5 Essential “Food Groups” for Creating a Great Novel

All stories have a beginning and an end, but the starting line is often also the finish line.


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.

1. Roundness

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.

5. Relatability

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.

Image courtesy of Kurman Communications, Inc.

What’s Your Favorite Story?

Our favorite stories don’t have to be specific or original. They don’t have to be stories we make up ourselves.


What’s your favorite story?

Not your favorite movie or book, not your favorite author or character or moral. Your favorite story.

My favorite story is one you have heard many times before. A group of completely ordinary people, with no special gifts, no special treatment, go about their ordinary lives wishing they could change the world. Then something happens that transforms their ordinary world into something different and unpredictable. This group of ordinary people, somehow, change the world. They aren’t heroes. They don’t have superpowers. Yet they make it work. They make a difference.

Our favorite stories don’t have to be specific or original. They don’t have to be stories we make up ourselves. But everyone should, and probably does, have a favorite story. It’s the story they wish they could experience firsthand. It’s the story they hope to someday manipulate, pull apart and reshape in order to create something new, something exciting, a story worth sharing.

Something happens when you spend enough time with your favorite story. You realize that it isn’t just the writers or the characters or morals you love. You love the story because it makes you feel good. It makes you feel inspired and hopeful and complete. It gives you strength when you have none. It helps you imagine a future when normally doing so often proves impossible.

Stories are nothing more than fragments of thousands of writers’ imaginations, mixed and matched, put together into trillions of different combinations. And in that way stories are a form of magic. Our magic. Our everything.

Stories matter to us, the writers, because they make up everything we want to do and be and say and believe. We are ordinary people living ordinary lives. We want to change the world. But we aren’t perfect, not even close. We’re good at writing and maybe not much else. We’re shy or we’re unmotivated or we don’t play nice with others. We’re too caught up in our own ideas or we don’t know how to relate to other people or we just want to do something good, but don’t know how.

Yet we have stories. We collect them. We play with them, craft them. We know how to rebuild and change them. We know how to tell them in a way no one else has before. And that is what we live for.

What’s your favorite story? And how are you going to use it to change the world?

Love&hugs, Meg<3

Image courtesy of Entrepreneur.

Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner. She has published work in Teen Ink, Success Story and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.