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Elements of Novel Writing


A novel, often subdivided into sections, chapters, and scenes, and entailing expository, narrative, and narrative summary writing, creatively depicts a protagonist’s journey, usually fraught with obstacles and restrictions, toward a personal goal.

“All novels have similar elements,” according to Walter Mosley in his book, “This Year You Write Your Novel” (Little, Brown and Company, 2007, p. 97). “They have a beginning, middle, and end. They have characters who change, and a story that engages; they have a plot that pushes the story forward and a sound that insinuates a world.”


Sometimes intellect can be a hindrance or even a handicap. Countless people walk around, wishing they had the time and tenacity to write the novel they believe is already within them. Yet, when they actually sit down to write it, albeit it in first-draft form, they ponder numerous questions, such as, What should I write? I have an idea, but no one will like it. Let me think of what’s popular. Romances sell well, so it doesn’t take much to figure out that that’s the answer. Or is it?

If the author does not have a romance, a fantasy, a mystery, or a science fiction piece in him, they are not likely to come out of him, and, if a meek resemblance to one does, it is not likely to be accepted for publication.


Determination of what type of novel-or any other genre, for that matter-the author should craft, should, to a significant degree, hinge upon what he likes to read.

“Why should you write what you love to read?” poses Evan Marshall in his book, “The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing” (Writers Digest Books, 1998, pp 7-8). “First, because you’ve read books in a specific genre for so long, you’re aware of the kinds of stories that have been written in it… Second, your passion as a reader will translate into your passion as a writer.”

Readership, needless to say, is integral to the publishing process.

John Cheever expressed this author-reader duality when he said, “I can’t write without readers. It’s precisely like a kiss-you can’t do it alone.”

As a reader himself, the author should determine which types of novels he enjoys reading and why, perusing the book lists to see what has sold, what has been extensively covered, which books may be similar to the one he intends to write, and then decide if he can approach the same subject or topic with a fresh approach or perspective.

Fictional genres include action/adventure, fantasy, historical, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction, suspense, western, and young adult.


Like the writing of any genre, whether it be nonfiction, drama, or short fiction, that of the novel is not a scientific one, but instead is a creative one. Aspects, techniques, and tips, in an educational vein, can help. However, the process itself involves an evolutionary one, during which the author writes, rewrites, crosses out, rewords, adds, and deletes. The more he persists in his literary efforts, the more, over time, that his expressions will reflect his intentions.


Although plots may only be limited to the ways the author can creatively connect and interrelate the novel’s elements, they can emerge from the following eight aspects.

1). The created protagonist or main character.

2). His goal, sparked by the inciting incident that sets the plot in motion.

3). His motivation for achieving that goal.

4). His strengths, weaknesses, and internal and external conflicts.

5). The antagonist.

6). The supporting characters.

7). The significant, sometimes seemingly insurmountable odds that oppose the protagonist’s quest.

8). How, when, and why he triumphs over the obstacles, leading to the novel’s climax and resolution.


Novels, as already mentioned, have beginnings, middles, and ends. Their approximate lengths are as follows.

Beginning: A novel’s beginning roughly covers the first quarter of the book. It is here that the author illustrates the story’s situation and circumstances, introduces the protagonist and other significant characters, details the inciting incident that sets him on his quest, explains his motivations for pursuing it, and incorporates any necessary background information.

Middle: The middle encompasses half the book’s length. It is here that the writer illustrates the primary action of the protagonist’s story line, journey, and quest, along with any subplots and twists, complications, and surprises.

End: The end occupies the final quarter of the work. All of its story lines, particularly those of the protagonist, are resolved, the plot reaches its fever pitch in the climax, and there is a short denouement or resolution, highlighting how the protagonist himself may have changed because of his journey.

The novel’s third, or last section, should be the most intense, leading to its climax. It can be considered the satisfactory conclusion or payoff or reward for the reader who has followed the book’s literary journey, constituting “the moment he has been waiting for.”

