A simple job lightness project part one

Here is the first lesson from the lightness project mini-module!

The idea here is simple: readers will be grateful when you start your novel in a "light" way -- light for them to read. This has little to do with the content. A gloomy, dark novel can begin in a light way; a relaxed, low-key family novel can bog the reader down with endless exposition and flashbacks.

sometimes the stuff
you most want to write
isn't the right stuff
for your early chapters

Here is a problem with the main parts of your novel -- the parts you probably most want to share with the reader -- the backstory and the "real plot" -- they are too heavy for the new reader to easily absorb.

Here is a challenge: imagine an opening scene or short chapter where you only present the protagonist trying to make progress on their personal, concrete, "simple" goal.

Then try to imagine a second scene or short chapter where they continue to work on that goal. 

We likely need to know in these chapters:

- why the character wants this 

- why it is hard for them to get it 

- the route or opportunity they think they have to get it


Arlen, a young computer scientist genius, wins an invite to join a famous school for hackers run by a shadowy wing of the CIA. Arlen's only goal in joining the school is to find out what happened to their best friend, a brilliant hacker, who died while studying in the school. So we see in the first two scenes Arlen arriving in the school and immediately looking for clues about their lost friend. A teacher says that with Arlen's skills, they stand a great chance of winning promotion - Arlen just scoffs at the remark, as this doesn't fit with the simple job. 

Bob, a nervous dad, is bringing his family back to a childhood favourite of his, a lake house in Maine. We see him in chapter working on his "simple job:" -- he wants the trip to be a success. He clears out spiders from the kids' room, goes into town to find more light bulbs, and checks that the old canoe is still water-worthy. Another family is travelling with his, staying in the next cabin along: the wife of that family, Jean, says that she wants to talk to him about something important - in private. Bob says yes but makes no time for the conversation, as he is focused on his simple job. 

What might your protagonist's simple job be?

  • I found it hard to get my head around this at first, but after a couple of readings I realised why a reader had found my opening chapter confusing and disorientating and why they said, if they’d been an agent they wouldn’t have continued to read.

  • Charlotte Chrimes says:

    Can I just say how helpful this is? You have a real talent for explaining things clearly and giving the reasoning behind it and it really resonates with me. Going back to rework my first chapter having watched this – but it’s nearly there and fits this concept pretty well (I think!) Thank you!

  • Patricia Seymour says:

    It’s a relief to know that I might have done something right! At my age, it isn’t always easy. This was a puzzler, but as I considered it, I realized I had already done what you were teaching. I can’t wait to read lessons 2 and 3. Thank you!

  • Ann Marie Gabriel says:

    Interesting concepts :Lightness and Simplicity when the world is often Heavy and Complex. I look forward to other two lessons.
    Thank you!
    Ann Marie

  • This is a very good, detailed discussion of what the flagship course–Plotting and Planning Your Novel–terms The Project. In this video lesson we have helpful, concrete examples grounding the conceptual explication of The Project–or Lightness. The suggestion to write out a couple of initial chapters or scenes is important. I’m planning on doing this after I’ve taken a short trip and a needed break from drafting. I’ve been drafting out of sequence by the way. My purpose in doing this is to put the heavy stuff where it belongs when I feel like I need to get that type of material down. I know the heavy stuff will come later, so it doesn’t affect the lightness of novel’s opening–although it informs the novel’s opening. Drafting out of sequence is not for everybody. So I’m not suggesting it. This just happens to be my process for this particular story.

    Thank you, Daniel, for this awesome lesson. Looking forward to seeing more.

  • Thank you! I appreciate this lesson. One question I am left with: can the simple job also be compelling, important? It’s not the “big plot” but it’s not wrong if it is also meaningful, right?

    • Absolutely! It can be very compelling
      “I want to get married”
      “I need to keep my job”
      “I’m scared we will lose the house”

      It’s just not the full story of what the novel is about.

  • My protagonist is a computer technology geek, and a part-time detective.

  • Ah, yesss… ye’ olde anti-plot. And as you note, two scenes or one chapter before the niggling desire in the back of their mind gets the best of them and they simply have to learn more. Thanks! looking forward to part deux.

  • Brenda Merritt says:

    Thank you so much Daniel. Trying to think of every day actions. So the protagonist should be wooed into the main conflict/dilemma while avoiding knowledge of it purposely, or just by happen stance?
    Then, she’s gradually forced to face it by a series of seemingly unrelated events? And for the 1st 2 chapters?

    Also, the simple job can be taking care of mom but, it would be interlaced w/walking on egg shells around abusive sibling she lives with? = actually part of my subplot of family abuse.
    Or is this not light enough?

  • Julie Fulcher says:

    Very helpful as I work on a structural edit. I rewrote first chapter in light of what you said here.

  • Liz Mason says:

    Due to comments from an editor, I changed my first chapter about giving more upfront in the first chapter. . I did my reply to the second lesson, having missed this first lesson(!!) , so now I’m back to the drawing board as my first chapter is too heavy now! Honestly!

    • Hi Liz — can you explain a bit more? What did the editor ask you to do?

  • This is an interesting caveat for the opening of a novel. But I’m wondering how to make it work for suspense and for mystery that’s full of action. Can you give an example in that genre?

    • Killing Floor by Lee Child is a perfect example of this — Jack Reacher gets arrested in the first sentence. But in his mind, he is still working on his “simple job.” His goal is simply to get free of the police and continue on his self-made goal.

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