a short meditation on how to write a novel

Happy New Year!

I had a great conversation today with an editor about what makes a novel work. This is a very senior, very talented woman who knows of what she speaks. So if you don’t believe me, believe her. 🙂
This will be a short post because the concept is pretty simple. Ahem, here goes:
A novel should make the reader keep reading because it immediately poses a “what will happen next” question. So it should open with a bang, some sort of exciting happening that makes the reader go, “oh my gosh, what’s going to happen to resolve this. There should actually be two questions, an internal one and an external one. Internal is: Does she get the guy? External is: Who killed John? Along the way, there’s are existential issues being explored: what is family? What is love? Etc.
I will use a good example. Over the break, I read THE WOMAN IN WHITE by Wilkie Collins. Collins was a contemporary of Dickens, in fact kind of a protege of Dickens, and this book was a huge sensation when it was published in 1860. The edition I was reading, published by Barnes and Noble Classics with an intro and notes by Camille Cauti, is actually a really fun one, because it includes all the reviews that the novel received. It’s funny to see how the book business really hasn’t changed that much.
I digress. The Woman In White is a classic mystery thriller and it’s a fantastic read. And it follows all the rules above:
It opens with a bang, with the protagonist encountering a mysterious woman in white on a deserted road in the middle of the night. She references a dark secret and then disappears.
External question posed: who is this woman? What is going on here? WHAT IS THE DARK SECRET?
Soon the novel poses an internal question: will our hero get the girl he is in love with? He is a poor artist, she is a member of the gentry.
And along the way, the novel asks questions about the role of women in this society, how they are treated, how they are in so many ways powerless to create their own destinies.
So there you have it. These roles hold true even if you’re not writing a suspense novel–they hold true for almost any novel. And I have one more tip for you: end every chapter with a cliff-hanger. When Collins and Dickens were writing, they were publishing their work serially, so they did this as a matter of course. It works marvelously to keep the reader turning pages.
Jenny's posts

25 Responses to a short meditation on how to write a novel

  1. Oh, I LOVE the Woman in White! Did you know it had its own line of products, it was so popular? "Woman in White" perfumes and accessories and such?

  2. jennybent says:

    Wow, Stacia, I didn't know that. Publishing *really* hasn't changed at all, has it?

  3. Suzyhayze says:

    The Woman In White set my fifteen year old brain on fire and is one of the books that made me a writer! Thanks for mentioning it! I print out the first and last pages of the chapters of my novels to make sure that each has a proper ending and beginning, so that the tension to "read on!" is there. It works for me. Nice post.

  4. erikarobuck says:

    Simply and elegantly put. Very helpful! Thanks.

  5. Jille says:

    THE INTERN also blogged about this a few days back in her usual hilarious-yet-informative way.

  6. jennybent says:

    LOVE the INTERN! Thanks for sharing, I'll check it out.

  7. Good timing on this post. I just finshed "Drood" over the holidays. I found out about it based on Stephen King's list of top 10 books of 2009. Now I am going to pick up the "Woman in White" at the library tonight. Can't wait to read it.

  8. RKCharron says:

    Hi Jenny 🙂
    Thank you for sharing. I hadn't heard of Woman In White before and I'm going to read it now.
    Loved your interior/exterior examples too.
    All the best,

  9. Great, succinct and to the point post. Thanks for sharing it! Yes, as writers, it can help to put on our readers' hats for a moment as ask ourselves: why did I enjoy this or that book? The answers, of course, are in the conversation you described with a publishing industry insider.

    Yes, it must start with a bang and yes, I want to know what will happen next to the protagonist and with the rest of teh story. It's the unanswered question that will keep me turning the page until all matters are resolved at the end.

    Cheers, Jill

  10. Perfect timing for me as I hit the edits in preparation for getting my book ready to go on submission.

    Oh, and one more thing… I wish you'd blog more often. Your posts rock. 😉

  11. I learned the cliffhanger thing and realize how true it is – as a writer I've tried to do – as an editor I show my clients how to do it – and as a reader I often wish an author would have done it and am so pleased when they do! To me it's like watching a soap opera (if I was the type to do that kind of thing, eh hem) and having a scene end as someone is turning a door knob, not after they've opened the door. 🙂

  12. lbdiamond says:

    Just reading your blog makes me want to get this book!

    Fantastic tip, thanks!

  13. Alli says:

    This sounds like a great book, thanks for recommending it and for writing this post. There is nothing better than finding (and writing!) a book with cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter. Anything to keep the reader guessing and pages turning. Looks like The Woman in White should go on my TBR pile. Thanks! And happy new year to you and all the blog readers!

  14. Rose Green says:

    I LOVE The Woman in White! It's a great example of making multiple narrative voices sound distinct as well.

    Excellent example of a page turner. Some people do this naturally better than others–so it pays to study the good ones.

  15. And back to the WIP MS to make sure all your suggestions are covered. Thanks for the advice! 🙂
    My blog

  16. sanjeet says:

    "Woman in White" perfumes and accessories and such?

    Work from home India

  17. I found your blog and I simply adore it. I read The Woman in White last summer and was dazzled by the prose and the story.

  18. Writerperson says:

    This comes at a great point as I am contemplating revisions to a mystery! I love Wilkie Collins and now you have inspired me to a whole new rereading thread.

  19. Nance says:

    Gettin' it. Readin' it. Love this blog!

  20. KG says:

    Does this apply to most literary fiction as well, or are quiet beginnings more accepted in that genre? My favorite book at this particular moment is Mrs Dalloway, which begins with such apparently complete serenity that you begin to suspect that all is not what it seems, which creates receptivity to the conflict inherent in its complex of flawed viewpoints and existential dilemmas. (Sorry for writing that like it's for English class.) I know this is partly because it's in stream-of-consciousness style, but I've enjoyed more traditional works that ease into the conflict as well, and I want to know whether it's correct to assume that my own experiences can be applied to normal people.

  21. jennybent says:

    I think it really does apply to literary fiction for the most part, emphasis on "the most part." If you read the blog by THE INTERN on the same topic (scroll up), you'll see that she talks about the fact that there will always be exceptions to the rule, truly innovative masterpieces by authors who create narrative tension through their use of language, or superlative characterization, or interesting structure.

  22. Joanne says:

    A good thought to keep in mind during all stages of writing a manuscript, first draft to final. As we move through the manuscript, sometimes it's also inspiring to change it up, being obvious at times, other times subtle in building those questions, that suspense, but always keeping the reader needing to know more.

  23. Excellent post, Jenny. Now I have to search out 'The Woman in White' – just goes to show, doesn't it? Good writing does not date!

  24. The best and most frequent comment I get on my book is "I couldn't put it down…" so, I guess I did my job. But, I never thought to go back and look at my first few paragraphs, or first chapter, to ANALYZE it – to see what made them read the book, and then, to analyze what kept them reading/turning the page . . . beyond the things I did to prompt them that I thought about, was there more?

    Now I'm curious!

  25. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is even better, IMHO. Wilkie Collins was way ahead of his time and gender with his interest in and exploration of women's issues in fiction. Nancy Drew mysteries also keep readers turning pages by ending every chapter with some kind of cliffhanger.