As the section unfolds and the remaining pages indicate that the novel’s resolution must be nearing, the author can use several techniques to effectively craft it. It is here where the protagonist’s options become severely limited, as his avenues and strategies become virtually exhausted and the number of others he can turn to is just as minuscule in number. This ensures that he follows the only path left to him.

His oppositions also intensify and increase in number.

Finally, his last-desperate attempt seems doomed to failure.

When the protagonist has battled his internal and external conflicts, followed the path he believes would lead to his goal, and now stands face-to-face with his greatest obstacle, the book has reached its final showdown.

“A showdown is not necessarily violent or even physical,” according to Marshall (ibid, p. 121). “(It) could be a climactic courtroom confrontation, a nerve-jangling chase sequence, a bloody fist fight, a rundown of the facts before the suspects… or a quiet talk between your lead and her husband’s mistress. It all depends on your story.”


Because of the length, complexity, the number of characters, their interactions with one another, the incidents and actions, and the need to strategically and progressively present a novel in literary form, the creation of an outline can greatly facilitate an author’s effort in crafting one.

“No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family house without a detailed set of plans,” according to Albert Zuckerman in his book, “Writing the Blockbuster Novel,” (Writers Digest Books, 1994, p. 34). “A big novel must have the literary equivalents of beams and joints strong enough to sustain it excitingly from beginning to end, and it also must contain myriad interlocking parts fully as complex as those in any building type.”


“The voice that tells the story is the first thing the reader encounters,” according to Mosley (op. cit., p. 17). “It carries us from the first page to the last. We, the readers, must believe in this narrative voice or, at least, we must feel strongly for that voice and have a definite and consistent opinion about it.”


The protagonist is the story’s central or main character. It is the one around which the plot revolves and to whom all the action and adversity is directed. It is the person who faces the obstacles and conflicts he must overcome to reach his goal.

Ideally, a story should have a single protagonist. He may not always be admirable-for example, he can be an anti-hero; nevertheless, he must command involvement on the part of the reader, or better yet, his empathy. He is the person in the story or book with whom the reader sympathizes or for whom he roots. Protagonists should be complex and flawed. They do not, by definition, need to be likeable, but they should be relatable and believable. The reader should understand their choices.

Although the protagonist’s physical appearance may be integral to the type of character the author creates and the role he plays in the story-from the stunning, attractive blonde to the six-foot-tall, 300-pound body guard to the mild mannered milk toast–his personality, strengths, and weaknesses, more than anything, determine how he or she will pursue his or her goals and what their motivations for doing so may be. It is that journey that the reader most follows, enabling him to care about, sympathize and empathize with, and feel for.

“If you want readers… to spend their precious time on your book, then you have to (create) a character who keeps them engaged,” according to Joanna Penn in The Creative Penn Limited. “This doesn’t mean that you need a goody-goody two shoes perfect person, but you do want to write a compelling, authentic protagonist that hooks the reader so he is desperate to know what happens next in the character’s world.

“Focus on three questions: What does your character want and why? What/who stops him? How does he overcome the obstacles along the way? (And) how is he changed as a result of the journey?”

“Readers remember a wonderful book’s characters long after they forget a story’s exciting scenes or even its climax,” advises Zuckerman (op. cit., p. 99). “Those characters who do stick in our minds over years and years appear in more than one way to be extraordinary.”

“(The author) has to let us see and share the longings, hopes, carnal desires, ambitions, fears, loves, and hates that reside privately within the soul of his characters and that (much as in life) other characters may know little or nothing about,” he continues (p. 99). “The writer must view the environment of the novel (both physical and human) through the eyes and sensibilities of the character.”

Yet, as also occurs in life, no journey can bear fruit if it does not somehow change the character or his perspective.

“All novels, short stories, and plays, and most poems, are about human transformation,” according to Mosley (op. cit., p. 40). “The subject of the novel is the human spirit and psyche-how the characters interact in their relationships with other souls and with the world in general.”

