The Novel Is in the Details
by Jessica Day George
So, you’ve decided to write a book. This is a great idea! The world always needs more books!
But how, HOW do you turn that great idea you had into a full-length novel? I mean, sure, when you were in the shower and came up with the idea, it took all the hot water in the tank to work through the idea in your head. But now that you’re sitting down, writing it out . . . maybe it’s starting to seem like it’s not going to be 400 pages and five or six sequels after all?
Well, let me see if I can help!
There’s one thing to consider right from the start: is it, in fact, a novel? Some ideas are, not small (there’s no such thing as a small idea), but let’s say compact. They make excellent short stories and novellas. If you can tell your story in a dozen pages, let it be a dozen pages.
But maybe it needs room to grow. So, how do you grow it? How do you grow four pages of ideas into that epic you’re imagining?
You have to figure out what else your idea needs.
Here’s your idea, for the purposes of this blog: a castle. In your head you have a germ of an idea about people who live in a castle, and someone is attacking them. The only person who can save them is your main character, Hero Protagonist.
Before we get to Hero, let’s start with the castle. What does it look like? What is it called? What country is it in? Who lives there? What language(s) do they speak? What do they look like? How many of them are there? Have they always lived in the castle, or do they live outside the castle, and are sheltering there during the attack? Is it crowded? Do they have enough food? Water? Animals? What kind of animals do they have? What kind of weapons? Do they have technology? Magic? Is the castle underwater? Is it floating in the sky? On a mountain? On a plain? Is there a moat? Is there something in the moat? Why is the castle being attacked? Who is attacking it? Where are they from? What do they want? What kind of weapons do they have? Do they have better weapons? More soldiers? Wizards? Do they ride on giant elephants? Horses? Zeppelins? Are they robots? What is their weakness? What is the castle’s weakness? Are the people in the castle religious? Is there one religion, or many? Are people of minority religions treated differently? How? Why? Are people with different skin color treated differently? How? Why?
Are the people in the castle actually the bad guys?
Now it’s Hero Protagonist’s turn. What do they look like? Where are they from? Are they from the castle? No? Where then? Do they speak the language? Why are they in the castle? What is their every day job? Do they have family? Yes? Who are they? No? What happened to them? How does that affect Hero? Why can only Hero Protagonist save the castle? Is there a prophecy? What is it? Do they have a special skill? What is it? Magical weapon? What is it? Are they saving the castle all alone? Do they have friends? Who are they? Are they helping or hindering? What allies does Hero Protagonist make along the way? How did they meet? How can they help? Did they used to be enemies? Bullies? Exes? What’s the story behind that? Are they only helping until the castle is safe? Will they return to hating each other afterwards? Will they become friends? Fall in love? Who is Hero Protagonist’s love interest? Do they have one? Why not? How does that affect them?
And what about Villain Antagonist? Why did they attack the castle? What do they want from it? Is it something specific, like a magic weapon? A cursed jewel? A dragon egg? Why? Or do they just want to possess the castle? Why? Do they know about Hero Protagonist? How did they find out? Are they planning something specific for Hero? What is it? An assassin? A wizard? Turning Hero’s own friends against them? Or will Villain just toss rocks at the castle until the walls collapse? Why? Do they not actually want to take the castle? Is someone making them attack it? Who? Why?
I think you can see where this is going.
There’s a saying, “The devil is in the details.” But for our purposes, let’s change it to “the novel is in the details.” You can tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood in a picture book. I’ve told it as both a micro story of only 25 words, and as a novel of 350 pages. Both are valid. (The micro story was a lot harder than I thought it would be, FYI.) But fully fleshed out characters, good and bad, a well built world, even if it’s a Typical American High School (Where is it located? What’s their mascot?), a reason behind your conflict (the castle is under attack, Ethan’s best friend asked his crush to prom), these are the things that make A Novel out of An Idea.
Now, one caveat: details should always move the plot forward. You could give the entire lineage of Hero Protagonist back to Ivar the Boneless (He was real, google him.), but does it tell us what we need to know about Hero, and how he will deal with the conflict? You could spend many happy hours and many pages describing the clothing worn by each character in each scene, but do we need to know? We might need to know, say, if a girl who never wears dresses gets invited to a formal dance. Why doesn’t she wear dresses? What will she wear instead? What will her date wear to match? But we don’t need to know what brand of jeans everyone is wearing in each scene. The details, the minor characters, all of it exists to serve the plot.
If they don’t? Kill them.
Jessica Day George is the New York Times bestselling author of over a dozen middle grade and
young adult fantasy books. She lives in Utah with her family and likes knitting, dark chocolate, and small dogs.