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Have you ever read a novel that lacked focus? The plot ambled, the descriptions followed every item of furniture in a room, the characters talked about something in their past that you didn’t have context for. These are just some of the things that can make a novel wander. 

If you’ve been working on a novel for a long time and have lost your passion for it, or if you’re new to writing entirely, it can be easy to lose focus and wander. 

But you shouldn’t stay there.

Every good story has focus. And every good writer knows what that focus is. Let’s take a look at how to identify it.

What is focus?

A novel without focus lacks purpose. Characters may act inconsistently with their personalities and plots may veer into random directions. This leads to too much emphasis on minor issues, which causes the main plot and characters to lose their impact. Tension that was built up over chapters is lost. The mission that drives the plot weakens. As a result, the reader’s interest flags. They are left wondering which character the story belongs to and what it is really about.

A novel with focus stays concentrated on what is vital to the story. It shows only important details, whether about the character or the plot. Everything else can be ignored.

A lack of focus can occur in degrees. A novel may be mostly focused, but have a single chapter that might meander off into an irrelevant side plot or backstory.

Focus is simply the lens that points to details which contribute directly to the main issues in the story. Whenever you are not writing about those details, you risk losing sight of what your story is about. And if you lose this, so will your reader.

Focus sentence

Some writers find it useful to create a focus sentence for their stories. This is similar to a single sentence summary in that it identifies the main character(s), their motivations, and the conflict. Once they know these, a writer can keep a story focuses from beginning to end.

A focus sentence is this:

[Someone] does [something] because ____, but ____ . 

Someone is your main character – an individual, a group, an entity. They create an action because something motivated them to. What was it? Then there is the but – something is standing in the way of them completing their action or has created trouble afterwards. 

A focus sentence doesn’t have to be one sentence, either. It can be a few sentences, as long as they work together to paint a purposeful picture of your story. 

Example

R. J. Palacio’s book Wonder can be summarized in this focus sentence:

August Pullman goes to school for the first time because he wants to
be a normal kid, but some of the other kids bully him.

Here we have the main character, August. His action is going to school and his motivation is that he wants to be a normal kid. The conflict is that he gets bullied. 

This sentence can help someone keep the focus of Wonder in mind, but in this form it gives the bare minimum. Here is an expanded version:

August Pullman is finally allowed to go to public school and enrolls in the 5th grade at Beecher Prep. He was born with a facial difference that meant he needed a lot of surgeries. Because of this, he wants to be treated like a normal kid when he goes to school. But interactions with bullies show him that not everyone will treat him the same. 

This example gives the same basic information as the first one. But what it includes is a layer of context that adds tension to the motivation and conflict of the story.

Ask questions, choose an angle

If you are struggling to write a focus sentence for your story, don’t worry. There are some questions you can ask yourself that may clarify the process for you.

If you answered that you think more about the characters and how events affect them, your story is character-focused. This means that your story covers internal character conflict and external conflict, settings, and details are more of a backdrop. If you think more about the events and how they occur, your story is plot-focused. This means that the plot drives the story forward, and the character’s emotional state is secondary or even unrelated to the plot.

After you’ve asked yourself these questions and found answers you like, you should have a solid understanding of what makes up the spirit of your story. To further strengthen the vision you have for your novel, you should choose an angle to write it from. This could mean the medium you write the story in, the narrative perspective, the settings you choose, or even specific dialogue you write. Whatever angle you choose should help you stay focused and make it clear to the reader what the purpose of your story is. 

Structure, edit, and revise

Now that you have a clear focus and purpose for your novel, use the writing process to frame it in a structure that suits it best. Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. This ensures a logical and emotional flow that your reader can follow. You can create this in a number of ways. Check out the Next Chapters blog for guides on how to use the 3 Act Method, 4 Act Method, Hero’s Journey, 7-Point Method, and 27 Chapter Method.

After you’ve written your novel according to your chosen structure, don’t skip the editing and revision stages. These are important steps, not only for the quality of your writing but for the quality of your story. Both editing and revising have specific points in their processes that cover the content of a work. These not only promote consistency and coherence, but help to cut back on unnecessary or distracting information in the story.

Planning = Focus

Writing a focused novel requires planning and staying on track. As a writer, you should have a clear understanding of what your story is about. Instead of making it up as you go, sit down and plan each point. Make your story go to a specific place rather than trying to go everywhere. Once you know what is going to happen, your reader is much more likely to resonate with the plot and stay invested.