“As in life, your characters develop mainly because of their dealings with one another,” he further emphasizes pp 46-47). “The complex and dynamic interplay of relationships throughout the course of the novel is what makes change possible.”


The antagonist serves as the protagonist’s opponent and can often be considered the “bad guy” in the story, whose action arises from the conflict between the two. This is aptly illustrated in “The Wizard of Oz” in which the struggle between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West plays out until she triumphs over her with her death and brings her broom to the wizard.

The antagonist does not have to be a person at all, but may be an animal, an inanimate object, or even nature itself. For example, the antagonist of Tom Godwin’s story, “The Cold Equations,” is outer space.

An antagonist should also be a “round character.” Simply making him evil is not as interesting as making him or her conflicted. Pure evil is difficult to believe in fiction, since people are multi-faceted and inspired by their own situations and back stories. Therefore, putting time into describing your antagonist and showing his or her own struggles will create a richer and more complex narrative. Just as a protagonist should not only be good, an antagonist should not only be bad.


The crisis, or inciting incident, is integral to the novel, because it launches its plot trajectory. It must be appropriate to the genre and important, vital, crucial, and realistic enough so that the reader will follow it to its destination.

Conflicts can be considered the collective obstacles that oppose the protagonist in his quest to achieve his goal. They encompass two types: external-that is, human, natural, geographical, and physical, and internal-or character strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and flaws.

The stakes can be considered the consequences or what lies on the line if the goal is not successfully achieved.


Inciting incidents spark a protagonist’s journey toward a particular goal, but what is equally important to that goal is his motivation for pursuing it.

Behavior is like a language. It makes a statement about people, provided others possess the tools to “translate” it. Part of that translation entails the understanding of what lurks behind it-that is, what fuels it. If, for example, a person works hard to earn money, his motivations can include the need to pay his bills, the need to own expensive things, the need to own expensive things to prove his worth and perhaps superiority, and/or the need to camouflage feelings of low self-esteem and -worth. Similarly, a person who sits alone at a party could be in a bad or sad mood and therefore does not feel very social on the occasion, could be inherently shy, could lack social skills, and/or be unable to trust others and hence connect with them in any meaningful way.

Motivations bare the soul, demonstrating what a character wants, desires, and dreams about.

They both fuel behavior and either give the reader a reason to find out what they are or, if revealed and understood, give him insight into how they drive him. As he follows the character’s journey, he can often glean insight into his own.


Fiction, needless to say, recreates reality through action, dialogue, and character interchange, requiring the proverbial “show, don’t tell” delivery method.

“What you must always remember is that the novel is more experiential than it is informational,” according to Mosley (op. cit., p. 40). “Your reader might learn something, but most of what they learn is gained through what they are shown about the lives and circumstances of the characters therein.”


Because writing principally informs, as it does in nonfiction, and entertains, as it does in fiction, readers invest their time in the process and hope to see a return on it after they have put the story or the book down. Plots engage, grip, and give the reader something to follow as they unravel. Most of all, they should sufficiently hold a reader’s attention so that he does not put the piece down until he has finished reading it.

Writing three pages about your garden, for instance, may provide a commune with nature and lend itself more to poetry than prose, but how compelling would it be, unless it is integral to the longer story?

Plots are comprised of tracks that lead from origin to destination, as experienced by the proverbial philosophy discussed in most writing classes: if the author introduces a gun on the first page of his story, it had better fire by the last page, or the writer should at least explain why it has not.

“All good writing is mystery writing,” according to Rebecca McClanahan in her book, “Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively” (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999, p. 194). “And every successful story… and narrative essay is a page-turner… We may begin reading out of mild curiosity, to pass the time, but we keep reading to unravel the mystery. If there is no tension, we stop caring. When suspense dissolves, when the mystery is solved, we stop turning pages.”

