The Four Basic Elements Of Any Novel

It’s critical to understand these elements and how they are related.

Plot — There are many definitions of plot, but plot is essentially the story, or the events that make up what the book is about. Plot, of course, is defined by conflict, either internal (Coming to terms with the loss of a spouse, for example) or external, (A stalker is watching through the window), and the best plots are both original and interesting. Complexity of the plot is a matter of taste, so is the setting (such as time period).

No matter what other definition is given, the very best plots are defined by readers with the simple phrase, “I couldn’t put the book down.” In other words, a great story.

Character Development — Bringing the characters to life in the reader’s mind. They can range from thumbnail sketches to deep, wordy, highly detailed biographies of each character. It’s important to note that different genres and stories require different types of character development.

Writing Style — How the novel is written. Is the writing style efficient or complex? Does the author use an extensive vocabulary or get straight to the point? Are words used appropriately with regard to meaning, or do they seem written to showcase the “sound” of a sentence? Style should always be appropriate for the genre or story. An appropriate style adds to the texture of the novel; an inappropriate style does just the opposite. Literary fiction tends to lean toward complex sentences with original language. Thrillers tend to use shorter, more efficient sentences, especially as the pace quickens in the novel.

Of course, basic writing rules always apply. Limit the use of adverbs when describing dialogue (“he said angrily” should read, “he said”), avoid words that add unnecessary emphasis (“he was a little tired” should read, “he was tired,” or “she was very thirsty,” should read “she was thirsty”) avoid cliches (like, “It was a dark and stormy night,”) use words appropriately and with their proper meaning, make the sentences clear and coherent, make them original without seeming to strain for originality. And most important of all, “show” whenever possible, don’t “tell.” In other words, don’t write, “Max was angry.” Show me his anger instead. (“Staring into the fire, Max balled his hands into fists. Not this, he thought, anything but this.”)

For a further look at Style and Rules of Composition, see The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Length — Just what it says. How long is the book? The length should be appropriate to the genre and be appropriate to the story. The Notebook, which in its final form was 45,000 words, was originally 80,000 words before I edited it down. Why did I cut so much? Because the story was so simple (only two main characters and two settings, and the majority of the novel was devoted to only a couple of days) that the additional words didn’t add much; in fact, all they did was slow the story to a crawl. In The Rescue, I cut 20% from the original draft for the same reason. In A Bend in the Road, I cut 25%. In Stephen King’s book, On Writing, he says his general rule of thumb is to cut 10%. According to what I’ve heard about Hemingway, his advice was to take the first fifty pages of your novel and cut them down to five pages. Sometimes when writing, less is more. (Ignore the use of the cliche, but it’s appropriate here.)

In most books on writing that I’ve read, this final aspect is often overlooked, though I don’t know why. Length is critically important in novels. How many times, for instance, have you read a novel that seems to go “on and on?” I’ve read plenty. Too many, in fact.

Books that are too long are the sign of laziness by the writer and also imply an arrogance of sorts, one that essentially says to the reader, “I’m the author here and I know what I’m doing, and if you don’t like it, then that says more about you than me, and we both know which one of us is smarter.” Not so. Who, after all, would have seen the movie Jurassic Park if the length of the movie was six hours? As much as dinosaurs are interesting and exciting, enough is enough sometimes. Why are so many books too long these days? Because being efficient is difficult and often time-consuming. It’s a lot harder to capture a character’s personality fully in one, original paragraph, than it is to take a page to do so. But efficiency is one of the characteristics of quality writing. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is a much stronger opening than taking a paragraph or two to say exactly the same thing.

Likewise with novels or scenes that are too short, and though this doesn’t seem to happen as frequently, it does happen at times. Sometimes, characters scream for more detail about them, sometimes settings do as well. Sometimes adding “bulk” is important to the overall pacing of a novel. If too much length is bad, so is a book or scene that’s too short.