I’ve just had an “Aha!” moment. It was one of those moments we writers live for, when a sudden flash of elucidation sets your writing morning on fire, reminding you why you’re sitting at your desk sweating blood, struggling to get your story down on the page.

This particularly sweet “Aha!” moment came as a result of reading a book by Nathan Bransford called How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel that You will Love Forever.

With a title like that, how was it not going to give me an “Aha!’ moment?

The book starts like this:

Rule #1

The first thing you need to know about writing a novel is this: you can do it.

Well, I was sold. I’ve had enough of books on writing that solemnly warn you how difficult it is to write a half-decent novel, or that make it clear, explicitly or by implication, that you need to be a hallowed being or a direct descendant of Shakespeare to even contemplate being published. To be greeted by such a positive statement lifted my spirits and made me want to kiss the author (which, judging by his photo on his blog, I imagine would not be an unpleasant experience).

I’m up to Rule #21, but my moment came at Rule #9: You Have to Have a Plot. An Actual Plot.

Now, I did know this, but I didn’t really KNOW it, if you know what I mean. Much of what fanciable Nathan writes in this chapter I am, thankfully, already doing in my novel. But here’s the bit that really helped (and I quote directly):

There are precisely five components to a good plot, and you need them all:

  • Something happens to set your protagonist’s life ajar
  • He or she wants something really big
  • He or she goes on a physical or mental journey (or both) to try and get that thing
  • He or she encounters obstacles of increasing intensity along the way and experiences up and down moments in pursuit of that thing
  • He or she either does or doesn’t get that thing but ends up irrevocably changed

I didn’t invent this; Aristotle did. It’s called an Aristotelian Arc. Luckily, he’s dead, so he can’t sue me.

(Did I mention that Nathan Bransford is funny, as well as hot?)

Reading this section for the first time, I realised I had not made clear exactly what my main character really wanted. In fact, I realised, even I wasn’t exactly clear on what he wanted  – or perhaps I was, but I hadn’t unwrapped it and articulated it to myself, let alone to my future readers. Thus all the action after the initial “hook” (the inciting incident or premise that sets the story on its way; the thing that set my “protagonists’ life ajar”) was starting to wander around a little aimlessly.

So I grabbed a piece of paper and started to answer some questions: What does my character want? Why does he want it? What is going to get in his way? In the end, is he going to get want he wants? Or is he going to get something else entirely?

By the time I had finished I had tears in my eyes because suddenly, joyfully, I could see where the problem lay and how I could fix it. Yes, I had known what my main character wanted, but I had become distracted by trying to structure the events and organise timelines and create characters and a million other things that go into writing a novel (things which, ironically, can make us lose sight of the heart of the story itself.)

Now I am in the process of going through my chapters and repairing them, improving them, giving the plot more of what it needs. It’s not too difficult because it’s all there, really – it just needed a good kick up the arse. As did I.

Nathan, I am so grateful. Can I buy you a drink?