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What Makes a Good Novel?

May 26, 2006

What exactly makes a good novel, to you, the reader and/or the writer? What reels you in? What piques your curiosity? What makes you continue to read? What exactly do you like or dislike about a story?

Chris Baty, the author of “No Plot? No Problem! A low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days” suggests writing down both the pros and cons of a good story. Why?

Because the things that you appreciate as a reader are also the things you’ll likely excel at as a writer. These bits of language, color, and technique, for whatever reason, make sense to your creative brain.

I fought the urge to write “relationship” stories for years. When I was in college, if you didn’t write something profound, something literary, then you were a cookie cutter writer – you weren’t reaching your full potential. On some level, that’s correct; don’t box your plot in, give it a little room to grow, to experiment. After all, the more unusual the plot, the better chances of getting published, for the most part. We all know it’s not as simple as that.

But the point is to write about something you’re passionate about. Any avid reader will tell you that it’s obvious, pretty much from chapter one, if the writer is having fun with the story or not. Do they care about the characters? Do they believe in the story? The answer lies in the prose. I’ve written literary fiction before, and not only was the story terrible, it was boring. I was embarrassed to allow anyone to read it because I knew in my heart, it wasn’t my best and I didn’t really care about it. Trust me, it showed in my writing.

What do I look for in a novel?

Sexual tension
A little mystery
Likeable characters
Strong protagonists
Nasty antagonists
Antagonists meets a satisfying ending
Protagonists triumph – but not in a cheesy way
Interesting character careers
Tight prose
Snappy dialogue
Interesting plot
Interesting endings
Humorous characters
Cliffhanger chapter endings
Characters who are at turning points in their lives
Office romances

What do I dislike in a novel?

Ignorant characters
Naïve characters
New York publishing stories
Weak characters
Super-natural elements
Talking to dead people
Whiny characters
Children as primary characters
Mental illness
Too much thinking/telling, not enough showing
Writers who preach about their beliefs through their characters
Endings that don’t really end
Selfish self-centered characters

The lesson here is this: If you won’t enjoy reading it, you won’t enjoy writing it. Your novel is a spastic, jubilant hoe-down set to your favorite music, a thirty-day visit to a candy store where everything is free and nothing is fattening. When thinking about possible inclusions for your novel, always grab the guilty pleasures over the bran flakes. Write your joy, and good things will follow.

So tell me, what makes a good, or bad, novel to you? And if you feel that you have a good novel idea, learn how to create your own book online, and share your novel with the world.

  1. May 26, 2006 9:50 am

    A good novel helps me take on a new perspective. I see and experience the world differently after reading certain books.

    A really good novel can change my life. Of Mice and Men is a life-changing book for me. In fact, I think it led to my working with autistic children in some way.

  2. May 26, 2006 10:48 am

    Foremost, for me at least, is that it has to ring true. I have to come away feeling like this really happened, that the characters are real, and that the descriptions are accurate. The book needs to tell me something, too. I have to learn something from the character’s experiences, otherwise it’s just a bunch of words that look and sound good together without much substance.

  3. May 26, 2006 7:07 pm

    Last week, I watched a movie about a children’s writer and in the movie, he said that writers are manipulators. So, the way I see it: if a writer can manipulate (likeable characters, believable storyline and dialogue, some mystery/suspense, unexpected endingts, etc.) me into wanting to keep turning pages then I consider it a good book.

  4. May 31, 2006 3:53 pm

    I adore novel’s with complicated characters that make me think. Also, I love beautiful prose…not flowery, but moving.

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