The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 3
In this part, we’ll look at some more elements to incorporate into the novel to make it enjoyable enough for the reader to become fully immersed in the story, the kind of things that writers don’t always include, or they forget about, and the kind of things that agents and publishers look out for.
It’s something most writers don’t really think about, since it’s not especially at the forefront of their minds. But the thing about symbolism is that, if used correctly, it can give the reader so many more layers to pick through. Readers are keen to read between the lines, to seek out those hidden clues and interpret different meanings. They want more than just a story – they want what lies beneath.
Symbolism is like a sign language – it’s used to illustrate to readers much more than mere words, and they are used to underpin the themes of the story. They can be overt or subtle, they can be colours, objects, actions...in fact symbols can be anything.
Think of symbolic colours such as red or black and what they represent. A steep hill or mountain may represent endeavour and determination to overcome or succeed, a white flower might represent hope or perhaps circling birds could signal something ominous. Anything can be symbolic, as long as it represents what is happening within your story.
It’s a powerful literary device that gives any story hidden depth.
Simile & Metaphor
These two go hand in hand. A simile is a figure of speech that compares one thing with something else, and is used to emphasise the description and make it stand out, for example:
As cold as ice, as white as a ghost or like a pig in mud.
These examples are rather clichéd, but it shows how they work. The idea is that writers come up with their own, unique similes in order to exaggerate description, for instance:
His voice grated, like a chain over concrete, her thoughts scattered like oil on water, or the emotion made his face look like melting wax...
Similes lift the description from the page, and if they’re good, they stick in the reader’s mind. These little things make the entire story so much better.
Metaphors are a little more complex, but they do the same job – they lift the description and make it vivid, and often readers remember them. Unlike simile – which uses “like” or “as” for comparison, a metaphor is a figure of speech to suggest a likeness, where words or phrases mean one sort of object or idea is used in place of another, for example:
The clouds were ghostly white sails adrift in the sky.
Red over green; his life before played out before him.
Spritely shadows danced behind cold granite eyes.
His thoughts were a soulless ocean.
There are comparisons here, but they’re indirect, so the reader will still understand and interpret their meaning. Metaphors and similes add layers of texture and richness to description; they make it stand out and they make it memorable.
Description, Dialogue & Narrative
No novel is complete without these three extremely important elements. Without a balance of all three, the story won’t work very well.
Description is vital – no matter what anyone says. If you can’t explain to the reader what is going on, what is the point of the story? Why bother?
Description provides snippets of information. It gives the reader some background. It builds up atmosphere, mood and tension. Description elicits emotion. It moves the story forward. It TELLS THE STORY.
Description doesn’t have to be long. But it doesn’t have to be absent either. It simply requires balance.
Dialogue also tells the story, but only in extremely small bursts. The most important feature about dialogue is that it is essential for characterisation. Not only that, but it also moves the story forward and imparts necessary information. And like description, it’s down to balance – not too much or too little, otherwise the story won’t work, but just the right amount that brings the entire story into focus.
Narrative is the little snippets of information between the dialogue and the description. It’s the background information delivered in very small bites, and shouldn’t be confused with description, for example:
The darkness settled like fine dust. (Description).
The old part of town was always busy in the summer, bustling with people and traders, long before it fell into decline in the late 70s. (Narrative).
‘It’s not going to change, no matter how hard you stare at it,’ Jack’s brother said. (Dialogue).
His attention focused on the old church in the distance, eerie within the shadows, and silent, as though frozen in time. (Description).
A balance of all three elements will help the story. If not, there’s a chance the story will be spoiled, and it’s just one of the reasons that agents and publishers may reject work.
Otherwise known as ‘show, don’t tell’, and one that is often ignored by would-be authors who just can’t understand why they keep getting rejected.
Indirect exposition allows readers to immerse themselves, it helps them imagine being in the story, of almost being there. In other words, it’s description that shows the reader rather than telling them, for example:
John got out the car and walked up the path to his house. He looked round, but saw no one and carried on to the front door. He opened it and stepped inside.
This reads like a grocery list. John did this, John did that. John opened his door...yawn. Now compare the same excerpt with indirect exposition applied:
John got out the car and walked up the path to his house. The hairs on his neck prickled and he looked round, but he saw no one. The sensation pressed against him, unnerved him, but he carried on to the front door. He opened it, hesitated, unsure, then stepped inside...
The exposition gives the reader more than just a list. It’s designed to bring them into the story, to become involved on a deeper level. So by showing and not telling, writers can plant all this imagery in the reader’s imagination.
If writers have done a good enough job of showing rather than telling, then there’s every chance they’ve created immediacy. This is the author-reader connection that makes it possible for the story to work on all different levels.
It’s about the closeness of your characters and your story to your reader, and how to make the reader feel as though they are not just reading your story, but they are a part of it.
The reader wants to be able to love the hero, fall in love with the heroine and hate the villain. They want to be swept up by the emotion and action, they want to feel the tension and conflict and they want to enjoy the descriptions that bring places and scenes alive.
To create immediacy you need to have characters that the reader can really identify with; people with flaws and foibles, needs and aspirations, the kind of people the reader will emotionally bond with because of the obstacles and conflicts they will endure and overcome, and in doing so, the reader will empathise.
Readers (and agents and publishers) love being involved in the story. So involve them.
Next week: The Magic Ingredients of a Novel – Part 4