void; readers just wanted to know: what happens next?

You establish your novella’s story question when your character decides on his goal and you (and he) realize how all-important it is.

Let’s look at three characters’ goals in popular culture. These goals are vitally important to the main character, so they give rise to the story question:

  • In Gone With The Wind, despite the destruction of war, Scarlett O’Hara wants Ashley Wilkes;
  • In Jaws, Brody wants to kill the shark which is terrorizing his town;
  • In The Exorcist, Karras wants to exorcize the demon possessing Regan.

Once you’ve resolved whether your main character achieves his goal, you’ve answered the story question. Then your novel, novella or short story is done.

Beginning your novella with the story question in mind

In a novel, you might spend three scenes of your first chapter establishing your main character, the setting, and his situation, before the story question lights a fire under him.

Unlike a novel however, novellas get off the mark quickly.

I like to establish the story question in the first scene — if I can do it in the first few hundred words, all the better.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re writing a mystery novella. Your main character’s desperate for money. (We’ll call him Bob.) He must find money to pay for his wife’s cancer treatment.

Bob finds a big bag of money in an abandoned car parked in the woods. He takes the money. The bad guys come after Bob: they want their money back, or he’s a dead man.

The story question is: will Bob survive?

You could establish the story question in the novella’s first sentence:

The man with the gun had four words for Bob: “I want my money.”

The inciting incident — there’s no turning back

When you’re writing fiction, the inciting incident sets the stage for the story question. It’s a plot twist: after the twist, there’s no turning back. In a novel, this twist happens after the Setup phase of your novel; around the 25% point.

In Bob’s story, the inciting incident occurs when he takes the money to his wife’s oncologist and pays for his wife’s treatment.

The money’s gone; Bob’s in trouble.

The big difference between a novel and novella: establish the story question early

Let’s say you’re writing a novella of 20,000 words. Would you plan your first plot twist at 5,000 words? (The 25% mark is the end of the Setup phase.)

You could do.

However, I suggest you don’t. The sooner you create the inciting incident and the story question, the better. Reader-curiosity is your biggest weapon: use it.

Write first, structure later

Are you a natural pantser? (A pantser is an author who prefers to write without an outline.)

If you are, remember that you can structure your novella for maximum impact later, after you’ve finished your first draft.

We’ll have more to say about this in our next article in this series, when we look at beginning and ending your novellas.

In the meantime, have fun writing novellas. 🙂

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