Lesson 11: The Biggest Feat: Writing A Novel
Here we study the novel, its structure and elements as well as how it differs from a short story and how to deal with difficulties we might encounter in the process of its creation.
- To learn about the form and structure of the novel
- To identify its elements and parts
- To differentiate the novel from the short story
- To learn what techniques we can apply to our novel writing to become more effective
- To identify hindrances to the novel-writing process and how to eliminate them
Quick Navigation through the Lesson 11:
Now that we’ve mastered the short story, we can move onto a bigger body of work. The novel is perhaps the most popular medium of prose available to us today. It typically consists of many chapters which contribute to a bigger plot or theme. In this lesson, we’re going to take an in-depth look at how novels are written and how we can tackle problems that might occur during that process.
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The novel is the most popular form of prose to date—here we learn about its history, structure and elements.
Despite its popularity, the novel is the most recently conceived form of prose. The novel obeys one general plot but because of its length, makes room for smaller, more complex plots within that narrative. With novels, we have more room for characters, complexities and affectations—we can play around more than with the short story because even if we need to impress a single effect on the reader, this can be done in several installments.
How and when the novel was conceived.
There are two main contenders for the first novel ever written—in the western world, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is considered the first novel; this is a story written in the form of numerous diary entries about a shipwrecked Englishman and how he survives on the island that he washes up on.
However, a manuscript was found in Japan which implies that the east may have been far more advanced than the west in terms of the novel: The Tale of Genji, a story written by one of the early Japanese empress’s ladies-in-waiting (Murasaki Shikibu) is about the emperor Genji, his many loves and the tragedies they faced. This manuscript dates back to 1010, centuries before Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719.
Regardless, there is no doubt that a big part of the progress of the novel as we know it took place in the west. The modern-day novel began with the compilation of serialized short stories, such as Don Quixote (1605, 1615), Canterbury Tales (ca. 1500) and Sherlock Holmes (1887-1927). At the time, there was no word for them yet when these volumes came out (which is why Robinson Crusoe still holds the title as the first western novel despite the earlier publication dates of Don Quixote and Canterbury Tales).
The world novel began as an insult to lengthy prose writing. It was considered funny but far beneath poetry because it allowed for so much digression with words. Novels were mostly read for their entertainment value (again, for example—Don Quixote); they were considered a novelty.
The foundations of a novel: how its parts go together.
The novel is divided into sections by chapters. Chapters are like short stories in that they must be cohesive and have a single effect on the reader—however, they must also contribute something to the novel’s general plot. Chapters also usually come together or entwine at some point in the narrative.
Some authors opt to insert a note to the reader which helps put the narrative into context. If this is done at the beginning of the novel, it’s called the Introduction or Foreword. If done at the end, we call it the Afterword.
Certain novels also contain flashbacks at the beginning of the book or flashforwards at the end of it. These scenes usually cut-to scenarios which happened before or after the story begins. The former is called the Prologue while the latter is called the Epilogue. Flashbacks and flashforwards may also take place in the middle of the narrative; what differentiates the prologue or epilogue from these flashbacks is that they usually happen outside the main plot.
The different elements of fiction and how they apply to the novel.
In general, novels obey the same elements of fiction as short stories: Character, Setting, Plot, Theme, Tone/Mood and Point of View are all still important in this form. However, it is key with novels to know how the various characters, settings, plots, themes, moods and points of view of the various chapters intertwine.
The Novel vs the Short Story
In the previous lesson, we talked about the short story—in this section we see how the two are similar and how the two differ from one another.
The novel is the child, so to speak, of the short story. It is a collection of short stories which intersect. The main difference lies in the length and language of the novel: since novels are longer, more liberties are taken with regard to description. The writer is able to focus more on the setting and is able to explain more things that the short story. If in short stories, we mostly show the reader what is happening, with novels we can take more liberty to tell the audience certain things about the different elements. Dialogue, description and exposition in short stories is significantly more brief than dialogue in novels.
