Elements of a Novel

A novel is a tapestry of elements woven together in a way that feels right to the reader.

There is plenty of variation to play with, and every writer brings a different balance to the elements that make up their story.  The individual pieces or the sum of the parts will resonate or strike discordant notes with any number of readers.  That’s simply a given.  No two people ever respond in the same way to anything we see, read, or otherwise experience.  All an author can do is to try to  weave these elements in as effective a way as they can.

Characters

Readers (and even writers) don’t need to like a character to enjoy them.  But the characters need to feel real and compelling enough that we want to know what they’ll do and what will happen with them.  Stephen King said this about Carrie:  I never got to like Carrie White and I never trusted Sue Snell’s motives in sending her boyfriend to the prom with her, but I did have something there.

A writer has to understand their characters – whether they like them or not – in order to breathe them into life for a reader.  This holds true with secondary characters – who too often get shortchanged or overlooked in many stories.  A thinly-developed secondary character is like a Card-Guard from Alice in Wonderland.  Every time they turn sideways they disappear.  They’re all too often treated as filler, and excuses are sometimes that modern novel word-limits make character development more difficult.  But a good storyteller can make a secondary character come sharply to life with only a few brushstrokes.

Mood

Every story has a mood that defines it.  You feel this when you read a story.  And if you’re a writer, you should be feeling it when you’re writing it, to better communicate it to your readers.  A story isn’t just words connected to plot and characters.  A story is something more – it’s an idea that connects a writer’s imagination to that of a reader.  There’s a magic about it when it’s done well.  The mood will shape all the other elements – the pacing, character motivations, descriptive prose, everything.  Horror novels are obviously dependent upon mood, but so are romances, and thrillers, and westerns, and sci-fi and every other genre.  Great stories make you feel and you can identify that feeling just by thinking about the book.  No matter what anyone says about Twilight (for the record, I haven’t read the books, but saw the movies and enjoyed them, and I have no problem with whether the writing is “good” or not, because the stories were successful for what they were supposed to be) – fans of the series felt the stories.

External and Internal Struggles / Challenges

I believe the best stories have both external and internal struggles and challenges.  They don’t need to be in equal balance, and their focus can depend as much on genre as the story itself.  Thrillers can often get away with almost entirely a focus on external (although many thrillers also incorporate strong internal elements).

I believe it’s important to develop stories where the character at the end of the story is not unchanged from the one who began it.  Readers are taking a journey along with the characters, and they want to feel changed by the experience just as much as the characters are changed.  Sometimes this kind of transformation is mistaken for external change – in urban fantasy/paranormal especially, sometimes there is too much focus on tacking on more and more powers to a character to demonstrate the way they have changed.  Writers and readers should be able to easily answer the question, “was the character different by the end” with a resounding “Yes!” rather than, “Sort of.”

External crises are there so the characters (and by extension the readers) can feel changed by what happens and in the aftermath.  There should be a maturation and an affect whenever possible – and not done in a cheap way but rather in a believable manner.  The end result is not always that a character has to be “better” but only that they have to be changed.  Internal and external can very easily be woven together to make a stronger storyline.  Kelley Armstrong always does this.  So does Patricia Briggs.  Anne Rice did this with many of her Vampire Chronicles books.  Richard Bach did it with Illusions.  Stephen King has done it numerous times with many of his books.  It strengthens a story and makes a reader connect just that much more.

Dialogue

Dialogue can be tough, and more so because there really isn’t a single way to portray it.  As well, what people consider to be “good” dialogue changes over time.  You’ll find different dialogue styles across genres – thrillers, westerns, romances, literary fiction, etc.  And even within genres, writers develop distinct trademarks to the way they develop and portray dialogue.

