Writing a good book: 10 ingredients of great novels

Writing a good book - 10 ingredients

Writing a good book is something every fiction writer aspires to. When writers ask for feedback from the Now Novel community, a popular question is ‘Is my idea good enough?’ Having a great story idea to start with helps. Yet a satisfying novel is a combination of multiple important components. Here are 10 ingredients that will make your book better:

1. A strong opening

Your story idea doesn’t have to be the most novel, exciting concept the world has ever seen. Virginia Woolf’s classic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway is about a woman planning and hosting a party. Readers may forgive a non-thrilling premise, but few will forgive a disappointing first paragraph. Think of some of the openings of some of the best loved novels of all time. They create intrigue. George Orwell, for example, opens 1984 with the words:

It was a bright day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

The reader immediately has questions: What clocks? Why thirteen, rather than the usual twelve chimes? Orwell immediately creates questions in the reader while anchoring her in place and time. Another example of a great opening is Toni Morrison’s first sentence in her powerful, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved. Morrison opens the book with just 3 words:

124 was spiteful.

What is 124? Why is this mysterious number described as spiteful? The reader learns that it is the street number for the haunted house where much of the novel takes place.

To test whether the opening of your novel is strong enough, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does it have a hook that creates curiosity in the reader?
  • Does it introduce a place, character or atmosphere that is important to the plot?

2. Satisfying, fitting rhythm

Writing a great book requires skilled use of language. One aspect of this is word choice. Writers are often told to avoid adverbs (instead of ‘ran hurriedly’ say ‘sprinted’ or ‘dashed’, for example). Something more abstract is equally important: rhythm.

Why is rhythm important? Because the cadence of words, the way they sound to the inner ear, is what makes some sentences more beautiful and memorable than others. Consider poetry: Besides striking imagery and metaphors, what gives poetry its ‘poetic’ quality is the rhythm the words create.

In a taut thriller, the rhythm of the prose may be fast and clipped, whereas in a lyrical historical epic, the writing might flow smoothly in long, ebbing and flowing sentences. The rhythm of your prose underscores the mood and atmosphere of your descriptions. A good sense for the rhythmic patterns your words make will help your prose sing.

3. Powerful description

Once you’ve hooked your reader’s attention, you will need to sustain their interest. Plot and character development are crucial. Yet to let readers fully enter your fictional world, you also need to arrest the reader’s imagination with vivid and powerful description.

Forgettable books often have thin description, with the bare minimum indicating setting. By contrast, here is the description of the badger’s home in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows:

‘In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs.’

Grahame conjures an intimate and cozy dwelling. The verb ‘winked’ Grahame uses to describe the gleaming plates is well-chosen. It has apt connotations of friendliness, familiarity and intimacy.

When writing description, remember to:

  • Use adjectives and verbs that carry subtle associations or connotations that strengthen the mood and atmosphere you want to evoke
  • Use metaphors that enrich and add a breath of freshness to your descriptions (Grahame’s metaphor of plates ‘winking’ is one example)
  • Describe (as Ann Marble suggests here) what your characters would notice – this helps to create the sense of your characters observing and acting in a real world in which they have particular perspectives that have their own limitations and boundaries

4. Balanced showing and telling

Writing a good book - Ursula K. Le Guin picture quoteThe saying ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of the most abused and misused pieces of writing advice. As Ursula K. Le Guin verifies, if taken to heart it can inhibit you from incorporating enough of ingredient number 3 (powerful description). Says Le Guin:

‘Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.’

The truth is that some telling is necessary: Tell your reader what your world looks like. But tell them as a storyteller would, not an encyclopedia of fictional worlds.

It’s neither better to show nor tell: It depends on whether action or description is best suited to your particular story at any particular point in your narrative. As Le Guin says, ‘dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.’

When you’re worried that you’re telling too much and showing too little, ask:

  • Is this information crucial to the story? Does it illuminate anything important about my characters and their world? If the answer is ‘no’ to both these questions, it’s not that you’re showing or telling too much but that the passage in question is irrelevent to the story – cut it
  • Are there enough active verbs? Instead of using adverbs, use verbs that carry descriptive power. Instead of ‘she stared bewilderedly’ say ‘she gaped’, for example. Wherever possible, instead of telling the reader about the action, always make the action-word itself convey the feeling.

Sometimes you are too close to your own writing to know whether you’re striking the right balance between showing and telling. This is where it helps to get feedback from other writers.

5. Diverse and developed characters

Writing immersive description and striking a balance between showing and telling are important. Writing a good book also requires skilled characterisation. Some genres do allow characters that resemble cardboard cutouts. In a typical James Bond story, a bond girl is the typical a bond girl and the suave assassin is always the typical suave assassin. But the best installments in the franchise have been those where the hero displays a surprising vulnerability or the ‘bond girl’ is more than a sex symbol or a modern version of the tiresome ‘damsel in distress’ trope.

