We’ve all read great works of fiction, and we’ve read those novels that produce a lukewarm reaction. Today, we’re going to look at the novel essentials that every book must-have.
So what elements does a great story have that a lackluster one doesn’t?
It doesn’t matter what genre you write in either. Every story that you write needs to hit all seven of these elements to be successful in the publishing world.
Novel Essentials #1: Plot
As you might have guessed, plot is a must-have for any story. It’s the first thing a potential agent or publisher is going to look for in a manuscript.
Why? Because it moves your story along and gives structure to the events that take place. So getting this aspect of your story right is critical.
Here are some things to ask yourself in the idea and self-editing stages of the writing process.
What to Ask Yourself
Here are some things you should consider when you’re self-editing your novel and getting it ready to send to others:
- Is there a plot? Without a plot, it is challenging to keep a reader interested. You’re going to need a protagonist with a worthy story goal.
- Is the goal strong enough to sustain an 80 000-word long novel? We prefer to read about characters who have something to fight for and something to lose if they don’t.
- Is the plot introduced early enough? The story’s goal is set by an inciting moment that turns the protagonist’s life upside down in a negative way.
- Is there too much backstory? Readers are not interested in a detailed biography of your character.
- Is there opposition for the protagonist? Introducing an antagonist to your story creates conflict, which moves your narrative forward.
- Does the plot make sense? We tend to include things that have no reason for being in the story when we don’t have a plot.
- Has the author used the setting to advance the plot? Descriptions should not be static or incidental.
Novel Essentials #2: Characters
The next thing that you need to look at is your characters. Next to the plot, they are the second most important aspect of your novel. Characters make us fall in love with the story we are reading, whether they’re good, bad, or something in between.
Here’s a list of things to ask yourself as you’re filling out a character profile or writing your story.
What to Ask Yourself
- Do I care about what happens to the protagonist and the antagonist? Readers don’t need to sympathize with a character, but they have to care about them. If you can’t do that, then why should they continue reading your book?
- Are the main characters believable? If the characters seem contrived or forced, we stop reading. Ask yourself: If I met these characters on the street, would they look real?
- Are their motivations believable? Give readers good reasons to buy into their story goals. For example, most of us would not ruin our lives to wreak revenge without a great cause.
- Is the author masquerading as the protagonist? Many first-time writers turn their life experiences into a novel, which is problematic because they cannot objectively see the character.
- Does the name suit the character? Sometimes you read a book, and you feel as if the author has not thought this through. The name may be out of date or too strange for the world the character inhabits.
- Does their body language, clothing, hairstyle suit them? How a character moves or reacts to non-verbal responses shows that the character is a “real person.”
- Do their emotions fit? A character may be happy, sad, fearful, or angry, and a good writer knows how to show these emotions through the things the characters say and do believably.
- Do the characters fit into their surroundings? Alternatively, do they fail to fit in because of who they are?
- Has the author used contrived ways to describe the characters? It is off-putting if a writer describes the character in detail. For example, ‘She had blue eyes, brown hair, stained teeth, and she weighed 60 kilos.’ Leave some of it to the reader’s imagination.
Novel Essentials #3: Viewpoint
You’ve got your plot and characters figured out, and now you need to decide what tense and point of view you want to tell your story from.
Most stories are told in either first or third person, and you’ve got to choose one that suits your story. You will also have to figure out whether the right character is telling the story.
You’ll run into issues if you’re telling the main character’s story through their best friend. The best friend character isn’t privy to their friend’s feelings and inner thoughts.
Regardless of what you decide to do, here are some things to ask yourself before you start writing that novel.
What to Ask Yourself
- Has the writer chosen a viewpoint that suits the story? Most stories and genre novels are told in the third person past tense. For example, ‘He cradled the baby as Freda screamed.’ Memoirs are often written in first person present tense to make the writing feel authentic and immediate. For example, ‘I cradle the baby as Freda screams.’
- Has the author chosen the correct character to tell the story? This happens when we decide to tell the story through the eyes of the protagonist’s friend or confidant. It distances the essential character from the reader, and there is more telling than showing as a result.
- Has the author stayed in the viewpoint character’s head? Many beginner writers head-hop between the different characters in a scene and confuse readers. As a rule, you should only use one viewpoint per scene.
- Has the character revealed something he or she could not have known? There has to be consistency and a sense of continuity in storytelling.
- If the author chooses a first-person narrator, is the character strong enough to bear the weight of a 360-page book? This might seem like common sense, but it’s a tough ask for one character who has to be interesting enough not to bore a reader. The character could be compromised, which is fine if you are considering using an unreliable narrator.
- Has the author chosen an omniscient narrator? An omniscient narrator is an old-fashioned tool that only exceptional writers can make it work. Modern readers prefer to be closer to the characters they are following in stories.