What most successful dialogue shares is a terse compactness that distills the idea of what is being said into a way that translates for reading.  When we speak aloud with someone, much of what is said isn’t really needed.  In written dialogue, we want to strip away the unnecessary parts and communicate the ideas that really matter, and we want to do it in a way that zips the story along.  The latter is why pretty much everyone agrees that dialogue tags are usually either best left out altogether whenever possible, or at least restricted to “said” or “asked” because readers will mentally skip over these familiar tags.  When a writer decides to demonstrate their vocabulary with creative tags other than these two main ones, a reader may pause for a moment before continuing, in the way that records used to skip (back when people used record players).  There’s nothing wrong with an occasional “whispered” or “yelled” (although the latter can be better communicated with simply the exclamation point and “yelled” would only be needed if attribution of who said what was required), but it should be occasional.

Ditto for using adverbial qualifiers to dialogue tags.  Nothing wrong with a very occasional “she said softly,” but not every single piece of dialogue requires this.  If the dialogue works in the way it should, a reader should be hearing what’s being spoken as well as already feeling how it’s being said, just from the way the scene is unfolding.

Pacing

Pacing can be difficult to define because it can end up being a little subjective.  It’s possible to read a page-turner doorstop of a novel or an interminable 85,000-word novel with short sentences but not enough sense of movement.  Some of this depends upon any given reader, but a lot still depends on the writer.  A writer has to consider what really does or does not need to appear in a work, and how to keep a reader turning pages.

Bad pacing usually is synonymous with boredom.  When a reader begins skipping passages, the pacing is the problem.  Redundant explanations, long-winded dialogue in which more than is necessary is communicated, and too much description where nothing really happens – all of these things contribute to pacing issues.

Still…it’s not enough just to “make something happen.”  Readers need to actually care that something is happening.  Set-pieces that feel tossed in just to move a story along can be transparent because a reader intuits that they serve no purpose.  A writer should try to make everything interesting.  Make the characters interesting.  Make the things they say to one another interesting.  Make the inner turmoils of the main character interesting.  Trivial doesn’t work so well, and neither do predictable pretend-crisis points that feel overly manufactured.

Get The Details Right

If you’re writing in sci-fi, you probably have a lot of leeway in this. If you’re writing any story grounded in the world we live in (or in history as it really happened), you should make every attempt to get the details right.  Because bad details that a reader recognizes are wrong have a very jarring effect and can undermine the believability of the world you’re trying to convince readers to share.

If a writer is going to describe a real location, they should either visit or at least do enough research to be able to convince someone who actually lives there.  Zipping from one end of Los Angeles to the other in 15 minutes, or Manhattan, or Seattle or any other major city is a clumsy mistake.  Getting the weather wrong is another.  Putting mountains and hills and rivers and other geographical features where they don’t exist is another.  All that’s needed are some nuances that make a setting come alive just enough.  That really isn’t hard to do – as long as the nuances are right.

A writer could choose to make things generic in order to avoid such problems.  In some circumstances, this can be a great solution.  But in the wrong hands, it can prevent the reader from being drawn into a story where the settings are bland.  And in any event, a setting should feel real to a reader whether or not it’s placed in a real locale or a fictional one.  Stephen King has almost always made his locale a character unto itself.  The town in Salem’s Lot was a character.  So was the town of Derry in It.  Both of these are fictional places, but he based them upon settings he was familiar with.

There’s less wrong with getting obscure details incorrect.  Patricia Briggs freely used silver bullets in her early Mercy Thompson books, until she and her husband decided to investigate how or whether they would actually work.  After considerable experimentation (which I’d highly recommend anyone read if they’re curious), they came up with solutions which she incorporated into the fifth book, Silver Borne.  Truthfully, few people would even know the difficulties any more than they did when the Lone Ranger featured his silver bullets.  Still, it’s nice to explore that kind of thing.

