What Makes a Novel Good?

A friend and fellow author asked me to beta-read his most recent novel before he submits it for publication. That task made me rethink what factors go into the creation of a successful novel. Here are my thoughts:

First, good fictional prose writing style. Writing techniques for fiction differ from those for nonfiction. Writing fiction is an art; writing nonfiction is reporting. The emotional reaction of the reader is a key element in fiction. That means that language used must evoke a range of feelings through the use of vocabulary, sentence structure and length, paragraph shaping, images, and allusions.

Second, aesthetic shaping. A novel’s structure is akin to musical form, especially the symphony. It needs to have a clear beginning, middle and end. Somewhere—usually in the last third of the text—needs to come the climax. It is preceded by narrative building tension, and it is followed by the conclusion. How long each of these sections is depends on the nature of the story being told.

Third, poetic writing. Because a novel is a work of art, the beauty of the text is critical. The novelist uses words and structures to create an imaginary world that must please, even delight, the reader. The writer must hone the distinction among similar words and exploit the emotional implications. “Odor,” “aroma,” “scent,” “fragrance,” and “bouquet,” for example, are synonyms, but each has its own emotional content. The fictionalist must choose the one that conveys the right feel at the right moment.

Under the rubric of poetic writing comes rhythm. The start and stop, flow and halt, float and sink of the text in a novel reflects, even dictates, the feelings the reader will experience. In principle, short terse sentences work best in action scenes; longer, fluid text guides the reader through lengthy narration. Sometimes a paragraph of a single sentence or even a single word can provide a needed jolt.

Fourth, the novel needs to be organized. The text is usually divided into chapters, and chapters sometimes need to be placed in larger sections. And sometimes subsections appear within chapters. Each of these textual divisions needs to feel complete within itself. Each should feel like a stepping stone in the narrative.

I could go on. The point is that a novel is a creative undertaking far more demanding and difficult than its nonfiction counterpart. Many nonfiction writers borrow novel techniques to spark up their writing. But no nonfiction writing I have ever done has posed a challenge equal to that of writing a novel. Except for writing poetry, it is the most demanding work I’ve ever attempted.

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