Novel Essentials #4: Dialogue
Look, no one wants to read pages after pages of description or inner dialogue. No matter how nicely it’s written. It’s boring.
Case in point, I recently finished reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, which took over a year. (I go through books quickly, so this was weird for me.) It was hard to get through because I hated the long philosophical rantings about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the human spirit and interpersonal relationships.
(I still recommend giving Lady Chatterley’s Lover a read, though. The book is wonderfully written.)
The rant aside, the number one mistake that writers make when writing dialogue is not creating distinct character voices. For more mishaps to watch out for, go through this list of questions as you write dialogue.
What to Ask Yourself
- Is there enough dialogue in the book? Being stuck in a character’s thought processes is agonizing for long periods. Break things up!
- Is the dialogue appropriate for the characters? Are you giving the characters the correct vocabulary and tone, and do their words suit them?
- Do the characters sound too similar? Novice writers use the same sentence structures and lengths for each character. Remember, real people have distinct voices when they speak.
- Does the dialogue serve a purpose? Unnecessary conversations hint at issues with plotting. Every piece of dialogue should move the plot forward, introduce conflict, or show us something about a character.
- Have they included body language with dialogue? Real people do things while they’re talking. Including body language is one of the most critical elements of a great book.
- Are the dialogue tags good? ‘Said’ is the best tag you can use. The way characters say things and the words they choose should tell the reader how they say it.
Novel Essentials #5: Pacing
Believe it or not, how quickly or slowly you get through the plot of your novel will impact whether an agent or publisher accepts your work. Every genre has specific story beats that need to be hit for the book to be deemed a success.
Here are some things to watch out for when you’re editing your novel.
What to Ask Yourself
- Does the pace suit the story? Books are comprised of scenes and sequels. Scenes are faster than sequels, and there are more of them. They are also longer. A good writer knows how to mix these up to create a rhythm for their story.
- Does the pace suit the genre? Thrillers will have more scenes. Literary novels are more leisurely, and they will have more sequels.
- Is it too fast or too slow, and if it is, can it be fixed? Yes, you can fix it by playing with the scenes and sequels.
Novel Essentials #6: Style
Another factor that comes into play is your style of writing. This is why it is so important to develop your author’s voice.
And that comes with practice. The more you write and experiment, the more you will develop your style.
In the meantime, here are some questions to ask yourself.
What to Ask Yourself
- Does the writer have a distinctive, engaging style? You can tell if a writer has this even if the grammar and spelling aren’t perfect.
- Can the writer write? Sometimes there are real problems with sentence structure, punctuation, and a poor grasp of storytelling techniques.
- Is there too much passive voice in the story? Too much passive voice leads to telling instead of showing and drags a story down.
- Is the tone appropriate for the story? A somber tone is inappropriate for a light-hearted romance, and a flippant tone is unusual in literary fiction.
- Are the readability statistics acceptable for a novel? Write simply.
- Does the writer have an engaging voice? The best way to find your voice and nurture your style is to write.
Novel Essentials #7: Beginnings, Middles, Endings
Beginnings, middles, and endings go hand in hand with plot. But there’s a reason that they get their own section. These three things are what hooks the reader and bring them along for the ride.
You need to make sure that you have a beginning that draws them in and hints at what’s to come. Create that sense of curiosity.
For the middle, you need to start satisfying your reader’s curiosity by dropping information here and there, ramping up the tension and suspense.
Then you’re going to wrap it all up in a bow with a killer ending that makes your reader sad that the book is finished.
Here’s an article from Now Novel to help explain these things in more detail, and don’t forget to ask yourself the following questions when self-editing.
What to Ask Yourself
- Does the story start at the beginning? There should be enough action combined with a touch of description, a hint of backstory, and dialogue – if necessary. Is the hook good enough to make the reader turn the page?
- Is there a great inciting moment? I want to be invested in the story from the moment I pick up the book. There should be something to make me care.
- Am I entertained through a muddle in the middle? Is there enough suspense, tension, and conflict to keep the story going? Good writers make the middle work by setting a deadline for a character. They force the character to change, throw in secrets, surprises, and even add a dangerous twist.
- Does the ending satisfy me? Great conclusions always complete your story arc, shows a change in your main character, and leaves the reader wanting more.
- Does it fulfill the book’s promise? If not, fix the parts that should have been set up properly to support the ending you want.
There you have it! The seven essential novel elements that every book needs. If you can master each element, you’ll be publishing your book quicker than you think.
And don’t forget to practice! The more you write, the better you will be at incorporating all of these elements into your story and developing your unique author’s voice.
Aside from the help that these questions have for us as writers, it also helps us when we beta read for others. It can also help us write reviews because we’ll be able to figure out what we did or didn’t like about a particular book.
Are there any elements of your story that you struggle with? Or anything I left out? Please let me know in the comments below.
Stay safe, everyone!
Until next time.