writing craft

How a Novel Is Like a Human Body

how-a-novel-is-like-the-human-bodyBy Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

I’ve come to believe that part of the reason writers can work for years on a book and still have it be unready for publication is because we don’t always understand the different layers that need to go into a great story.

A lot of this happens because most of us learn writing piecemeal. We read a blog post here, attend a writer’s conference workshop there. We don’t usually have someone sit us down and explain the anatomy of a book to us in a 101 type fashion.

(If you’re an experienced writer, don’t click away. This might be a refresher for you, but it might also help you understand story in a new way, or it might simply give you another way to explain it to a newer writer.)

So today I want to break down the anatomy of a story for you using the analogy of a human body. I’m going to start from big picture and work my way down.

Protagonist and Plot

Our protagonist is the character whose goal drives the actions (plot) of the story and whose life changes through those events.

Where this tends to trip writers up is in a fundamental misunderstanding about how the two relate. The purpose of the external plot events is to force the protagonist to change. Throwing random events—however interesting we might think they should be—at our protagonist doesn’t make for a good plot. Throwing events at our protagonist that don’t force them to think, feel, and grow doesn’t make for a good plot. Our protagonist should change somehow through the pursuit of their goal.

The protagonist—with their individual backstory, personality, and brokenness—also needs to drive the plot forward. The choices and decisions they make need to matter. And if anyone else were the protagonist of the story, that plot should play out differently than it currently does. If you could swap your protagonist for someone else without anything significant changing in your plot, then something is wrong.

I look at these like the muscles and bones in a body. If the muscles in a limb atrophy, the limb doesn’t work. If the bones in a limb turn to jello or break, the limb doesn’t work. In other words, if there’s something wrong with the muscles or the bones, it doesn’t matter how amazing the other layers are.

And one is not more important than the other.

Sentence-Level Writing Craft

Sentence-level writing craft is elements like showing vs. telling, dialogue, point of view errors, and so on. It’s what most people think about when they talk about learning to write. It also tends to be what we spend the most time on, especially in the beginning.

In our human body analogy, this is the skin. People can be distracted by the condition of our skin regardless of how strong our muscles and bones are. Like it or not, people judge us by how our skin looks. A kid in high school with bad acne is less likely to be popular than a kid with flawless skin. It can happen, but they have to be absolutely amazing in some other way.

It’s the same with our books.

Grammar and Punctuation

Grammar and punctuation is what a copy editor works on. It’s the small-scale details of commas, typos, misused words, and awkward phrases. Most writers think of this level when they think about hiring an editor. 

If we’re talking about a person, it’s the hair, make-up, and clothes. It’s the polish. In our lives, if we were walking into a professional situation where we wanted to be taken seriously, we wouldn’t show up in ratty sweats and bed head, smelling of BO. We’d try to make our best first impression by taking care with our appearance. That’s what good grammar and punctuation do for our book. If it’s not working, readers are less likely to take us seriously. They’ll be distracted by it.

(I spend most of my time on this blog teaching you about the two higher levels, but I want to help you in all ways so I’ve enlisted a regular guest columnist. Starting this Saturday, we’ll have The Editor’s Corner, where you’ll learn about grammar and punctuation for fiction writers.)

Do you have another way of thinking about story that helps you understand it better? Or do you think one level or story is more important than the others? I’d love to hear your opinion!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

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March to a Bestseller 2: A One-Day Sale on Books for Authors

March to a Bestseller 2

For today only, I’m dropping the price of Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction to 99 cents. And I’m not the only one. Fifteen other authors are also dropping the price of their books to 99 cents. This is a treasure chest full of writerly goodness, so buy your copies before the sale ends.

And make sure you join the Facebook group where the participating authors will be hanging out during the day to answer any writing questions you might have!

Here’s a list of the participating books and authors:

Indie Author Power Pack









The Indie Author Power Pack by Joanna Penn, Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt and David Gaughran

How to Write and Sell Non-Fiction









How to Write & Sell Non-Fiction Books for Kindle by Nancy Hendrickson










APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

Write From the Middle









Write Your Novel From The Middle by James Scott Bell

Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction









Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction by Marcy Kennedy

Kindle Publishing Package









Kindle Publishing Package by Steve Scott

Writing the Heart of Your Story









Writing the Heart of Your Story by C. S. Lakin

Supercharge Your Kindle Sales









Supercharge Your Kindle Sales by Nick Stephenson

Book Cover Design









Book Cover Design Secrets You Can Use to Sell More Books by Derek Murphy

Goodreads for Authors









Goodreads For Authors by Michelle Campbell-Scott

Writing a Killer Thriller









Writing a Killer Thriller by Jodie Renner

Weite a Book Already









Write A Book Already! by Jim Kukral

1000 Creative Writing Prommpts









1,000 Creative Writing Prompts by Bryan Cohen

Work Smarter









Work Smarter by Nick Loper

Online Writing









The Moonlighter’s Guide To Online Writing For Immediate Income by Connie Brentford

Honest Reviews









How To Get Honest Reviews by Shelley Hitz and Heather Hart










Write! Stop Waiting, Start Writing by Cathy Presland

Formatting Your Ebook









Formatting Your eBook by J. Thorn

Writing Active Setting









Writing Active Setting Book 1 by Mary Buckham

How to Sell Books by the Truckload









How to Sell Books by the Truckload on Amazon.com by Penny Sansevieri

Make sure to grab your copies before the sale ends! And please help me spread the word so that other writers can find out about the reduced price on these 20 books in time.

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Busy Writer’s Guides Come to Print

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Since my first Busy Writer’s Guide came out, I’ve gotten one question more than any other–are these available in print?

Now, for my two most popular Busy Writer’s Guides, the answer is yes.

How to Write Dialogue and Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction are now available in print. Click on the images below to buy your copy!

Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction










How to Write Dialogue










Wondering what this blog is all about? On Tuesdays, I cover something science fiction or fantasy related. On Thursdays, I talk writing. I’d love to have you sign up to receive my posts by email. All you need to do is enter your email address below and hit the “Follow” botton.

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