However, both obey Poe’s single effect which states that the work must impress upon the reader a certain emotion. And also, they adhere to Aristotle’s Organic Unity—as with the short stories, novels must also be cohesive and its elements must be in harmony with one another.
Tips & Techniques
Now that we’re familiar with where the novel came from and what makes a good novel, we discuss what we need to do to write a novel ourselves.
Now that we’ve discussed the basic structure and elements of the novel, it’s time to begin our own writing. Below are certain tips and techniques that will help you write an interesting and cohesive novel.
Begin in Medias Res. This story entails beginning the story in the middle of the action so that the reader is left to figure out what happened via the revelation of other details. A good example of this is the novel IQ84 by Haruki Murakami where the novel opens to a girl named Aomame jumping into a bizarre taxi cab that is furnished in the fashion of a limo. This style grabs the reader’s attention and requires them to keep reading so that they learn what happens.
Play with time. This is a good way to reveal past events because it keeps your story from becoming lackluster. Especially because novels are lengthy, the reader may have a tendency to get bored if your plot is too dragging. This can be put into action by using flashbacks or flashforwards. It is key not to state that the scenes you’re describing are flashbacks or flashforwards unless absolutely necessary (as in The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger)—it is best to reveal this through details described (i.e. the dead girl at the beginning of the story is still alive in this scene).
Write a general outline. This will help you avoid confusion. Because a novel is long and consists of many different plots and characters, it’s good to keep track of what you’ve written down. It’s also good—regardless of whether your novel is linear or not—to keep track of when events take place and certain details that occur in that place. This can make the difference between a mediocre novel and a great one.
Common Roadblocks & Overcoming Them
A lot of problems can occur while writing our novels. Below are things we need to look out for and how we can get past them.
While novels give us more room to play around with words and plotlines, they also give us more room to make mistakes or encounter problems. Below are some of the most common mistakes that beginning novelists make.
Deus Ex Machina. This occurs when the writer can’t find a way out of the conflict and something comes to save the characters “out of the blue”—this can be solved two ways: either find a more creative, logical way of resolving the problem or employ foreshadowing of events which entails planting subtle hints throughout the narrative that this is how the conflict will be fixed. A good example of this is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: at the end, the hobbits are saved by eagles. This might seem random and arbitrary but throughout the book, Gandalf the Grey sometimes talks about his friend Radagast, who is the wizard that commands animals. Because of that, it is acceptable for Tolkien to use the eagles as a means of rescue for the hobbits.
Plot holes. This occurs in novels more commonly than in short stories, if only because more things happen within the novel. Our previous point about making an outline can help you avoid this.
Melodrama. Melodrama occurs when the author either uses very trite language (i.e. clichés like “their hearts beat as one”) or when emotional scenes are lingered on too long or are described using the emotions themselves (i.e. “he hugged her passionately, enveloping her in a longing embrace” or “they stared at each other for what could have been centuries and she saw into his soul before they looked away, too soon”). To avoid this, try listing down emotions felt during a scene and how those emotions are conveyed via gestures (a quivering lip, knitted eyebrows) and use those gestures to describe the scenario.
In conclusion, we can say that the novel takes everything we learned in short story writing to a new level—it deals with the same elements as short fiction but it involves more complexity. Conversely, because of its length, we are also able to have more room to play with events and characters. There is more room for us to move around, creatively. However, this goes hand-in-hand with the possibility of encountering more problems like making the mistake of using deus ex machina or employing melodrama in our writing. In this lesson, we studied how these things can be overcome by using techniques like outline writing and the foreshadowing of events.
In our next lesson, we’ll talk about one of the veteran literary forms: Creative Non-Fiction. We’ll tackle the principles of writing different types of essays and how they differ from previous forms we’ve discussed such as poetry or short fiction. We will also touch base with the different problems we might encounter and the ways in which we can overcome them.