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Four Things a Novel Must Have.

Think of all the things a piece of fiction must have. Who can ever get it all right? For example, we’re told to excel at plot, character, setting, point of view, dialogue, conflict, tension, pacing, and style. If it’s science fiction, add cool science ideas and scope. The list is long and demanding.

The good news is that a novel doesn’t have to have everything right.

Remember Randall Jarrell’s wonderful line: “A novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it.” So here’s Kay’s Rule of Imperfection: You don’t need to do everything supremely well. Optimize what you can and forgive yourself for the rest.

Because the pursuit of perfection leads to many an unfinished novel.*

So where does this leave us in our writing process, our current novel? For starters, we can look at our strengths and capitalize on them. Don’t try for profound if you’re blind to character. You might write, for example, The Da Vinci Code. If your plot might be described as serviceable, but you’re superb with tone and mood, you might write, for example, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell. If you have a knack for great characters and also love a high stakes plot, you could have written Adrian J. Walker’s brilliant The End of the World Running Club. If you really get romance and how to fold it into your favorite genre–such as fantasy–you can do no better than to look at how it’s done in  A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.

Still not certain what to concentrate on? OK, I’ll go out on a limb and give you my true, no-holds-barred-real advice. Here are the biggest things I think a novel a should have.


Publishers look for an exciting premise. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, but it does have to shine! Don’t short change your writing with a weak or warmed-over concept. Keep digging until you find an intriguing premise. Think Diana Gabaldon, Outlander series; Robert Repino’s Morte (War With No Name.)  Not every premise can be as original as: “Dinosaur DNA retrieved from amber.” But don’t settle for plain.

Vivid Environment.

One of the worst mistakes aspiring novelist’s make is a bland setting. This is a real crime in science fiction, of course, but true for every story. For heaven’s sake, take us somewhere interesting–such as the offices of a high-powered law firm or a small town in the 1950s. Even someplace awful: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. Or the post-apocalyptic world of The End of the World Running Club.

Charismatic Lead Character.

We’ve heard this a million times. Make your lead character someone we want to be with. Yes, but how? Give them one or two defining qualities that make them someone who will take action and be worthy of the story problem you’ve created. Internal demons? Perhaps. I prefer something more subtle, like being one-sided or unknowing in some way. Beware too much weakness. The major character needs to have charisma. If you don’t give them a special ability, give them a driving desire. For a lovely balance of strength and psychological denial see Diana in A Discovery of Witches.


Focus your story around a problem. Have enough obstacles to keep your major character challenged and growing in skill and knowledge to create a character arc. Escalate the intensity throughout the middle fifty percent of the novel. Problems arise from conflict, often conflicting agendas Which suggests that you should really nail the forces of opposition. To deepen the conflict sufficiently, make sure something  important is at stake. You don’t need meaningless action to tart up scenes, but you do need believable, escalating tension. That’s a high bar. Aim high.

You may not come anywhere near to doing these four things supremely well. But readers may very well love a novel with two of these great strengths. Nail three, and it separates you from the pack. Give readers four and you’re in the realm of great storytelling.

* The caveat goes without saying, but let me say it anyway. This presumes you have studied your craft. Learn what you don’t know. That is, study to fill the gaps in your knowledge about storytelling. My latest favorite on this topic: Great Novels Don’t Write Themselves by Larry Brooks.


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