The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 1


It’s hard to define what makes any novel work. It’s quite  a subjective subject – what one person likes is what another person doesn’t, and what works for one agent/publisher may not work for another. Most often it’s down to the content of a novel that really counts.
Writers can help their odds of an acceptance from agents and publishers by incorporating most of the “magic ingredients” that are found within a wide spectrum of successful novels, the kind of things we know have been tried and tested and we know they work. The more components you use, the better the chance of catching the agent or publisher’s eye and the stronger your story will be.
So let’s start from the beginning, and look at the most important elements that agents and publishers are looking for. These are the things you’ll need to incorporate for a well written piece of fiction.
Magic Ingredient Checklist

  • Story/Plot
  • Subplots
  • Themes
  • Conflict
  • Emotion
  • Characterisation
  • Viewpoint
  • Motivation
  • Setting
  • Background
  • Tone, mood & atmosphere
  • Foreshadowing
  • Symbolism
  • Simile & metaphor
  • Description, dialogue & narrative
  • Indirect exposition
  • Immediacy
  • Flashbacks
  • Pace
  • Grammar & Spelling
  • Style & Voice

It’s quite a list of things to use, and the good news is that most writers instinctively incorporate most of these. But at least a comprehensive list like this can help ensure that most – if not all – of these magical ingredients are included.
The Story
A tight, believable story is essential. Without it, you won’t be able to fully support your characters or anything else that happens within the novel.
The story needs to be watertight. You may think your story is as good as it can be, but editors and readers have a knack of finding plot flaws. So it pays to know your story inside out and back to front.
Writing by the seat of your pants won’t work, because everything that is generated from the first sentence of the first paragraph of your first chapter has a direct bearing on the last sentence of the last paragraph of your last chapter and all that happens in between is interconnected. Then they realise nothing much is cohesive and they have to do double the amount of work because they have to go back and rewrite all the stuff they missed out, all the stuff that doesn’t work or doesn’t make sense and they will have to close gaping plot holes.
The way to avoid this is to plan the story and chapters and know what will happen in the story before you actually write it. Set the foundations of your framework first, otherwise the story will fail.
Subplots
Every story needs a subplot. These separate, individual plot strands help support the main plot. They give the reader more insight into the story and characters and provide much deeper layers. This provides a much more enjoyable experience for the reader because they become involved in these small side stories that run parallel to the main story.
Subplots engage the reader, they help give more information about the main story, and they help move the story along.
Themes
Stories without themes can be flat and uninteresting. Themes add colour, depth and layers to a story. They underpin everything and they act as a bonding agent to bring all those elements together. A theme is the intrinsic message you want to convey – love, kindness, coming of age, betrayal, forgiveness etc.
Themes also evoke emotional responses within your readers. They will empathise and understand what loss means, they will know the pain of betrayal, and they will connect with the primitive urge for revenge and so on. So, without any themes, your story won’t mean much.
Conflict
This is a vital magic ingredient, and so much has been written about it that it needs little explanation, except to say that a story can’t exist without it.
Conflict creates tension and emotion and emotion creates immediacy, because every reader can identify with conflict and the emotions it creates, since conflict can appear in all manner of ways, in all manner of situations.   
The thing about conflict is that it doesn’t have to represent war or fighting or being murderous. It can be an internal force, not just an external one. How often have we fought with our own emotions and decisions?  How often have we wanted to do something, but we held back? This is internal conflict.
So conflict isn’t necessarily about aggression. Sometimes conflict takes place in the mind, within us. Without any conflict, there is no story.
Emotion
This is also a vital ingredient and no story would be worth much without it. Leave out the emotion in a story and you leave out an essential life force. Emotion is what moves your reader and makes them involved in your story.
We’ve all encountered a raft of emotions in our lives; some good, some bad, and so we can relate to the characters within a story that are experiencing the same kind of thing. Your readers need to feel the sadness, the tension, the horror, the happiness and the pain. Emotion brings your reader closer to the characters and story.
Just about every situation in life contains emotion, so there is no excuse not to use it.
Characterisation
If you don’t get the characterisation right, then the story won’t be as strong as you think it might be.
It’s essential you know your characters inside out, that they develop and grow with the story and become real enough to leap from the page. Don’t let the story down with badly thought out, cardboard characters. Worse still, don’t create stereotypes or caricatures. This isn’t the nineteenth century. Times have moved on.
Your story is being told through your characters – what they do and how they react. They need to feel real, with real emotions and needs. They need to be ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances for the readers to connect with them and empathise with them.
Neglect characterisation and your story will fail.
Next week: The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 2

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