Readers know perfectly well that passion and romance intertwine, that selfishness and generosity diverge. If, as E.B. White observed, “Writing is both mask and unveiling,” then fiction must offer something new. Obviously. But as Willa Cather observed over half a century ago, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” What’s the poor novelist to do?
Why “mask and unveil,” of course. The secret is to “unveil” the subtle distinction between ardor and devotion and the subterranean similarity between selfishness and generosity. As your characters travel from tribulation to maturity, their struggle “masks” these truths.
It doesn’t ultimately matter if you use plot to find truths or use truths to instigate plot. But if you want your novel to have layers, texture, richness, originality—all those things we all hope our novel will have—then you need to dig deep.
If you start with your characters and plot, weigh some tough questions about the significance of those.
· How are your protagonist and antagonist alike?
· How could the dilemma one protagonist faces represent dilemmas that protagonists have faced independent of time or geography?
· If the protagonist’s dilemma is personal, how would it play out in the sociopolitical sphere? If it’s sociopolitical, how could it simultaneously be personal?
· What did your protagonist believe to be true when the journey began that proves false by the journey’s end?
If you start with theme, tackle some tough questions about the beliefs your novel expresses.
· Develop a convincing argument against the theme you unequivocally believe with all your heart.
· Explore how the theme would or would not change if you shifted it to another time, country, even planet.
· Brainstorm until you find a metaphor that captures the truth of your theme.
· Investigate why you believe this. Culture? Religion? Personal experience? Uncover at least one new reason for your belief.
Tip: Surprise us with what we never knew we knew.