Whether you’re a reader or a writer, there’s no doubt that novels are one of the most compelling forms of storytelling around. But what makes a great novel as opposed to a good book? What makes it stand out from all the rest? In this post, we’ll take a look at some of the key elements that make a successful novel. Whether you’re just starting out in novel writing or looking for ways to improve your current work, you’ll find tips and advice here!
It Tells a Compelling Story
First and foremost, a great novel tells a compelling story that readers can’t put down. With compelling characters and an intriguing plot, a great author can captivate readers from beginning to end.
The best stories are those that transport readers to another world, make them forget their own problems, and immerse them in the lives of the characters.
These stories can be about kings, dragons, space travel, or just what it’s like to go to high school. Regardless of the setting, good stories always draw us in and make us curious about what happens at the end.
And that’s the reason we read stories, right? To see what happens at the end. To find out what our characters are going to do next. To find out where they’re going to go and if we’ll ever see them again. That’s what I look for in a story. A good plot and strong characters.
As long as the book captures my imagination and has a story that does what I just described, I’m satisfied. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading a book for the first time or the fiftieth time: If it’s a book I’ve already read, I won’t be disappointed if I pick it up and read it again.
A great novel is a perfect escape, allowing the reader to explore new worlds and experience other lives.
A great novel:
- Tells a compelling story that engages the reader
- Is big enough to justify 75,000 to 100,000 words
- Has a good setting
- Is well thought out and thoughtfully plotted
- Deals with complex issues in an intelligent way
The Story Must Matter
A good story must matter. But what does that mean exactly?
To be important, a story must be significant and have relevance. It should be something that readers can connect with on a personal level, and it should stay with them long after they’ve finished reading it.
That doesn’t mean it’s a pity party or that it should be depressing as hell. The story isn’t about the reader, it’s about the characters, but it should speak to something the reader knows or can relate to. A story without that element is just a story. It’s flat. It’s boring. It’s not a good story.
I think the biggest mistake a writer can make is to tell their readers to care about them. By that I don’t mean that they should put themselves in the reader’s shoes or try to make them feel something they don’t.
I mean that the writer or author should never say, “Please care.” It’s safe to assume that readers will care about the characters in your story. They should. A good character is always someone the reader can empathize with. They’re always someone
A story that matters will make readers think, feel, and maybe even question their beliefs.
Most importantly, a story that matters will resonate with readers long after they turn the last page.
Has an Excellent Premise
A great novel needs an excellent premise. But what exactly is a premise?
Basically, it’s the central idea or concept that drives the story forward. It lays the foundation for the conflict and ultimately drives the plot to its resolution. Some authors refer to the premise as the “what if” factor of the story. It’s what sets the story apart from all the other stories that exist.
The premise usually has a simple answer. It’s usually a one-sentence description of the story. However, most writers struggle to write an effective premise because they don’t know how to go about it.
Here’s a tip that will help you write a good premise: Look at your story from a new perspective. It’s often easier to come up with a good premise if you look at it from a completely different direction.
For example, if you’re writing a story about a man who learns to fly, you could also come up with a great premise by thinking about what would happen if everyone in the world could fly one day.
What, you didn’t think of that first? OK.
Here’s another tip: write the blurb.
Writing the blurb to your novel before you’ve finished writing the book is a great way to clarify the premise. For example, if you’re writing a story about a man who finds out that his life is a lie, you could write the blurb like this:
In a world where nothing is as it seems, and where a person’s identity is based solely on memories, a man finds himself without a past. Lost and confused, he can’t even remember his own name. When he receives a call from a friend from his past, he sets out to find him and discovers that nothing is as it seems.
This blurb is pretty generic and doesn’t convey the true charm and intrigue of the story, but it’s a good example.
A well-crafted story makes readers curious and keeps them turning the page to find out what happens next. While there are no hard and fast rules for creating a good premise, there are certain elements that can help it shine.
- First and foremost, it should be original and compelling. It should offer a new perspective on a familiar concept or explore an original idea in a compelling way.
- It should also be specific enough to give the story direction, but open enough to leave room for plenty of intrigue and suspense.
- Finally, a good premise should be executed in a way that’s both thoughtful and entertaining.
How to Tell if Your Story Idea Has Potential
Whether your story idea has the potential to be a great novel isn’t always easy to judge.
On the one hand, you don’t want to get too hung up on an idea that mightn’t pan out. On the other hand, you don’t want to dismiss a potential winner too soon. So how can you tell if your story idea has what it takes? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Does Your Story Idea Have a Strong Central Conflict?
Without a conflict, there’s no story. Make sure your story idea has a clear and compelling conflict at its core.
If you can’t think of one or it feels weak, you should rethink your idea.
How does the conflict change the protagonist? Make sure the protagonist’s conflict is a personal conflict and that it leads to character development that changes the protagonist, where inner conflict plays an intrinsic role. If the protagonist still has the same problem at the end of the story as she did at the beginning, then the story has no point.
Does Your Story Idea Have Interesting and Complex Characters?
For readers to invest in your story, they need to be interested in the people (or creatures) who populate it. Take some time to develop characters who’ve their own weaknesses and motivations.
Consider protagonist and antagonist. What drives them to act as they do? Is it a one-sided conflict or are there more than one factor at play?
