If you have either written or are writing a novel, you will be asked, “So, what’s your novel about?” Usually, in casual conversation, people just want to know what “kind” of novel it is. They’ll be satisfied with some shorthand description like, “It’s a crime thriller.” But paralysis can set in when you have to explain exactly what your novel is “about” to someone who does, in fact, want or need to know.
I realized how much I needed to learn to do this while working on Birch Hills at World’s End. For query letters to publishers and agents, it is essential. Besides that, it is often useful for the author to understand the basic narrative thrust of his or her work early on in its creation. Anyway, what is your novel “about?”
The most basic way to present your novel is to identify the elements driving the plot: character, location, conflict, and action. Now, I know what you’re thinking: My novel isn’t some Hollywood nonsense I can break down into a few sentences! Of course not. I’m sure it has deep thematic elements, rich symbolism, cutting social commentary, or something like that. The thing is, when people want to know what it’s “about,” they usually want to know about the “story.” So, what is that?
Karen Everett’s article “Squeezing Reality Into Three Acts” discusses how documentarians identify the narrative potential of their subject matter, and it’s a useful technique for all storytellers. (The merits and drawbacks of the three-act structure make for contentious and profoundly dull debate—don’t worry, we’re not going to do that here.) I found the most helpful section to be on what a story is not:
“Keep in mind that a story, in the screenwriter’s sense of the word, is not a profile (for example, a film about an eccentric uncle who farms nuts), a condition (human rights abuses in Haiti), a phenomenon (the popularity of multi-player video games) or a point of view (social security should be privatized). Simply stated, a story chronicles the efforts of the main character to achieve his or her heart’s desire in the face of opposition.”
Basic stuff, right? Despite this, we often still find ourselves not addressing these things when we talk about our own work. Many young writers describe their work as one of the four non-stories listed above. “It’s about a young Latverian immigrant struggling to adjust to life in Indianapolis.” (Profile.) “It’s about rural poverty in Arkansas.” (Condition.) “It’s about CosPlay.” (Phenomenon.) “It’s about how society’s obsession with image destroys young people.” (Point of View.) These are often the aspects the writer finds most interesting. However, these descriptions all overlook the interaction of these elements readers find attractive.
So, how should we start? Ready to play literary Mad Libs?
Character is an age/description who current situation. When a significant event happens, his/her situation changes. He/she now must take action but obstacles must be overcome in order to achieve goal/avoid consequence. Novel’s title is a flattering description with a thematic element/character dynamic and a type of action.
Is this a formulaic oversimplification of what you’re doing? Yes. Much of your work’s depth is probably being sacrificed, perhaps entire subplots and major characters. However, the goal is to convey some sense of story in a small space. This not only helps you identify the most basic skeleton of your novel, but it also gives you some very clean copy to place in a query letter easily consumed by an agent on her iPhone, skimmed by a hung-over intern, or read by someone else without much time to determine if your book interests them or not. Even if your book doesn’t follow a 3-act structure, this template is useful as a starting point to quickly define what your novel is “about.”
My recent novel Birch Hills at World’s End goes through some significant plot shifts, and I couldn’t cover all of them in a query. What I sent in my query is pretty close to what ended up on the back of the book:
Birch Hills at World’s End begins between Detroit and nowhere, in 1999, when high school senior Josh Reilly senses an apocalypse approaching. Josh’s unease increases as his privileged but disturbed friend Erik schemes in a journal he calls “The Doomsday Book,” where he plots revenge against the suburbia he’s learned to despise. When Lindsay, a sixteen-year-old famed for dramatic self-mutilation and questionable poetry, becomes Josh’s girlfriend, Erik finds companionship in a circle of bikers and small-time meth traffickers. Josh, suspecting his friend Erik has become a competitor for Lindsay’s affections, peeks into the Doomsday Book and is shocked by what he learns. A web of domestic strife, romantic rivalry, and millennial anxiety challenges two boys to stand together as their youth comes apart.
Keep in mind these things have few rules and standards. There are a million ways to go about writing. Everybody has their own way and has to find what works for them. So, what’s your novel about?