When I present a talk on novel writing, I often ask the audience for their input on the basic elements of fiction, and they come up with several immediately: plot, setting and character. Let’s begin with these.
Plot, according to James Scott Bell in his excellent how-to book Plot & Structure, is: “1) a small piece of ground, generally used for burying dead people, including writers and 2) a plan, as for designing a building or novel.”
Plot is what happens in our stories: the beginning, the middle and the end; with a story arc that takes the reader from one part to the next with compelling situations.
Of course, every story happens somewhere, so setting is essential to story. New writers sometimes forget to include setting. Characters interact in empty space without background or props…or reality. Setting takes us from the details of a room to the description of a village, city or fantastic new universe. It’s up to us to choose the setting, as long as we make it believable and stick to the rules we set up.
When something happens (plot) somewhere (setting), there are usually characters who experience it or tell about it. Perhaps we will choose our characters to show various levels of society or to parallel a person we know or have heard about. There are countless reasons for character choice, but a writer must know the characters intimately in order for them to appear realistic and three-dimensional.
These are the three elements most often suggested by readers. Before reading further, see if you can list a few more.
Dialogue goes hand in hand with character. A novel needs dialogue to bring it to life, and a character needs distinctive dialogue in order to be memorable and unique. In brief, dialogue has two main functions: to move the plot forward and to reveal character.
Another element is point of view. Through whose eyes will we be telling the story? Or will there be more than one viewpoint? Will it be first person (“I have always loved the colour red”) or third person (“She had always loved the colour red”)? The choice is up to us, but consistency is essential.
Another facet of novel building is voice. What’s the difference between voice and style? Check out my explanation on my blog: http://janicedick.wordpress.com/2012/03/01/its-who-you-are/.
It’s also important to include literary features in our writing. Similes, metaphors, personification, onomatopoeia and other such features give visual quality and richness to our work. We need to delve into the beauty of crafting words into phrases, sentences, paragraphs and scenes that will impact our readers.
Another aspect of crafting a novel is what I call PUG: punctuation, usage and grammar. Check out English Grammar on Facebook at http://www.englishgrammar.org/or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrammarUpdates. If we want our manuscripts to make it to an editor’s desk, we must make sure we’ve done all the necessary work. If you aren’t a grammar guru, find someone who is.
I write historical novels, so research is the foundation to a credible story, but research is important in any and every story. If our details are accurate, then the reader can trust our words when it comes to content as well.
And don’t forget the polish. Every manuscript must be carefully and conscientiously checked for everything from the flow of the writing to PUG to the correct meaning of words (or their connotations) to the amount of white space on the page.
This is a summary of the various aspects of crafting a novel. In subsequent blogs I will expand on these features. Until then, happy writing.
Janice Dick writes historical and contemporary fiction, inspirational articles and book reviews.
She also edits and presents writing workshops.