That's a nice outline you've got there. You figured out your A, B, and C storylines. You've got clearly-defined conflicts, a decent arc, and even a set-up for future installments. So what's missing? What is it about this project that just hasn't clicked yet?

Oh yeah. You don't have a main character. 

Hi, I'm Adam Korenman, and welcome to How to Write a Novel.

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Wasn't that intro song kick-awesome? Sweet, now that we've blown our annual budget on that (and yes, Sting really did perform that cameo), let's get down to business. 

Writing a novel or screenplay or limerick comes down to asking important questions. 


You don't get a chance to sit next to your reader and explain things to them. You're not releasing this book and announcing a 20-year saga at the same time. You have to deliver on a complete and specific story in 90,000+ words you've got, and there needs to be some payoff at the end of the book. 

Unless you're George R.R. Martin. 

Look at the Harry Potter series. In each novel, J.K. tells enclosed stories of growth and adventure. In each book, Harry and his friends build off their last adventures and push further into the next. There is a series arc, one that holds the entire thread together, but there are also book-specific arcs that play out on the their own. Yeah, some ideas come back a bit too often (seriously, NO ONE believes Harry Potter, even though he has been right 100% of the time?) but the story is progressive and compounding. 

But that's getting ahead of ourselves. What are we hear to learn?

How do you determine that your story is worth telling?

One of my favorite stories is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In my opinion, it's practically perfect. The humor is unmatched, the science is fiction, and the characters are hilarious and flawed. But there's a more specific reason to enjoy the story:

It had to be told RIGHT AWAY.

Every page of the book is dire. Events are happening that need to be recorded. Character arcs are reaching their zenith. Cataclysms are not just impending. The end is really freaking nigh. 

We open with the world literally minutes from destruction. Aliens have arrived to demolish Earth to make way for an intergalactic highway. That's how this adventure starts. 

Contrast that to, say, Batman V Superman, which starts with literally two hours of rehash and BS before any bat-men take on any other men of equal-or-super quality. 

There is an old writing parlance that translates to every version of the medium: Arrive late and leave early. This means that you should show up to a scene as the action is heavy, then leave before the boring bits. Your dialogue should snap and pop. We don't need to see small talk. We need to see your lawyer character slamming the Bible down on the table and screaming: YOU DID IT, YOU MONSTER!

Immediacy is important, but what else determines if a story is worth telling?


Obviously, the end of the world is an easy way to show stakes. If your character doesn't get the special blanket to the special fort by the end of nap-time, the world explodes. Got it. Stakes. But what about something a little less extreme?

In A Few Good Men, a crime has been committed. If the guilty walk free, it's not the end of the world. It's just a miscarriage of justice. Same goes in To Kill a Mockingbird. The stakes are personal, and reflect a part of the human experience to which we can all relate: The fear of failure. 

Depending on the stakes of your story, your characters will change. Is it the end of the world? Then your story is probably going to need a large cast. One woman (or man, let's not be sexist) can't save the world on their own. 

But if you're writing the next Pelican Brief, you can obviously focus on a singular character and the personal drama therein. Murder mysteries are best when they are told from one character's limited perspective, allowing the reader to enjoy the same journey of discovery as the lead. 

Finally, and this is critical, YOUR CHARACTERS MUST BE LIKABLE.

This isn't to say that your characters have to be good guys. Nowhere is it writ that a protagonist can't be the bad guy. In fact, many successful franchises follow villainous characters to great success. But they must be likable. 

Your hero can't be perfect, or the audience won't relate. They can't be needlessly mean, or the audience will turn against them. And, most importantly, they cannot be pathetic, because then the audience doesn't want to follow that journey.

I recently read a novel in which the main character was a short, pudgy, clumsy child with no magical talent. His estranged father was essentially god. It took me a long time to get into the novel because I didn't really relate to either character. I cringed every time the protagonist flailed about against the overwhelming adversaries, and I rolled my eyes when the Mary Sue waded through enemies without a care. 

This is a narrow road to walk, I understand, but you must toe that line. In fact, it's such an important piece of the puzzle, we're going to focus on it all next week. 

So what makes your story worth reading? Why is NOW the moment it must be told? Throw me some loglines in the comments and let's get that story singing!