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How To Stop Time: Don't Lose the Story in the Concept

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How to Stop Time by Matt HaigIf your book is all concept, it's all boring!

First of all, I will admit to having enjoyed this book when said and done. Even though I'm about to use it as an example of what not to do, it was still a heartwarming read about love and loss and how trust can conquer fear if we let it.


This novel is a classic case of the concept getting way, way ahead of the plot.

So first, the concept: How to Stop Time revolves around a man named Tom Hazard who ages slower than normal people. He's not immortal exactly, but his body takes so long to grow old that he might as well be. Born in the days of witch-burning and religious fanaticism, Tom has learned the hard way how hostile society can be to his condition. Nowadays, as part of The Albatross Society, he follows the command of an ancient man named Hendrich who does everything possible to keep their existence a secret.

Including kill people.

Now, the plot of the story is fairly straightforward. Tom meets a woman and breaks the most important rule of The Albatross Society: he falls in love. On the surface, this should lead to an exciting tale of him struggling to keep his love interest safe as the Society closes in on her.

But it doesn't.

That's because the majority of this book focuses on Tom's various jaunts through history, meeting Shakespeare and surviving the suspicious streets of London. We end up learning more about the mother of his only child, who died over two hundred years ago, than we do about the actual present-day person he's supposed to be interested in. There's a bit of danger and excitement toward the climax of the book, but it doesn't make up for the 330 pages of jarring flashbacks and nicely-written but ultimately pointless tangents. And the character of Tom doesn't help matters, spending most of the story aimless, goal-less, and feeling sorry for himself (one might even say that his lack of a goal is the reason the story has no plot to begin with).

In short, Haig fell in love with his concept and didn't build a strong enough plot framework to support it.

We at Algonkian teach the importance of a high concept. It is arguably the single biggest factor in a book's success. This novel, if anything, proves our rule! Despite its slow pace, plodding and uneven storytelling, and morose protagonist, How to Stop Time  is an international bestseller, soon to be a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch.

So clearly the hook is working.

However, this book could have been much better if Haig had given his protagonist a proper goal or made him more active. If Tom had been driving the plot forward, acting with direction and purpose instead of letting others dictate his life, then the story could have been energetic, propulsive, and impossible to put down. Who knows if it would have made the novel more successful, but I sure think it certainly would have made it more fun.

Look at your own novel and ask: have I lost my plot in favor of my concept? Is my main character interesting outside their circumstances? Or am I relying on the flash of cool ideas and settings to hook readers in rather than telling a proper, human story?

Let us know in the comments!

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