I have discovered that reading a novel as a contest judge gives a different perspective than reading for a critique or editing. A judge looks more at the big picture, at whether the book works as a whole and if it doesn’t, why not. I also had the chance to discuss this experience with my son, and I have distilled three things every book needs. I thought they were no-brainers, but he pointed out that they are more in the advanced story-telling category.
- The protagonist needs a goal: get the girl (or boy), destroy the ring, save the princess, save the Galaxy. As a reader I need to know where the journey is headed; how else do I know if it is successful or not? It is okay if the goals change, as long as it is clear what they are. In Star Wars: a New Hope, Luke’s goals change from “leave Tatooine” to “become a Jedi” to “blow up the Death Star.” Each one is clear and we are with him all the way.
- The antagonist must be defined. My son maintains that it is all about the bad guys. I agree. This is where the conflict lies, and if I can’t figure out who or what the protagonist is fighting, I will lose interest. It does not have to be a single person—it can be the system, or the planet—but I need to understand what it is. The better developed the antagonist is, the more I will have invested in the story. If I can’t put my finger on the antagonist, I won’t know whether the protagonist is moving toward his goal or not. The antagonist is the one who is out to stop the protagonist from achieving his goals at all cost. He is the center of the conflict.
- Keep the reader involved in the action. Try to avoid information dumps as they tend to interrupt the action. Feed backstory in as needed, but keep things flowing. The same goes for something happening “off stage” as it were. Feed us that information as the protagonist finds it out. This keeps us from losing track of the real goal. Since I tend to write through the protagonist’s point of view, I ask myself how he knows something or how he finds it out. All these will keep you in “show-don’t-tell” mode and the reader will stay involved. Use dialog generously. This is another good way to keep us involved as it is action by its nature. It also breaks up the page and helps keep the reader involved visually. It can get tiring to stare at pages with nothing but blocks of type.
As you may have guessed by now, I have recently read some books that were missing one or more of these elements. It was very unsatisfying. (Why did he go to all that trouble?) It was confusing. (Wait, who was the bad guy?) And, I hate to say, it was boring. It made me growl and snarl, which was disturbing for my family. Thank you for reading. I’m sure my family will appreciate it as well.