In 2017 I refurbished the post that I sometimes call the car metaphor essay, and in it I talk about how teaching writing is a bit like taking a bunch of people to a junkyard and saying, “Okay, you all know what a car looks like. Build one out of what’s here. Or, you know, build a truck, plane or submarine if that’s your thing.”
In any case, that car metaphor post enabled some useful conversations with students, and I was pleased with the response to it, so when a new round of my Novel Writing II workshop began at the UCLA Extension Writer Program, I followed it up with this expansion, about some of the basic pieces of that metaphorical car engine.
If you were building cars and I were a mechanic, the fastest solution to “You need a spark plug” would be to research a spark plug, figure out what it is and how it works, match it to the piece you’re building and get your motor running. (Or, alternately, find a way to build a functioning vehicle without one.)
But in fiction, as with any art, there is no universal diagram of parts, no index to how they work, and no single way to plug them into the structure of your story. This doesn’t mean, though, that having a list of some of the key structural features of a story isn’t helpful. So, with that in mind, here’s a start:
–The novel forms a relationship with the reader. The book makes a first impression, progressively reveals more about itself, engages the person’s emotions and finally says goodbye. It affects them . . . whether for a minute, a week, or a lifetime.
—Emotional investment: the way that the novelist forms this relationship with the reader almost always involves making them care, about the characters in the book or the outcome of the main character’s journey.
–The reader is lured into a sort of narrative dream that pulls them forward with suspense, that fills their conscious mind with the details of the story or a compelling narrative voice. The vicarious experience of reading the novel can be successful whether it is direct, vivid and somewhat simply flavored (think vanilla ice cream) or as complex and layered as a four-course meal in a fancy restaurant.
–The book rewards the effort taken to read it. Let’s face it: reading is recreation, but TV, movies and video games render entertainment to many for what can be perceived as far less work. The mental effort of reading the book must therefore be overshadowed by the enjoyment the reader derives from it. Either the reader shouldn’t perceive that they’re doing much work at all when they pick up your story–because it’s that much fun!–or they should perceive the effort but feel the rewards are worthwhile.
—Vicarious experience: readers come away with a sense of either having been your characters, in some sense, or of having known them intimately. Reading offers us a chance to see life through another’s eyes. It lets us be cops and adrenaline junkies; it lets us be classical musicians, it lets us be saints and sinners . . . all from the comfort of a comfy chair.
—Comprehensible: readers could retell the story to a third party, describing it as they would any movie or TV show they were trying to interest their friend in. By the same token, they could easily tell you who the main characters are and how they differ from each other.
Bits and pieces
–The title sparks some emotion–interest, curiosity, humor, recognition, nostalgia, outrage, you name it.
–The opening paragraphs are intriguing enough to draw the reader into the story and to cause them to want to read further.
–There are one or more consistent points of view. (Not all readers will necessarily notice this, or care, but editors, other writers and savvy readers will . . . POV can be invisible, but it is also crucial.)
–The closing paragraph leaves the reader with some note of finality or closure; in some fashion, you’ve said goodbye.
–The book has a plot: the story relates a sequence of related events, in other words, told in or out of chronological order. These events, if arranged in chronological order, would make a certain amount of sense.
–The events of the story include an early incident which kicks off a series of attempts by one or more characters to solve a problem.
–The events of the story include a conclusion, usually near the end, that either solves the story’s problem or proves it unsolvable.
–In other words, the sequence of events has a beginning, middle and end.
–The protagonist’s attempts to fix whatever problem they’re tackling tend to make matters worse rather than better.
–At some point in this series of events, things reach a crisis point where it seems likely that things are going to end badly.
–This sequence of events is usually driven by a protagonist, a character who is trying (for good or ill) to change something about their life or the universe. Monkey wrenches may be thrown at them by an antagonist, who can be anyone from a loved one with misguided intentions to a competitor or an outright villain.
–Books are about the human experience, and so there are people in the book. This is true even if all the people seem to be talking dogs, androids, ghosts or telemarketers.
–Some of the characters are likable or, if not, at least one of them is so deeply intriguing that we want to know what happens to them.
–One of the characters is almost always the most important person in the book and is the one with the goal or problem mentioned above. This person is referred to as the protagonist, the main character, or sometimes the MC.
–The book has enough characters, ‘enough’ being a vague number that is setting appropriate, gives a sense of the main character’s social world, while limiting the field enough that we know who the important players are.
–At least some of the characters in the book know each other, and have relationships that may also create emotional engagement with readers.
–Characters’ emotional reactions to the events of the plot and to each others’ actions are believable, neither too muted nor too big.
–Characters have characteristics: physical traits, emotional qualities, history and background. These qualities will affect how they talk, move, think, act and behave on the page.
–Characters all have their own agendas, motivations, and expectations and the tension between character agendas may help to create interest in a scene. (added by Kelly Robson)
–The characters in the book are different from each other and their various qualities make them seem like unique and interesting individuals.
–Finally, characters evolve. At least some of your characters will change in some fashion by the end of the book. In western fiction, for example, it is often the case that the main character will struggle mightily against some personal failing and in the end overcome it.
–The novel usually takes place at some specific place and time (or several places and times) and readers understand where and when it is.
–This setting is conveyed with confidence and sensory detail. If it is somewhere readers may know, whether a real place or a documented historical period, the details are correct. The author clearly knows that Manhattan has a big park in the middle of it, for example. Even if the setting is wholly invented, the author ensures that readers believe in it by providing everything from its sights, sounds, smells to its social landscape.
–The setting usually affects some of the character’s options: a novel set at sea brings with it the risk of sinkings and storms; a novel set in a prison might raise the question of escape. A novel set in a convent may not have many male characters, and those it does have might be clerical in nature.
–The setting is appropriate to the characters and content of the book, in other words, and the content and characters fit with the setting too.
–Setting affords an opportunity for readers to travel elsewhere, to imagine life in places and times they have not seen or cannot see.
–Books are about something. Admittedly, sometimes we write theme without thinking too consciously about it. But there’s some thing you keep returning to, in one way or another. A reviewer can reduce this to a phrase: “YOURBOOKHERE is about loyalty, family, love, death, or betrayal.”
–Whatever your book is about, the theme develops. Different aspects of the topic turn up in different contexts: if the author is making an argument–“Cheaters never prosper,” for example, they might show that the question is more complex than it seems on the face of it.
–The characters’ actions, especially those of the main character, are going to relate to this theme in some way.
–Themes can be big or small, important or frivolous, heavy or light-hearted.
–Characters talk to each other. A lot! Whenever two characters have an exchange that matters in some way to the story or their character development, readers get to hear the actual words exchanged.
–Individuals have their own voices, so dialogue showcases the differences between characters’ personalities, outlook, nationality, social class, education, background.
–The dialog works, by which it means that it reads in such a way that readers ‘hear’ the conversation as they read.
If you’re struggling with a novel rewrite, you might find it a useful exercise to compare this list with what you’ve got on the page. Where does what you’ve done diverge wildly from the above? Is that something you’ve chosen to do, and is it working? If not, is there something there that, if revised, will make the piece stronger?