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How to make a great novel out of a cheesy premise

Last time we visited our cheese-making pediatrician, we looked at appropriate use of backstory. Today, I’m going to show how we can elevate a novel from good to great by relating the doctor’s emotional needs to the plot she’s embroiled in.

Good novels have good pacing, rising tension, and a satisfying climax, but they leave their characters essentially unchanged. Great novels change their characters along the way, too. The characters leave the book wiser or with a different perspective on life than on page one.

Note: you can’t do this merely by tacking a “So what have we learned, Jimmy?” scene onto the end.

A great novel gives its important characters an emotional need, and uses the events of the plot to explore how that need shapes the character’s choices and beliefs. That is, a great novel has a character arc as well as a story arc. The two are tightly inter-twined, often by forcing the character to confront the emotional need in order to resolve the plot.

Let’s see how we could do this with our cheese-making pediatrician, who we’ll call Dr. Lisle. You can go read the earlier posts here and here, but here’s a recap of her bio:

Dr. Lisle is a pediatrician, the daughter of a French couple who moved to the states in the early ‘70s. As a hobby, she makes cheese—her specialty is Roquefort—a craft she took up to address her mother’s incessant complaints that she just couldn’t get a good wheel of Roquefort here in the U.S. Now that her mother has passed, Dr. Lisle still makes cheese as a way of maintaining an emotional connection to her mother.

We can discover a plot that supports a character arc from this backstory by alternating between analysis and plotting.

Analysis: We’ve got her backstory already, so what emotional need does Dr. Lisle’s derive from that? She longs for someone dear who is gone. She is lonely. What she needs is a new, deep connection to someone else. But she’s not going to be able to get that until she lets go of her mother. As a doctor she knows the reality of death, yet she hasn’t deeply accepted her own mother’s demise.

Plotting: Let’s say our basic plot, as hinted at in those earlier posts, involves saving the life of a politician’s child. Except we already know that we’re going to need to do something in the plot to force her to face her mother’s death. So maybe, although the life of a child is already pretty high stakes, we need to let the kid die. Sucks, but there it is.

Analysis: Now the politician, Governor Adams, has the same emotional wound as Dr. Lisle. Further, he’s probably pretty pissed at her for not saving his child, even though she did everything she could.

Plotting: Because he’s so angry, and naturally looking for someone to blame and punish, he uses his power to threaten her hospital’s accreditation. If the hospital closes, a lot more people will die because of lack of care, which is raises the stakes nicely. The hospital’s Chief of Medicine orders Dr. Lisle to fix the situation.

Analysis: How can she do that? Well, since they both have the same emotional wound, she knows exactly what he’s going through. If she can get him to see that she empathizes with him, maybe he’ll back off.

Plotting: She shows up at Adams’s office with a wheel of cheese as a peace offering. Naturally he is not thrilled to see her. That’s an obstacle for her to overcome, which she can only do by spilling her guts about her feelings over her mother’s death. When he learns that she actually made the cheese she has brought, rather than simply buying it from a deli, he lets her in.

Analysis: This is a critical spot for the story. Dr. Lisle is herself on the brink of a cathartic moment of healing, but must also guide the Governor through his own grief.

Plotting: They talk. He has some stale crackers in the office left over from a fundraiser the night before. They eat the cheese, share memories of their lost loved ones, and form a bond. He asks her “how did you get past it?” She admits that she hasn’t, except in that moment she realizes she has. In talking about it she can feel herself letting go of the hurt. Not the memories, just the hurt.

Analysis: The cheese has become a metaphor for her emotional pain. In sharing it with Governor Adams—and eating it—it has gone away.

Plotting: In the end, she helps him find a way to stay connected to his son by convincing him to take up his son’s baseball card collecting hobby. He drops his vendetta against her and the hospital. The book ends with the suggestion that the two of them may pursue a deeper relationship of their own.

Conclusion: Who knew that would turn into a romance novel? You follow the story where it takes you. But you can see how at every point we link Dr. Lisle’s emotional wound to the events of the story. We even took the Governor on a journey of his own; it’s not as fully developed as Dr. Lisle’s, but it’s there. He, too, is in a better place at the end of the novel than when we meet him.

That tight coupling between inner and outer journeys is what can elevate a good novel to great. By the time the outer plot is resolved, so is her inner emotional need. Readers are happy not just that the hospital has been saved, but also that Dr. Lisle isn’t so sad about her mother anymore, and that there is hope on the horizon for ending her loneliness, too.

I want you to take a look at your current work-in-progress to see whether you’ve done this. Ask what your main characters’ emotional needs are, and whether those needs are appropriately related to the events of the plot. Make plausible connections wherever you can and you can elevate your novel from good to great too.

October 02, 2009 18:31 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, emotional need, emotional wound, inner need, inner journey, outer plot, outer journey, cheese

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4 Comments:

Posted by Graham Storrs on October 03, 2009 04:36 UTC

Thanks for this. It was a timely reminder. My current WIP is starting to wonder off into the purely plot-driven and needs to be re-synchronised with the protagonist’s character development.

Posted by Jason Black on October 03, 2009 05:19 UTC

Glad to help! And as always, if you have anything you’d like to see me spout off on, character-development-wise by all means let me know. I’m always looking for ideas for blog posts...

Posted by Deb on October 04, 2009 16:02 UTC

Wow, this is exactly the guidance I needed to help steer my WIP back on the right track! Thank you :D

Posted by Jason Black on October 04, 2009 21:44 UTC

My pleasure, Deb! It’s so rewarding to hear feedback like that. Thank you for taking the time to say so. And when you get to “the end” on that WIP, drop me a line so I can help polish it up! :)

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