There are countless ingredients that make a novel shine, and with a topic as subjective as writing, it’s impossible to pin them all down; what is appealing to one person may be off-putting to the next. But below I have compiled a list of three essential elements that every manuscript needs, regardless of genre or audience.
A Strong Protagonist
I say ‘strong’ instead of ‘good’, because not every protagonist necessarily has to be heroic and pure. In fact, there have been many popular works who’s main character is outright repulsive – it’s hard to pull off, I admit, but it can be done. But whether your character is good or evil, they must be strong, and that relies on a few key elements.
For a start, they have to be believable. In other words, they have to behave like a real person, with actions and emotions that make sense for their personality. Even if the world of your book follows different rules to the real one, you can still achieve this quite easily by making sure you are viewing this world through the eyes and perspective of your character and not through your own, as you are an outsider to this setting. For example, if it is punishable by death to not wear a silly hat every day in your setting, your character is going to need a very compelling reason to not wear a silly hat, no matter how much they resent wearing it.
Another sign of a strong protagonist can be seen in the way other characters react to them. Your supporting characters will have varying opinions about them and some may even hate them with good reason. Just because your protagonist is loved by everyone, doesn’t make them strong. People in real life have friends and enemies. Your character should too.
A Clear Premise
Can you describe the premise of your book in one or two sentences? If you answer ‘yes’, that’s a good sign. It means that your manuscript likely has a very refined theme and topic. Some people call this the “elevator pitch” (because you could pitch it to an editor if you found yourself in an elevator with one) and it is an essential part of marketing your book, as well as keeping yourself on track while you write it.
Of course, just because your premise is clear, doesn’t mean it’s a good one. But if you have a good idea of what you intend to write, making tweaks will be an awful lot easier.
I know, this sounds obvious, right? But I have read a surprisingly large amount of work from friends and colleagues that look more like a disconnected train of thoughts than a story. You could argue that some very specific types of literary fiction may benefit from this style, but you’d better be very clear on what it is you are trying to achieve with your work if you go for this.
In most manuscripts, you are going to want a plot. Having a clear premise will help keep you on track, but when you re-read your draft, keep an eye out for threads of the story that were forgotten and left behind. In something as complex as a novel, it’s not unheard of for a writer to create the beginnings of a side plot, only to never mention it again. If you find yourself doing this, you can help keep track of things by keeping notes of open threads in the story. And don’t be afraid to get rid of some elements of the plot, if you have too much on your plate.
I hope these tips give you some idea of what to aim for and what to correct in your work. Drop a comment and let me know what else you think is important! If you enjoyed this post, please click like and follow, and join me next week when I will be talking about elements of the publishing process; what to expect if an editor signs your manuscript