Editor, Story-Contributor, and Co-Author, Robert Selfe, Breaks It Down! What Composes a Novel?
Prelude to the Novel.
Before my foray into the world of novel writing, I taught English at three schools, including thirty years at Ridgewood High School in New Port Richey, Florida. Like most English teachers, I taught grammar because it was required and literature because it was fulfilling. I taught poetry, essays, plays, and short stories; but, for me, the greatest joy was teaching the novel. Now that I am a co-author, I thought I would share some thoughts and explain some terms which, I hope, will add to your enjoyment of the novel.
My love for literature began even before I could read. When I was a child, I relished adventure stories which usually took place in fantasy worlds. They sparked my imagination and helped shape my life. I was fortunate to have parents who read me stories about varied characters who had amazing adventures. At that time, I didn’t know about nor did I care about setting, plot, theme, or characterization. All I knew was that I was completely caught up in the people, places and events. The one constant, I believe, was that good, if it persevered, would eventually win out over evil. As I got older and learned to read, I found myself drawn to characters who I wished that I could be. The Hardy Boys solved mysteries, and Tarzan was the master of the jungle. I didn’t realize that these were formula novels and not great literature. I was just excited to be able to access these characters in book after book. So what if the plot was basically the same in each one? I also became obsessed with comic books about super heroes like Superman and Batman. I later discovered Sherlock Holmes, and I read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the great detective.
In high school I discovered Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and thus began a life-long love of science fiction. For years I had been drawn to Greek and Norse mythology, and I think that fascination led to my discovery of J.R.R. Tolkien, my favorite fantasy writer. I was fortunate to have had good English teachers in high school who expanded my horizons. Required reading included: Of Mice and Men, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and more. Some of these novels had a profound effect; however, others left me flat.
It was in college that I finally became a mature reader. I discovered hidden depth and meaning that my superficial reading of earlier years had denied me. Two of my favorite novels were Catch 22 and Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game). I must admit that I never would have finished the first if not for an English Lit. teacher, and I wouldn’t have finished the second if not for my sister’s insistence. I’m grateful to both.
It was also in college that I gained my appreciation of what I consider the most important element of fiction: characterization. I owe that mainly to one man: William Shakespeare. I had read several of Shakespeare’s plays in high school; however, with the exception of Hamlet, I never understood what the big deal was. I think that part of the reason was that when I read the plays, my lack of familiarity with the language and the disconnect of having to constantly stop and look up words turned me off to the whole “Shakespeare” experience. In college, my immersion into the world of Shakespeare showed me his genius in wording and characterization. More about that later.
And now for the latest: I know that the English teacher who wants to write the “Great American Novel” is a cliché, but I am not that guy. I reluctantly signed on to edit my best friend’s novel, The Z Redemption; and my contribution lead to the collaboration which is Corvette Nightfire. All I want to do is write an entertaining story about interesting characters. Daniel and I are currently at work on a third novel. We hope you will enjoy it.
Literary Terms of the Novel.
Novel: An extended narrative, usually in prose, which deals with fictional characters and/or events, usually in a sequential story. Novels are grouped by category (Genre)
Genre: A category or type of story. Some (but not all) of the many and varied types include: romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller, crime, western, young adult, and historical fiction.
Setting: The time and place in which a series of events occur. Authors choose a specific time and place for the novel to begin, but they must also decide the span of time and range of locations to be covered. These choices also contribute to the tone and mood of the novel.
Time may be general or specific. Examples range from “once upon a time” to “as the seconds ticked toward midnight.” The author must decide when he or she wants the events to occur and the span of time which the novel will encompass. Sometimes the main part of the story will take place in a specific time frame, and the author will end with a final scene which takes place days or even years later (or, in some cases, earlier). Time can be used to build suspense, especially with the introduction of a deadline.
Place may also be general or specific. The story may take place in a small town or in the far reaches of the galaxy. The place may be one which would be familiar to the audience or one which exists only in the mind of the author. In this case, it is up to the author to communicate that world to the audience. This is most often found in science fiction and fantasy novels. In historical fiction, a specific location coupled with a specific time may indicate to the reader that a famous event is about to occur.
Tone and Mood are similar and are often confused. Tone is the author’s attitude toward the work: formal, informal, humorous, sarcastic, etc. Mood indicates the atmosphere as indicated in the setting. For example, “It was a dark and stormy night…” lends quite a different mood from “As the sun rose over the tranquil harbor….” Of course the mood can be quickly changed: “It was a dark and stormy night outside, but it couldn’t dampen the spirits of the family reunion celebration inside.” Or “As the sun rose over the tranquil harbor, no one suspected the silent danger rapidly approaching.”
Moral and Theme are related and often confused. Both refer to the underlying message expressed by the author. The Moral is usually very specific and designed to express a universal truth which is meant to teach a lesson. We tend to think of the moral in terms of shorter works with one theme. (A good example would be Aesop’s fables. The end of each fable lends itself to the question: “And the moral of the story is…?”) Theme is a broader term in which the author expresses his or her attitude toward a specific subject. The novel often includes major and minor themes relating to numerous subjects. Sometimes the novel may even express conflicting feelings about a subject. For example, the author may be against violence, but the novel may contain sections where violence is deemed necessary. Often, the message is subtle. The complexity of the novel lends itself to multiple themes. In the novella [short novel] Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck incorporates a multitude of themes ranging from loneliness and friendship to ageism, sexism, and racism.
