Thursday, 3 September 2009

What makes a good novel?

In the course of an interview earlier this year, Norm Goldman, the publisher and editor of, asked me what made a good novel. My thoughts turned immediately to the well-known Somerset Maugham quip, which is (approximately) ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’. In fact, it’s a hard question and answers may even vary depending on the sort of novel you prefer to read. But the scope (and looseness) of the form almost encourages diverse responses. I think mine are pretty basic.

First, you have to believe what’s happening in the pages, even if it means stepping outside what’s normally called ‘reality’. The hero may be a battle-scarred galaxy wanderer with green blood and a prehensile nose, but if you’re interested in him and care what happens to him, you’ll read on. In fact, I’m sure I’d find such a character far more sympathetic and interesting than the pieces of cardboard that masquerade as characters in the Dan Brown epics. (Sorry, Dan, if that upsets you. Go and read your bank balance, that’ll cheer you up.) Sci-fi may hop from planet to planet or past to future as if they’re neighbouring streets, fantasy may move into fifth, sixth or other dimensions, vampires may even overcome mortality itself but, in each case, if there’s a commitment to and a concern for the creatures living the story, you’re held by them.

So the primary quality of a good novel is its ability to make you care about its characters, worry for them, dislike them for what they do to others, pity them. Above all, you need to believe in their reality. It’s your empathy/sympathy that guarantees the authenticity of their world. If you’re involved in it it must, by definition, be real.

Another obvious quality must be the page-turning one. You have to want to know what happens next. Sometimes, the intensity of the emotions involved (yours as well as the characters’) transcends the actual story but usually there’s a journey to make, problems to be solved, setbacks to be overcome. I’d argue that these, too, depend on the characters and their interactions, but as a plot develops, it renews those chars, gives them opportunities to redefine themselves, makes them harder or easier to like. They can’t grow in a void, they need to be tested, questioned.

Then you get to the other qualities, the sub-texts, themes – all those things which, for some students in tutorials, ‘spoil’ the novel. ‘Why do there have to be meanings?’ they ask. ‘Why spoil the story by analysing it, taking it apart?’ And it’s not easy to answer those questions. If they’re enjoying reading something, that should be sufficient in itself. On the other hand, a closer look at the text can make it even better as echoes are heard, hidden motives are revealed, characters are exposed as being not just individual psyches but representatives of greater truths. But even if they resist the analytical urge, readers will still be affected by the great novels in ways of which they may be unaware, but which come from subtler processes than ‘good stories’ or identifying with the people in them.

It’s the things that make a good novel great which are the hardest to pinpoint. They’re the result of some extra elements that the better novelists achieve, a sort of layering which gives you the satisfaction of the story but also suggests undercurrents, a significance just beyond your perceptions. Even after you’ve finished reading, your mind keeps returning to what’s happened or to an image because it’s stayed with you, disturbed you or made you smile. These are things whose meaning goes beyond their own immediate context. On the surface, novels like that are certainly about people, but they’re also about indefinable forces.

And these 'extras' are fundamental to the form. Even with novels which are too easily dismissed by the (seeming) cognoscenti as ‘mere genre’ novels, these forces are at work. If readers are lifted from their prescribed present into a realm where unicorns graze and everything is possible, their experience of life is enhanced. Whether this happens from reading Tolstoy or a hospital romance is irrelevant. The point is that it happens.

The novel is a great form. It gives you space in which to let things develop. You can create echoes between themes that bring together things which on the face of it are separate. You hear an animal scream in the woods as a man reflects on a love he’s just lost and you fabricate connections between them. And when I say ‘you’ there, I mean the reader. That’s the final beauty of the form and one I mention ad nauseam: the writer provides the raw materials and the indications but leaves room for the reader to do some work, create some patterns, draw his/her own conclusions. It’s a strange but powerful intimacy between the two.

Oh, why the picture at the top? No reason really. Just a gimmick. And yet ... what's the story behind it? Why the out of focus door? The season is obviously spring - so what? Is the fact that laburnum seeds are poisonous part of it? What's going on beneath its innocence? What does it 'mean'? What does it need to make it part of a novel? Over to you.


  1. Maintaining curiosity and empathy on the part of the reader is what makes a good read. Grab your reader by the lapels and push him through the door into an absorbing plot. And keep him fascinated with the protagonist's problem that is revealing itself gradually and becoming more intriguing by the page . . .

  2. Not sure about grabbing him/her by the lapels, Jean, but I know what you mean. And the book I'm reading and utterly hooked by at the moment is a first class example of the process - it's Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It's an amazing achievement.

  3. Dear Bill,

    I loved this! Not only I enjoyed it because it had a lot of very useful and beautifully presented info, but also the bit about Dan Brown was just priceless! :) I totally agree.
    Glad I discovered your blog.
    thank you.

  4. Good work, Bill. You make fascinating reading. But why is the photo obviously of spring? For someone who has no clue what that flowery tree thing is it could be summer?

  5. Thank you Scary. (And thank God I didn't find yet another way to insult you this time.)

    And Michael, you demonstrate the value of blogging. It brings education and enlightenment to those in whom it is wanting. The tree is a laburnum. It flowers in spring. Trees are things that grow out of the ground. They have trunks (made of wood) and leaves (made of ... er ... leaves). And that's enough for one lesson.

  6. Excellent, Bill. At times in the past couple months I've felt guilty for taking so long on the preparation for my novel, but like you said, I have to believe in their world before I can expect the readers to.

    LOL, I thought it was picture of Fall until I read the last paragraph. So the American amnesiac is not familiar with the tree and when he wakes, he says, "Well, at least I know it's Autumn. Now, who am I and where do those yellow trees bloom this time of year..."

  7. Great beginning, Marley. I hope you write it eventually. When you do, please either send me a copy or tell me where it's published.

  8. That was a truly beautiful article. Informative, yet encouraging. I hope to create a novel someday...and your reasoning is so true :)

  9. Thanks anon. My advice, start writing the novel now. 'Some day' is a way of putting it off. Just write. You'll love it.