As well, movies and television regularly abuse the realities of technology – besides the many “hacking scenes” there’s also the magic involved in making pixels multiply in sudden new detail when “zoom and enhance” are utilized.  But most people aren’t aware of these kinds of things (ditto for Hollywood gun myths) so it’s quite possible to get some obscure details incorrect or at least fudge them with semi-plausible explanations.  Stephen king has regularly changed revolvers to automatics and so on.  And a little fantasy injected into a basis of current technology is a great way to make a story entertaining.  A good example is the entire premise of Jurassic Park in which Crichton did extensive research into the science but needed a way to extract dino-DNA, settling upon blood found in mosquitoes frozen in amber – despite the fact that this is probably not possible currently.

Writers have to choose what details matter to get right, and which not to worry so much about.  The choice depends upon what percentage of readers are likely to be irked, so the burden rises with the wideness of familiarity among readers with whatever details are being used.

Believability

This ties in with several other elements – Characters, Dialogue, and Getting Details Right, especially.  A reader has to be able to suspend disbelief and fall into the story.  Characters have to feel real, their struggles identified with, the things they say to one another should be mirrored in the reader’s mind, and settings should come alive.  Fail enough times, and a reader loses their belief.  It isn’t easy to earn it back.

Suspense / Intrigue

This goes along with other elements as well – particularly Pacing, Characters, and External/Internal Struggles and Challenges.  A reader should care about what is happening enough to keep turning pages.  It’s important to emphasize that suspense and intrigue are about the ongoing story and not about any special surprise planned to wrap everything all up.

A story does not even require a satisfying climax in order to be enjoyable.  The best stories are the ones where they’re still enjoyable even when the climax is already known – these are the books we re-read or the movies we see more than once.  Stephen King’s The Stand has a sort of anti-climatic climax but the development and build-up have always made this book one of the favorites among his fans.  M. Night Shyamalan probably hit the best notes with The Sixth Sense – because the story itself was the best part rather than just the twist ending.

Resolutions That Feel Right

I’ve read books where the whole of the book was enjoyable but the story fell flat at the end.  Often, this is because the characters didn’t seem to change in the ways that the storyline had been promising all along.  Happy or sad endings don’t matter – as long as the ending feels right.  When an ending is hackneyed, readers will feel cheated and their forgiveness will only depend upon how strong the rest of the story had been.

Writers tread a very careful line with reader expectations.  Readers have come along on a journey and have certain things they believe will make the ending worthwhile.  Writers feel a need to both surprise and match expectations, and sometimes this results in either being a little too creative in the surprises.  The results can either fall flat, or come so far out of left field as to make a reader shake their head, or completely dismay a reader by turning the story in a whiplash move from the direction in which things had been going.  A writer (and the reader) should be able to look at a resolution and believe that “this made sense, based on what had come before.”

Readers accept some level of coincidence.  There’s even an acceptance of MacGyver solution-finding if it’s plausible enough and wasn’t just hacked into a plot at the last minute. The problem is that some authors mistake the concept of Chekhov’s Gun (effective foreshadowing and use of impending plot elements) with the appropriateness of introducing unlikely elements early in a story so they can be miraculously “used” to save the day at the end.  It’s the literary equivalent of having a character carry around a screwdriver for next to no reason simply because the author plans to have the character locked into a room at the end, and only their handy screwdriver lets them remove the screws from the hinges and open the door.  This is just lazy plotting, and it happens with some frequency.

It doesn’t mean main characters cannot die, or bad things happen.  It just has to make sense.

No Deus Ex Machina or Author Interventions

Sometimes an author writes their story into such a hole that only a deus ex machina (an unlikely event, literally a “god from the machine” or godly intervention) can save the day and extract the character(s).

It’s even worse when the characters’ own actions put them in such a predicament, and a typical reader believes those actions were dumb and a very transparent attempt from the author just to put the characters in danger.  Having characters choose to split up (when they’re already facing danger) or choose not to tell someone else where they’re going are very often used in plotlines.  Sometimes, these can work, but they better have pretty logical explanations in order for this to happen.  Readers don’t enjoy reading about dumb characters, and especially not about smart characters who suddenly do dumb things just to make a crisis happen.