Plot: The sequence of events or actions in a novel. The plot of the novel is usually presented in four or five sections. The first, the introduction (also called the exposition), does just what it suggests: it introduces the setting and characters. Conflict, which drives the novel, may be introduced in the first or second section. The second section, rising action (also called the complication), develops a series of events which intensifies the main conflict and may introduce additional conflicts called sub plots. The third section or climax is reached when the struggle of the main conflict reaches its highest peak. This is followed by section four, the falling action; and the story ends with the fifth section, the resolution. The falling action and resolution may occur separately or at the same time, and this is sometimes referred to as the denouement.
Conflict: Simply defined as “a struggle between opposing forces,” conflict drives the novel. Without conflict there is only a prose narrative. No conflict means no novel. There are two types of conflict: internal and external.
Internal conflict takes place in the mind of the character. Technically, every time a choice is made, conflict is involved; but usually only major decisions which may impact the outcome of the story are considered internal conflict in the novel. In a romance novel, for example, the main conflict might occur when the central character has to choose between two love interests. In other cases, a character might have to choose between right and wrong. (In older cartoons, this might be symbolized by having an angel whispering into one ear and the devil whispering into the other.) That choice often determines the fate of the character. In theater, the tragic hero is usually someone who, due to a character flaw, makes a wrong decision which leads to his or her downfall.
External conflict refers to anyone or anything which opposes the main character. It may involve a variety of opponents. For example, conflicts may pit the main character against one or more individuals or society in general. Other conflicts may involve nature in the form of animals or the elements. In sci-fi and horror, conflict may involve aliens, robots, or the supernatural.
Characterization, simply put, is the author’s creation and development of characters. The author may include characters who are limited in their development and are one-dimensional (flat), or they may be fully developed and multi-dimensional (round). Flat characters are usually static in that they don’t change. They cling to a fixed set of standards. (Think of static cling.) Round characters are usually dynamic in that they change during the story. “Coming of age” stories are about characters who experience events which trigger that change.
Stock characters: We are so used to novels, that we sometimes need to be reminded that the novel is a relatively new form of literature, dating back only a few centuries. Before there were novels, there were plays. Playwrights were the forerunners of novelists. They created characters and put them into a story to be shared with an audience. The focus, however, was on the stage, not the page. Now we have the reverse. Popular novels are often adapted by a screenwriter who translates the page back onto the stage– in this case, the movie set. Playwrights, unlike novelists, were limited by time. With a window of just one to three hours, they didn’t have the luxury of unlimited pages to develop characters. They often used stock characters, stereotypes quickly and easily identifiable. We still have them: The hero is usually the young handsome leading man. The heroine is the young, beautiful girl who loves the hero. There must be a villain (whose appearance changes from generation to generation). Various other stock characters include the trusted advisor, the fool, the parent, etc. Today we have taken the heroine out of the background, and more and more female driven stories have modified or reversed the old stereotypes.
When I taught stock characters, I used Gilligan’s Island as an illustration. The skipper (Jonas Grumby) represented authority; the professor (Roy Hinkley), logic and science [the rational world]; the millionaire and his wife (Thurston and Lovey Howell III), money and status; MaryAnn, the wholesome girl next door; and Ginger, the temptress. Gilligan represented the viewer [also called the “Everyman” character]. Think about it. Gilligan is a nice guy, trying to get by and do the right thing and always messing up and getting criticized. He must listen to authority represented by parents or the law (Skipper), teachers (Professor), or bosses at work (Millionaire). He must choose the faithful girlfriend (Mary Ann) or the lure of the exotic/dangerous (Ginger). If he were a dynamic character, Gilligan would grow and mature, but in the TV show, he is trapped in the Peter Pan mode, and we eventually tire of him. Show cancelled.
The importance of Characterization.
If you can’t decide which is more important, plot or characterization, here are some points to ponder:
Consider shows like CSI and NCIS, which have several versions. All have basically the same plot, but some have a rabid fan following and others are struggling in the ratings. The same can be said for just about every daytime drama (soap opera). The shows with the most popular characters are the biggest successes. Consider movies. People don’t argue about which is the best James Bond plot, they argue about which actor is the best James Bond. Game of Thrones may be able to survive after killing off the main character, but try that with the Harry Potter franchise. On television, when an actor playing a major role dies or leaves a popular series, he or she is usually written out rather than recast. The brilliant exception to this was conceived by the creators of the popular British sci-fi series, Dr. Who. Every time an actor leaves, the main character goes through a “regeneration” and a new Dr. Who emerges.
Ask Hollywood producers about the importance of casting. Often, the determining factor in getting the green light to begin production is getting a bankable star to sign on for the film. If a TV show suddenly becomes a hit, millions will be spent to ensure the return of the cast for future seasons.
Ask yourself this: Have you ever cried at the death of a character in a novel, movie, or TV show? Did you ever feel guilty about feeling more devastated at the loss of a beloved fictional character than at the loss of a real person you knew? If you have, forgive yourself. We can’t help becoming emotionally invested in these characters, and the loss feels real. Actually, if you’ve never felt this way about a fictional character, seek help—there’s something seriously wrong with you!
…and the verdict: Characterization wins!