What makes a great novel? Is it the characters? The situations they are forced to endure? The epic journeys they take to go to unfamiliar places? The flaws that lead to their downfalls and triumphs?
There isn’t one part of a story that makes it great. It is a combination of elements that, when mixed together, tell a story unlike any other that has come before it. To create a great novel, this is what you will need to include.
Good stories loop. They don’t have definite edges. Something addressed in the beginning of a book is often brought back toward the end, if not sprinkled throughout the story in its entirety in the form of a motif. Characters have depth. They move and change as the story moves and changes. All stories have a beginning and an end, but the starting line is often also the finish line, bringing readers back to where they started to show them how much things have shifted.
2. Extreme events
Extreme things happen in real life, but not always. Extreme things happen in books, as they always should. It is possible to both read and write a book that summarizes real life, but the greatest stories speak to real life through believable exaggeration. The main character doesn’t just throw away the rejection letter: she sets it ablaze over the invisible flame of a Bunsen burner (Laurie Halse Anderson, Catalyst). Extremes are what keep readers intrigued. They aren’t unrealistic. They simply highlight the important elements one might otherwise miss in a way they are unlikely to forget.
3. Unexpected consequences
In a story, things are always happening. The chain of events that leads the reader to a story’s climax is nothing more than a string of actions and their consequences. Katniss would not have become the Mockingjay if she hadn’t entered the Games by volunteering to take Prim’s place in the reaping (Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy). We don’t expect a victory to make someone the target of a government with a secretly evil president. There are good consequences and there are bad ones. What matters is that they are there, and that they fill out the story where it needs it most.
4. Powerful messages
Everything that happens in a novel means something of varied degrees of significance. Symbols and themes are present, even if they are not prominent. Novels speak. They give voice to issues and situations that can then be discussed outside its pages. A novel doesn’t have to change the world, it doesn’t have to challenge everything a reader believes to be true, but it can. If nothing else, a novel should at least communicate, clearly, the overall message it is trying to send.
We tell stories for emotional reasons. We want readers to feel things and react to the story’s morals and events. Every story, therefore, contains elements that make it relatable to its audience. Characters are put in situations that are in some way familiar. The story itself expresses messages that readers recognize. If a writer is successful, those readers will walk away from a story feeling. Perhaps not always feeling the way the writer intended them to feel, but at least in the way they need to feel in order to get out of the experience what they are personally meant to.
As with any recipe, essential elements of a great novel come together in different combinations and proportions to create thousands of unique stories. This is why nothing you ever write will be like anything another author writes. Every writer crafts her own recipe, and enhances the ones that have come before it, and somehow manages to create something new. Something worth reading. Something great.
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