Deus Ex Machina and Author Interventions jar a reader out of a story.  They are transparent attempts by a clumsy writer to recover the pieces of a story that they’ve allowed to get away from them.  The reader can actually see the writer’s hands dipping into the story in front of their eyes – moving characters around and lifting them up out of danger.

It isn’t a pretty sight.

Bad plotting and frankly even over-plotting can lead to these kinds of situations.  Sometimes there’s too much reliance upon where a story is supposed to be going, so a writer feels the need to continually nudge and push characters toward that destination – “Here’s where I want you to go.  There’s a good girl.”  Pretend characters are really living and breathing people with motivations of their own, and just let them move of their own free will.  If you’ve imagined them in the way they belong, they’ll go where they need to without any intervention.  And where they need to go may not even be where the writer thinks they need to go.  There’s a thought.

Some writers are a little too much like the fabled helicopter-parents, controlling too many aspects of their children’s lives and shielding or extracting them from any hint of danger.  No reader wants to have a helicopter-parent-author hovering around and dipping into the story with a whir of rotor-blades to save their precious characters.

So avoid forcing characters into situations in a clumsy and transparent way, when the only plan is to extract them in an equally clumsy and transparent way.  You want readers to believe, and they’ll believe more when they don’t see the author getting between them and the story.

6 thoughts on “Elements of a Novel

  1. Wow, well thought out and a post that is definitely worth taking the time to read. Too many people don’t think things through and thats where things tend to come unstuck a lot of the time for the reader (as well as many writers.) Taking the time out to make sure the details are right is something that needs to be done.

    For example whilst I’m not cartographer, I have sat down and drawn a city map when I’ve needed it for a project. Yes its not finely detailed but I can look at it and follow the route that the characters takes to make sure that they get where they need to. If based in a real place I’ve also google mapped it and virtually driven the route required just to check that its 1) Possible, 2) Plausable, 3) To check what I’ve passed in case I go by a landmark.

    The bright side to a google map is that they also tell you the cost in petrol and an approximate time. This does allow you a lot of time to play with it and of course you can speed things up a little by breaking the speed limit (for your characters, not you obviously. LOL)

    Currently I’ve had an idea for a Steampunk story but I’ve had to sit down and figure out the logisitics on how a prosthetic would function. What I ended up settling on was perpetual motion (yes I know it doesn’t work in reality) but had it so that a kinetic charge was built up by movement that was then transferred to keep the perpetual motion moving. (In much the same way that wind is used to help keep the sea’s moving.) Yes it’s crude but it works for what I have in mind. The main problem now is figuring out how to get the damn thing connected to the body. I don’t want to use tiny clockwork machines that translate signals from the brain but figuring out how to get the part working is going to be hard. I might have to rethink and modify the adaptation to something a little different.

    • I like the way you’re approaching your Steampunk idea and thinking through a technical basis for its underlying concepts.

      One of the things that makes that genre so fascinating is the blending of familiar with fanciful in unthought of ways!

  2. This was a really good post! Extremely informative!
    Out of all these categories you have listed, I like to point out “Believability” to the writers I critique and edit. All of the writers I work with are fiction writers, and I understand that at a certain point the writing is, after all, fiction. But there also has to be some aspect of the story grounded in reality….and this is where believability steps in.
    Sometimes I fell like writers toss out believability claiming, “well, if it’s fiction, it’s obviously not real”, but I disagree. Readers still want to be able to relate to the characters and events in the story, even if those events take place in a magical castle or an outer space city. 🙂

  3. You’ve done it again, Matthew. Your factual posts are consistently informative, succinct, well written, and a useful introduction for novices as well as food for thought for the more experienced. There are some writing books that take chapters to say what you do here, but not as clearly.

    One of the things that I personally like is your view of the author / reader dialogue, that happens when someone picks up a story. Some adhere to the theory that if you learn all the ‘rules’, and then apply them rigidly they’ll end up with an excellent piece of fiction at the end. You partnership of both art and craft is something I admire.

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