After I outgrew Blyton’s books, I moved on to the African Pacesetters novels, the Penguin classics (Sherlock Holmes, Pride & Prejudice, Emma, Sense & Sensibility etc), English classics in general and some European classics, especially works by Russian writers (one of my favourites being Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). I discovered American novels much, much later in my reading life.
My attraction to novels (books) was simply the magic they held trapped inside their pages; their ability to take you anywhere and reveal certain truths that can’t be learnt in the classrooms. Also, they told compelling stories, crafted with skill, style and attention.
Back to my first book never published. It was a disaster on many levels and not only because it was a copycat book, but because at the age I wrote it, I never realised that writing like any other vocation required a period of study in order to learn everything you need to know about the craft. I guess it’s easy to say this now after publishing two novels. But the truth, however, is that even when I was writing both novels, I was not completely aware of certain elements of the novel. I was driven by the passion to tell stories.
Yes, anyone hoping to be a writer/novelist must first have that genuine passion for telling stories. But that is simply not enough. I learnt, hopefully not too late, that there’s a ‘good way’ to write stories and a ‘bad way’. You may have the most awe inspiring story but if told or written badly, it would never matter, because no one would truly be interested.
I struggled with this knowledge initially. Had this always been so? Had writing novels always been so technical? What was it like before the era of the MFA and writing programmes? I wondered if the writers of old ever thought much about this! I have expressed these thoughts openly here because I am aware that at some time or the other, they must have crossed many young writers’ mind.
But, there are elements that appear in practically all novels. The five main elements are: plot, characters, conflict, setting, and theme. Novelists use these elements to create fictional worlds that seems real to readers. Novelists must manipulate and integrate these elements successfully when crafting a novel.
[The following section has been culled from Microsoft Encarta]
To engage the reader, a novel must feature characters with complex and complete personalities. Characters do not need to be physically realistic; science-fiction novels often feature aliens as characters. But meaningful characters usually have hopes, fears, concerns, and ambitions that the reader can recognize. Well-conceived characters do not simply serve as devices to further the plot; they convince the reader that they have lives beyond the boundaries of the particular story being told.
The novelist makes the reader care about the story by introducing some sort of conflict. The conflict can be physical, emotional, or ethical, but it always creates some sort of tension that the characters must resolve.
Another element that the novelist uses to draw in the reader is the setting of the work—the time and place that the story occurs. For some novelists, setting is essential and plays a major role in the book’s theme, as in a novel that is about life in the American South. For other authors, the setting is not as important—for example, in a book that focuses on the inner thoughts of a single character.
The theme of a novel is the major idea that the novelist is setting forth in writing the book. The theme gives the novel greater depth than it would have if it were a simple recitation of a series of actions. An author uses the other elements of the novel to build the work’s theme. For example, to develop a theme about the current state of the American South, an author might set the book in the South, feature characters from the South, and have the characters speak in a Southern style. Through these elements, along with the plot, the novelist conveys the novel’s theme.