Is there a compelling reason for your protagonist to care about the problem? If the answer is “no,” then you may have a problem.
Does Your Story Idea Have a Unique Premise?
With so many stories out there, it’s important that your story stands out from the crowd. Think about what makes your story different and use that as a selling point.
A Strong Plot That Engages the Reader
A good novel always has a strong plot that engages the reader from beginning to end. The plot is the backbone of the story and must be well crafted to engage the reader. A well-plotted novel has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with exciting twists along the way.
The best novels make the reader feel like they’re on a journey, learning new things about the characters and the world they live in.
It’s important to understand that plot isn’t the same as the story. Story is the who, what, and where of your concept. Plot is the how, when, and why that takes place in that story. There are thousands of plot variations for the same story – that’s why it’s so important to first understand why your story works before you think about how to plot it.
Without a strong plot, your story will have a hard time making its impact. The plot should be the driving force behind the story and the element that engages readers.
A good plot should be well constructed and organized for maximum impact. Every twist and turn should be perfectly timed so that the story flows naturally from beginning to end. This is where well-designed pacing comes into play.
In a good plot:
- The plot is unpredictable and exciting
- The ending is satisfying
We Care About the Fate of the Characters
Great novels transport us to other worlds and introduce us to fascinating characters. We root for the characters and their fates as they struggle through the challenges they face.
Part of what makes a great novel so compelling is how invested we feel in the characters’ lives. Especially the main character. We want them to overcome their obstacles and find happiness, and we rejoice with them when they do. At the same time, it pains us when they suffer, we can empathize with their pain, and we feel genuine sadness for their losses.
In short, sharing in the fate of the characters in a great novel is one of the things that makes reading such a rewarding experience. It’s one of the things that keeps us coming back, even after we’ve turned the last page.
The fate of the characters in a good novel is important to us for several reasons.
In the first place, we can sympathize with them. We see ourselves in them, their struggles mirror our own, and we cheer them when they triumph. We care about the fate of the characters because they’ve become real to us. Over the course of the novel, we come to know them intimately.
They stand for something bigger than themselves. They may embody our hopes and dreams, or they may be a symbol of justice in a world that often seems unjust.
They’re proactive and resourceful. They’re the heroes of their own stories, and we root for them to succeed because they’re passionate, courageous, and persistent. Outwardly, inwardly, and ideally both.
Take Katniss. In The Hunger Games, she represents something bigger than herself – she embodies our hopes and dreams for a better world. She must overcome enormous obstacles to survive and escape the government’s grasp, and we root for her as she struggles to survive.
Even more than that, we care about the fate of the characters as they strive to overcome their weaknesses and become better people. We want them to succeed because they remind us of how we want to be ourselves.
Questions to ask ourselves:
- Who’s the hero in this world?
- Are the characters rich and complex?
- What’re the relationship dynamics between the characters?
- What’ll change about the characters?
- What stands in the characters’ way and how will they overcome it?
The Writing Style Is Vivid, Unique, and Descriptive
Although a great story told well is an essential requirement for a book to be considered a great novel, there’s arguably another necessary element: style.
A great novelist has a vivid and unique style that appeals to all the senses and creates a world that’s completely believable. This style allows the reader to suspend disbelief and become fully engaged in the story.
This is what makes a great novel truly transportive, taking the reader on an unforgettable journey to another time and place.
The best writers have a talent for description that allows you to imagine every scene perfectly. This skill doesn’t usually come out in the first draft, but great writers work very hard to craft their novels over several drafts. Style evolves as drafts evolve.
It’s not the same as what you might think of as a “lyrical” style. It’s not about flowery language – rather, it’s about how vividly the author can describe the world. How real is it for the reader? Which senses are addressed? What images are conjured up? What impressions are left in the reader’s mind?
The best writers also have a talent for dialogue. This is very difficult to learn and do well because dialogue is the key to creating realistic characters. Dialogue can set the tone and evoke the essence of any character. The best writers manage to capture voice in such a way that you can imagine the character speaking the words.
In a well-written story, the narrative is seamless. You don’t feel like an author is writing – rather, it feels like the characters themselves are speaking, as if they’re coming out of their own mouths.
An excellent, unique style combined with an excellent, unique story is what makes a great novel.
Examples of Great Novels
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; was the first novel to use intimate first-person narration to take the reader on a journey of discovery of the protagonist’s moral and spiritual development.
The Wings of the Dove by Henry James is the story of an American heiress who’s stricken with a serious illness and how it affects everyone around her.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; set in the Jazz Age, tells the story of the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby and his obsession to see his former lover Daisy Buchanan again. Although it’s now considered the great American novel dealing with class, wealth, and gender, it sold poorly when it was first published!
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a classic of modern American literature. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was named the best novel of the century by Literary Journal in 1999. It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends an innocent black man during the Great Depression, and the subsequent attempts at revenge by the real culprit, who was exposed at trial. Harper Lee herself wrote, “[To Kill a Mockingbird] spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is a novel about the mores of the English upper class in the early 19th century.
There are, of course, hundreds of other novels that would fall into the “great novel” category in literary fiction. One exercise that’s worthwhile is to review the favorite novels of other well-known authors: Stephen King’s list includes The Satanic Verses and Nineteen Eighty-Four