There are many parts that make a novel and without them, the structure of a novel wouldn’t exist. Every writer knows that there should be a plot – the basic story structure – and that the story will have characters, but they won’t always know about the other ingredients that make a good novel.
In the first of this three part series, we’ll take a look at the obvious elements that all would be novelists will either already know or should have some basic knowledge about. These are the easy ones for writers to concentrate on. But of course, there are others, less well known, that help make a novel whole.
So let’s look at the basics:
A plot is the skeleton of the basic story. It involves a series of events that happen throughout the story, through the eyes of its characters, and happens in a certain sequence.
A basic plot would be: ‘The hero has 24 hours in which to solve a series of puzzles set by a psychotic killer, who is holding his family hostage…’
In simple terms, it’s how the hero goes from point A to point B and finally achieves point C.
No story is complete without a compliment of well-defined characters to populate the story.
Characters have to have meaning. They shouldn’t be in a story if they don’t actually do much and don’t contribute to the story (except to be a specific background character). Characters should never make up the numbers. Every character you create must count. Every character must be there for a reason.
There are a number of characters that inhabit a novel. There are lot of sources that say the number of character types ranges from seven to over twelve types, but most of these are just sub-divisions of the basic character development, for example, rounded characters or static characters.
All characters should be rounded. That’s the point of characterisation. And if characters remain ‘static’ then there is little point is developing them or including them in the story if they are not going to grow with it. This is why there are only three character types that you should concern yourself with:
Main characters – these usually combine the protagonist (the hero, whose story it is) and antagonist (the adversary or villain trying to thwart him/her). They are the driving force of the story, and the main cause of the required conflict that every successful novel needs.
Basically, they are your good guy and bad guy and they have the greatest effect on the story arc.
Secondary characters – the next step down from main characters, they are the support cast (and are often involved in sub-plots). They are there to help move the story forward and are there to compliment the main character(s).
Secondary characters should be just a well-developed as your main characters because they will appear in many important scenes with your main character(s).
Peripheral characters (or background characters) – these are the less developed characters, usually with walk-on parts or non-speaking parts, but are there to provide additional background to an otherwise empty scene.
Remember, all characters must have meaning, so if you have a scene in a restaurant, for instance, then you will have a main character, a secondary character and lots of peripheral characters to populate the scene. A waiter will be a peripheral character. He may only say a few words, but he is necessary for the scene.
If you find a character doesn’t actually contribute anything to the scene or the story, get rid of them.
A subplot is a secondary strand of the main story, but will directly relate to it.
There can be one, two or more subplots in a novel. They can be simple strands or they can be quite complex, depending on the type of story. There are no hard or fast rules. Obviously, a writer doesn’t want too many otherwise there is a danger that subplots can overshadow the main plot.
Subplots will often involve secondary characters, but the structure will always relate to the main plot in some way, either thematically or symbolically and must support the main story in some way.
Let’s take the earlier example of our hero trying to solve a series of puzzles in order to save his family from a psychotic killer. One of the secondary characters will be the hero’s wife. A subplot might involve her efforts to try to escape with the children as the time ticks away. Another subplot could involve the hero turning to an unlikely source for help, perhaps.
Every writer knows that their novel must have a viewpoint, whether first person, third person or omniscient.
First Person – Told exclusively through your main character. This creates immediacy, it brings the reader closer to your character and allows you to explore what your character is feeling and thinking throughout the story. The main drawback with this viewpoint is that it is quite limiting and is quite difficult to maintain in a full length novel because of tenses.
If you want to use first person POV in a novel, you must be proficient with tenses.
Third Person - Longer stories, usually action/thriller style, tend to work better in Third Person. This is the most common POV and allows you to employ more description, narrative and emotion within the story. This works really well for action scenes, particularly when dealing with multiple characters. It is also the easiest POV when dealing with tenses.
Third person POV is not as limiting as First Person POV. The majority of full-length novels opt for this because writers can explore third person multiple viewpoints, which means the writer can write from the viewpoint of many characters while keeping the main focus on the main character.
Omniscient (or all knowing) – this is the most impersonal viewpoint, and rarely used, simply because it makes the narrator god like, ‘all knowing’ and ‘all seeing’. In other words, the narrator jumps from one character to another character, but mostly it intrudes the narrative, for example:
‘This is the moment John must to decide what to do, and as you might imagine, he’s quite undecided in his actions or fortitude, but the time is upon him and so his next action might surprise you…’
This is not an altogether defunct viewpoint – many contemporary writers have used it, such as with the Lemony Snicket books, or Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy – but it would need some consideration, since it is not as popular with publishers or editors these days.
Beginnings and Endings
Every story must begin and end. What we do in the middle is what makes the story.
But of course, writers should know that the beginning is incredibly important – the very first sentence must grab the reader’s attention and not let go. The beginning must also set the tone of the story immediately and open at a significant moment in the main character’s life – something that pushes him or her to undertake the journey they will share with the reader.
Writers should give careful consideration to the beginning of the story and their opening sentences. Hook the reader, reel them in and make them want to continue turning the page.
Endings are just important, a necessity of even the simplest of novels. The conclusion of your novel must always be satisfactory, believable and leave the reader with the feeling that it’s the right ending.
Make the ending convoluted or trite and the reader won’t thank you. It has to make perfect sense; it has to credible and must be a logical conclusion to the whole of the story, not just snippets of it. And like any beginning, a writer should consider his or her ending very carefully.
So, those are the basic elements of any novel – plot, characters, subplots, viewpoint and beginning and endings.
In the second part of this series, we’ll look at less known aspects of what a fully conceived novel should contain in order to make it more than just a few characters and a plot.
Next week: A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 2