Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Is it possible to have too many directions for a novel?

A writer e-mailed me to ask, "I have so many ideas and directions for just one story, I don't know which way to go so I just procrastinate! Do you think it's possible to have too many directions for a novel- like the story is just to BIG for a beginner? For a first timer, do you think it's wise to have one main character and one strong plot line?"

I can only share what my experience has been in this. I've had story ideas along the way that I'm simply not skilled enough to write. Ideas that were too big for the tools I possessed. That's okay. You do the best you can, get down all your thoughts, and save it for another time.

A couple years ago, I read a dreadful book by a well-known author. My friend Debbie referred to it as a "bush book." A good book will be built like a tree - the trunk is the main plot line, and everything else connects back to it. The book we read was more like a bush. I wasn't even sure what the main plot line really was. The author got hung up on details I so didn't care about. Like the public school system. And ethics in journalism. And apparently many others that I never got to because I closed the book in disgust.

You should always just have one main character. Even in books that feel more like ensemble casts - like Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants - I would still argue that there's only one main character per book. Other characters should certainly be very important to the story (if they're not, dump 'em), but pick one to be your main character.

And they should have one overall problem they're trying to solve. Like John is trying to save the Queen from the terrorist threat. Or Mary is trying to find sanity amidst living with her elderly in-laws. Whatever.

But there should also be other things going on. You know what's a good example of this? Dora the Explorer. Seriously, watch an episode. (You only need one.) Dora is always trying to get to one specific location. That's her goal. Other stuff is going on in the show (How will we cross the chocolate river? Swiper, no swiping!) but everything goes back to the main problem, which is Dora needs to get to wherever.

This example falls apart when we start talking about characters having an inner problem to solve, but that's okay.

Start by picking a main character and their main problem, then go from there.

Have a question? E-mail me.


  1. Great advice, Stephanie. And as Stephanie can tell you, I often write BIG books--both in length and content. They still have one main goal. Like, "Can Abigail learn to love and trust?" and "How can one poor Jewish girl love the king of the world without forsaking her faith?"

    But I do often have those "too many choices!" things running around in my head. My trick? I play games with them. I always have that one end point. Abigail finds true love. Kasia's faith saves her life and her marriage. But I sometimes sit down and daydream about other ways they could get there. Do I use them? No. But sometimes entertaining those notions sparks an interesting plot twist that helps me tie in my current scenes with my end goal.

    And I'm so chuckling at your Dora example. Very apt--and very much proof that you have a pre-schooler, LOL.

  2. Great advice Stephanie. =)

    I think I struggle with this sometimes, though I do try to stick to the main plot-line.
    So many ideas haha...