“By holding back essential information, we arouse the reader’s curiosity and keep them reading,” advises Mosley (op, cit., pp 55-56). “Plot is the structure of revelation-that is to say, it is the method and timing with which you impart important details of the story so that the reader will know just enough to be engaged while still wanting to know more.”

Part of the mystery is not necessarily enabling the reader to find out what will happen. In “Titanic,” for instance, he or even the move-goer already knows. To them the mystery is following the plot and learning how the characters involved will survive and surmount the crisis, and how, if any, they will grow and develop as a result of it.


Scenes are the structured, inter-related links that enable the plot to unfold, which itself should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Like a mathematical formula, the elements should add up to a sum-the destination and resolution of the story. Plots can be considered contrivances about “interesting troubles” that the protagonist and supporting characters must experience, negotiate, surmount, extricate themselves from, and triumph over before arriving at their-and the story’s-destination.

“The scene is one of the most basic components from which every story is constructed,” according to Baechtel (op. cit. p. 71).

Events, physical actions, conversations, and interactions vividly occur so that the reader almost feels as if he is watching a movie or witnessing a live event.

A scene imitates life and convinces the reader of its occurrence. Seeing, as is said, is believing. This is the proverbial “show, don’t tell” of literature. Don’t tell me that Warren was crushed when he learned that he failed his final exam. Show me how his eyes widened into disbelief, how he tore up the paper, how he fell on to his bed, and how the tears dripped on to the pillow. The word “crushed” is then not needed. You, as an author, illustrated it and I saw it myself in my mind.

“Each scene must build on what has come before it, and provide a necessary bridge to what comes after it,” Baechtel continues (ibid, p. 123).

“A scene is an episode acted out by characters; it takes place in a particular place at a particular time,” according to McClanahan (op. cit., p. 194).

“To maintain suspense, we must alternate between scene and summary, showing and telling, and between braking and acceleration,” she concludes (p. 200).

“The setting up of a dominant, unresolved issue around which the novel’s characters have a huge stake is central to the plotting of a book as a whole,” according to Zuckerman (op. cit., p.123). “A similar technique in miniature can be vital to most individual scenes, the novel’s building blocks. In a blockbuster novel, a scene is almost always more than merely a well-written account in description and dialogue of an episode between characters.”


Nothing keeps the reader more riveted to a novel than an unexpected revelation, surprise, turn-of-events, or twist, and these techniques equally re-energize a plot that begins to sag. For authors who ascribe to the three-part subdivision, surprises should ideally arise at the end of the first, or beginning section, and in the middle of and at the end of the second, or middle, one.

A surprise is a shocking, protagonist- and plot-changing event, which sheds new light on, but significantly opposes, his goal. It can include his discovery of something; an opposition by another character, particularly the antagonist; the revelation of new information that raises the stakes and intensifies his quest; and an event or circumstance that negatively impacts the path toward his goal.

Ideally, each of the three unexpected turns should be worse than the previous one and the last should virtually eliminate the protagonist’s chances of success.


As occurs in real life, characters in novels often respond both emotionally and rationally to situations. The first response occurs in the brain’s mid-section and enables the person to process the events through the spontaneous energy which is generated by them. The second takes place in the brain’s upper portion, which entails reasoning and executive functioning.

If a person is unexpectedly terminated from his place of employment, for instance, he may experience the following two reactions.

Emotional Response: Veronica was stunned. She flushed red. She was numb. Where did this come from? Oh, my God!

Rational Response: I’ll talk to my supervisor before I just accept this. I’m sure she has more information. Maybe there was a misunderstanding. And if I can’t fight this, there’s always unemployment compensation to tide me over and I have some money saved that’ll get me through this until I can find another job.


“‘Setting’ refers most obviously to place, but it is much more than this” according to Baechtel (op. cit., p. 79). “It is the physical, emotional, economic, cultural, even the spiritual ecologies within which our stories are constructed.”