To make your characters diverse and well-developed, do at least some of the following:

  • Give your characters flaws: Nobody’s perfect. Your hero might be brave in some circumstances but irrationally fearful of something that seems unexpected for a man of his valour. Flaws make us relate to characters as we recognise our own vulnerabilities and fears in them.
  • Sketch brief backstories for each important character: Real people have histories. They have upbringings, triumphs, disappointments, aspirations, neuroses and strengths. Simply having an idea of your character’s motivations and formative influences will help you create characters whose inner worlds feel real.
  • Create contrasts between characters: Characters who all talk the same, look the same or think the same are dull. Difference – of ideology or belief, social status, economic advantage, custom and appearance – is where possibilities for attraction and revulsion, conflict and desire lie.
  • Give your characters identifying attributes: Think of someone important in your life: Do they have odd sayings that nobody else uses? A distinct way of pronouncing a certain word? How do they walk and carry themselves? Give each character a handful of signature details to create an impression in the reader that your fictional world has a population just as diverse as our own one.
  • Grow your characters: How do your characters change as the events of your novel unfold? A major event such as the discovery of a hidden superpower or a death in the family creates cause-and-effect ripples. These open up new choices and possibilities for each affected character.

6. Script-worthy dialogue

What do many of the best-loved movies of all time have in common? Memorable dialogue. If you pay attention, characters in great novels and movies don’t talk as we do in real life. We might say ‘um’ a lot, or repeat ourselves, or make small-talk that would be completely mundane to anyone listening in. Writing a good book demands that even incidental dialogue serves the story. So what does script-worthy dialogue do? It:

  • Tells the reader something about your characters and their relationships.
  • Adds to tension and conflict, underscoring the points where characters’ goals and desires intersect or oppose each other.
  • Furthers the plot by letting the reader piece together a larger picture.

To clarify that third point: In a murder mystery, Suspect A might tell the investigator a convincing alibi. Yet the reader remembers the suspect’s conversation with a secondary character and the information in the prior conversation might contradict the alibi given. Dialogue thus gives the reader the ability to understand the different levels of truth and deception, fact and fiction within the world of the novel. Often the most interesting, script-worthy dialogue raises new questions even as it settles others.

7. Strong internal story logic

writing a good book - Now Novel quoteOne of the most common features of ‘bad’ writing is that the story makes no overarching sense. The heroine’s actions completely contradict her psychological description and backstory, or there are sequences of scenes that don’t seem to contribute cohesively to the whole.

To ensure your novel has strong inner logic:

  • Make sure that the bulk of your story answers the central questions you set up: The reader shouldn’t be taken out of your story by doubt and confusion over the narrative purpose of a scene.
  • Make sure your characters’ actions make sense: In the greatest novels, characters’ actions are a mix of inevitable (according to their motivations and personal histories) and surprising. If a character acts completely contrary to what a reader would expect, this may be explicable due to complicated circumstances such as a traumatic recent experiences or an identity crisis. Yet there needs to be some consistency in how your characters behave in order for readers to feel as though they are familiar and knowable.

8. A good balance of tension and release

Whatever you want to call it – rising action and falling action or build-up and climax – tension and release keeps readers invested in the outcome of your novel. Because balancing action and tension release is key:

  • Create a suitable amount of conflict and suspense for your genre: Your reader will naturally expect a greater amount of tension and suspense if your novel is a classic thriller. Less so if it is a rom-com.
  • Have mini-resolutions along the way: It could work to have your story just keep building to a single epic showdown between protagonist and antagonist. But you can create variety and interest by having mini-conflicts and resolutions on the way to the central conflict resolving.
  • Combine different types of tension: Your story might pit your protagonist(s) against other characters, the environment, or an internal struggle. Alternatively, tension might arise more out of plot uncertainty rather than direct hostility. Either way, make sure that there is variety in the challenges your central characters face so that obstacles don’t become predictable.

9. A sense of originality

Many of the landmark novels of the last few centuries have built on their predecessors but also offered something new. Even though Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea tells the invented backstory of a secondary character from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Rhys uses this borrowing to tell her own story about gender and racial politics. In doing so, Rhys recombines existing characters and narrative parameters into something entirely her own.

To stay original make sure that you:

  • Avoid common story type clichés (e.g. Princess is held captive by dragon).
  • Give borrowed characters or plot structures a personal twist: What matters to you? What did writer x omit from their telling of a similar story that you’re going to reintroduce?
  • Put your own unique background, history and points of reference to use. Nobody shares both your history and perspective so draw on both liberally. Don’t be afraid to put yourself and your own experiences in your writing.

10. The key to writing a good book: A satisfying conclusion

One of the biggest disappointments, many readers will agree, is when a writer lets a story peter out and does not do justice to the story’s central idea. Many writers use anti-climax to subtle effect. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s surreal novel The Unconsoled, the reader is made to expect a significant event that never happens.

There are always exceptions: You may very well leave loose strands untied if you are writing a series, for example. Sometimes an anticlimax is the most fitting ending for a book. Even so, many readers will be put off from reading later novels if you seem unable to resolve this one satisfyingly. Not being able to find a convincing resolution is very different to actively choosing a subtler, less conclusive one.

To make sure your ending is satisfying:

  • Make sure you have followed through on questions you yourself have raised in the course of the book. If there are questions left unanswered, make sure this is deliberate.
  • Resolve tension that has built up in the course of the story
  • Make sure you do not use the all-too-convenient deus ex machina. This is an almost-magical plot development that conveniently gets you out of a thorny narrative complication. As readers we tend to see through sly tricks and recognize when an author takes dubious short cuts to get herself out of a tight corner.

Writing a good book depends on multiple factors: You need a good idea, a keen sense of the rhythm of words, a knack for character development and more. Make sure you pay conscious attention to how and why you add the ingredients listed above and you will write your best book.

What is your list of top ten ingredients for a great read?

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  • Good article with useful reminders. I especially need to reminded that “tell” is important, essential really, for a good book.
    Thank you.
    Garry

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