When I tell people I’m writing a novel, their first question is usually, “What’s it about?” (Not “Are you a masochist or something?”, which would be the logical question for anyone who had first-hand experience of the process.) I usually dodge by saying it’s a “family saga,” because as yet I have no idea which of its several storylines is the main one.
A friend recently directed me to this very useful series of articles by Caro Clarke, originally written for the magazine NovelAdvice. Clarke’s got my number in essay #9, “Pacing Anxiety or, How to stop padding and plot!” She distinguishes between the premise of a novel (e.g. “timid Jenny moves to Alaska to open a B&B”) and the plot, which is the actual conflict that drives the action. Most beginning writers have only a premise, Clarke says, and so they find themselves without anything to say once they’ve set up the scene:
Your premise implies that Jenny, feeling stifled, heads to Alaska to improve her life. Your plot, therefore, is about a woman who creates a better life for herself by accepting challenge, and everything you write has to develop to this resolution.So far, I have the opposite problem. My inability to choose the book’s central conflict means that I have 100+ pages of scenes that develop the characters and help me understand their voices and motivations, but I’m still very far from throwing these people together into the confrontation that I originally understood as the linchpin of the story. For pity’s sake, the character who has taken over the book was supposed to be dead before it even started!
Challenge implies battling something, overcoming opposition, and this is the heart of novel writing. Fiction is about the challenges that the protagonist either triumphs over or is defeated by (EMMA or MADAM BOVARY, for example). A novel must have conflict, not just in its overarching idea, but in every single scene. Your premise is merely the novel’s opening action.
However, this early in the game, I feel that too much writing is a better problem than too little. Maybe only a quarter of these scenes will make it into the book, but I’ll still know something about the characters that I couldn’t have discovered any other way. From essay #3, “Don’t get it right the first time,” it looks like Clarke would agree.