The Bedrock of Your Novel by Kate McMurray
Nothing in a novel should be an accident.
What I mean by that is that nothing should be there just to be there. Every element, every scene, every word must serve a purpose to drive the story forward. It’s Chekhov’s gun; if a loaded gun appears in the first act, it better be fired in the third. Everything incidental is just a distraction.
I’ll give you what may be an obvious example. I edited a book a few months ago in which the hero had a kindly grandmother who was this really fun, dynamic character. At the end of chapter 6, she had a coughing and sneezing fit. I thought, Oh, no. Something terrible is going to happen to Grandma! And then… nothing happened. The coughing fit had no bearing on plot or character, but it sure did distract me as a reader.
All elements in a novel must relate to each other. In her book Story Genius (which I highly recommend), Lisa Cron argues that story is not just plot. Story is also tied very closely to character, and the why of the character must affect how the plot progresses. Story is the place plot and character come together. I’d take this a step further and argue that story, the bones of any great novel, is the intersection of character, plot, and setting.
Setting is often overlooked in craft discussions, but it’s the bedrock of a novel. When I teach setting classes, I always pose the question: why is your setting the only place your story can take place? Because the setting shouldn’t be incidental, or an accident.
Think about how your story and the setting interact. Since, as I write this, the new season of Game of Thrones is about to premiere, that’s a good place to start. The first book in George R. R. Martin’s series is, to me, an excellent example of worldbuilding, because Martin really just drops the reader into this world without explaining much. There is language unique to the universe, foreign-seeming names, fantastical creatures, and a whole world that doesn’t exist on our Earth. If Martin wanted to tell a tale of political intrigue with dragons, why is the quasi-Medieval world of Westeros the best setting for it? My understanding is that the fighting clans are based on the Wars of the Roses, the fight between the Yorks and Lancasters (Starks and Lannisters?) for control of the British throne. As an homage to that, the setting works. Westeros also has a certain inherent brutality that seems appalling now but was also true of Middle Ages Europe. Elements of the setting—the Wall, the various cities—also play into the plots of the book, the occupations of the characters, etc. Ultimately, the setting is as important to the story as the characters are and is interwoven in how the story is told.
So, when you’re planning your next book, consider your setting and how it relates to your story. It must tie into the story, whether you’re setting it in a big city or a small town, a historical setting or a contemporary one, or a space ship or an alternate Earth. Why is this setting the only place your story can take place?
Kate McMurray writes smart romantic fiction. She likes creating stories that are brainy, funny, and of course sexy, with regular guy characters and urban sensibilities. She advocates for romance stories by and for everyone. When she’s not writing, she edits textbooks, watches baseball, plays violin, crafts things out of yarn, and wears a lot of cute dresses. She’s active in Romance Writers of America, serving for two years on the board of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter, and three—including two as president—on the board of the New York City chapter. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with two cats and too many books.
Show and Tell
Dan is a superfan of the TV show Junk Shop, hosted by the handsome and charismatic Malcolm Tell. When an old music box turns up, Dan’s sister encourages him to try to get on the show and meet the object of his affection. He does, and everything changes.
When Dan and Malcolm first meet, they have a sudden vision of something horrible that happened years ago. Is it a glimpse at a past life or something else entirely? They agree to work together to find answers and discover a forgotten Celtic myth that may explain everything. If the myth is true, then Dan and Malcolm could be a pair of lovers who have been reincarnated over two thousand years. That seems impossible, but it’s hard to deny that something very strange is happening.
As Dan and Malcolm work to find the truth, they fall for each other hard. But searching for who they really are puts them both in grave danger, and they find themselves racing against time to keep their happily ever after.
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