A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters - Part 2
Part 1 looked at some of the more obvious elements that make a novel, things like plot, characters, subplots and viewpoints. Part 2 will look at those elements that are less obvious to writers, ones they wouldn’t normally stop and think about.
A good novel needs themes. Themes form the moral fibre of the story. Plenty of writers worry over what themes – if any – should be included, or how they should be used, but more often than not, some themes grow organically with the story.
You might have a couple of themes already in mind. For romance writers, themes of love, betrayal, deceit and happiness are usual staple fare. For thriller and crime writers, themes of revenge and death or hatred tend to be top of the list, for horror writers main themes might be death, resurrection, the black arts etc.
But the interesting thing about any story is that, aside from main themes, smaller sub-themes also emerge.
Themes help to connect the reader with the story and the characters, because they are associated with emotions – we feel the giddiness of love, we feel the sting of betrayal; we stew in our hatred of someone or something. We identify with the feeling of loss or grief. We know what it’s like to feel sad. We can empathise with the characters. We feel what they are feeling.
That’s why themes are so important, they help the reader identify with the characters and the story, they bring the reader closer.
Every story should have conflict because it’s the driving force of your story, the fuel that stokes the narrative fire.
A good story can’t survive without conflict. In a story with no conflict, nothing happens. If nothing happens, then there is no story to tell.
Conflict can mean many things. It doesn’t just mean two people getting into a fight or a huge argument. There are different types of conflict, some which don’t involve violence or arguments. Some are subtle, such as wanting to buy an engagement ring for your sweetheart, but not having enough money. Or perhaps someone has told you some information about your best friend, and you’ve been sworn to secrecy. What about choosing which dress to wear? The red one or the blue one? All of these are varying forms of conflict.
There are three kinds of conflict (which can be broken into sub-conflicts):
- Man against man
- Man against nature
- Man against himself
In a novel there will always be the main conflict, and usually takes the form of the protagonist versus the antagonist. This is man against man. Then there might be a struggle between the main character and himself, an internal conflict, perhaps a fear of something, but he knows he must overcome the fear to save the day, which is man against himself.
From these three types, you can create as many sub-conflicts. But remember, if you create conflict, you must also resolve it by the end of the novel.
How many writers fail to add backstory?
It’s often overlooked because writers, beginners especially, simply don’t think about it, while others don’t think it important enough. But it is important. Without a splash of backstory here and there, your reader will never know why your main character acts or reacts in a certain way to something or someone.
Backstory provides the reader with snippets of explanation to help with plot points in order to move the story forward and, most of all, it helps with characterisation. For instance, you may have a character who was abused as a child – this will have an impact on him or her in the present, so therefore drop some of these backstory hints into the narrative so that the reader can understand your character’s actions and reactions.
How is it done? Backstory doesn’t have to take the form of an info dump over two or three pages – it could be a couple of sentences or a paragraph. Think of little morsels on a fishing line. Go fishing every now and then.
But backstory is important – it lets your reader know why and how, it helps them understand.
How many writers pay attention to the structure of their novel? Surprisingly, there are plenty of writers that don’t yet understand the concept of structure.
But what is meant by novel structure?
The structure of a novel needs to be solid – it’s the framework by which your narrative will form to help it flow from the opening sentence to the closing sentence. The basic structure is made up of three acts – the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning is the set up – what the story is about, whose story it is, why they are on that journey and the conflicts that will arise from it.
The middle is the story and how it develops through a series of obstacles and conflicts, each one escalating in tension as the main character overcomes them, until finally it leads to the climax, the ultimate crisis moment.
The ending is that final conflict, the end game, quickly followed by the resolution, where the main character changes in some way, they’ve learned something about themselves and all loose ends are resolved.
The flow of the story should – if it were plotted on a graph – slowly escalate, constantly moving up towards the pinnacle, the denouement – the climax. It should also graduate logically – in other words it should all make sense as it progresses, rather than deviate or go off on a tangent, otherwise you are in danger of confusing the reader.
Most of all, every story structure should have a great beginning, a solid middle and a powerful ending.
In the concluding part of this series, we’ll look at the other, less known aspects of what a fully conceived novel should contain.
A Novel is More Than Plot or Characters – Part 2