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.