Author Rebecca McClanahan expanded upon this in her book, “Word Painting: A Guide to Write More Descriptively” (op. cit.. p. 171). “Place is only one element of setting. The common phrase ‘The story takes place’ refers not only to the where of the story, but to the when. Setting grounds us, literally, in the fictional dream. And descriptions of setting provide the foothold, the physical and temporal vantage point from which to view the events of the story.”

In order to more fully understand a character, he must have a location which he interacts with and almost defines him.

“Setting affects their moods, guides, their actions, narrows their choices or widens them,” Beachtel continues (op. cit., p. 79). “It can be cast of malevolence, benevolence, or any state in between.”

“Readers… enjoy being introduced to exotic environments where, almost as tourists or students, they can observe and learn about customs, mores, rituals, modes of dress and etiquette, (and) social and business practices largely or wholly alien to those with which they are familiar,” advises Zuckerman (op. cit., p. 23).


Fiction can include five writing elements:

1). Action

2). Summary

3). Dialogue

4). Feelings and Thoughts

5). Background


“Action is the mode fiction writers use simply to show what is happening at a given moment in the story,” according to Marshall (op. cit., p. 142). “In action mode, you show events in strict chronological order as they occur, you use action/result writing, and you never summarize events.”

While it may be questioned if event sequences occur chronologically, there are those that are only separated by nanoseconds, leading those experiencing them in real life to believe that several things are occurring simultaneously. A person who opens a door while his wife stands beside him and experiences an explosion, for example, may exclaim something while reclosing the door and shielding his wife, who, in a kneejerk reaction, throws her hands in front of her face and screams. The incident, taking place so quickly and perhaps beyond time, may seem as if everything occurs at once, but the person only exclaims after he opens the door and experiences the explosion. This, in turn, causes him to reclose it, and his wife only tries to protect her face after she becomes aware of it.

In order to maintain this cause-and-effect sequence, the novel writer should avoid words such as “while” and “as.” Instead, he should describe or illustrate the action in chronological order, such as, Darren opened his garage door and was met by an explosion. He immediately reclosed it and shielded his wife, who stood next to him. She threw her hands in front of her face and screamed.

If two actions do occur simultaneously, the author should use the present progressive form of the verb to illustrate this, as in “Derek waved at Sylvia, saying, ‘How have you been?'”


Dialogue is the story’s engine: it propels it toward its destination. It turns paper into people. “… (It) has to help the machine that is story generate the story’s motive energy,” according to Baechtel (op. cit., p. 105). “(It) is not merely the words your characters utter; it is the subtle interplay of speech, gesture, expression, attitude, and even silence,” he continues (ibid, p. 120).

It serves several purposes;

1). It moves the story.

2). It conveys information-that is, relates what transpires.

3). It supports characterization-that is, how the story’s characters think, speak, believe, and perceive.

4). It can foreshadow events.

5). It can make these events more vivid when they do arrive.

6). It gives characters, and the relationships between them, life.


Feelings, which should be expressed through character behavior and dialogue, can be supported with further mention, such as “The tears that flowed down Sarah’s cheeks after she learned of her husband’s affair were virtually unstoppable.”

Thoughts can provide additional understanding of a character’s mood, emotional state, and mind, such as, (to continue the above example), “It’s not just the hurt. It’s the secretive life! It’s the betrayal! It’s going through my heart like a knife.”


Background information, which should be given sparingly and sporadically, provides understanding about events and people that may not be apparent or illustratable to the reader. However, it does not necessarily propel the story.

Article Sources:

Baechtel, Mark. “Shaping the Story: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Short Fiction.” New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.

Marshall, Evan. “The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.” Cincinnati, Ohio: Writers Digest Books, 1998.

McClanahan, Rebecca. “Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively”. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.

Mosley, Walter. “This Year You Write your Novel.” New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007.

Zuckerman, Albert. “Writing the Blockbuster Novel.” Cincinnati, Ohio: Writers Digest Books, 1994.

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