Writing a good book: 10 ingredients of great novels
Writing a good book is something every fiction writer aspires to. When writers ask for help writing a book, 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 many key 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 exciting concept the world has ever seen. Virginia Woolf’s classic modernist novel Mrs Dalloway is about a woman planning and hosting a party. A simple premise. What’s made it endure (and be taught in universities) is its rich, complex grasp of character, among other aspects.
So readers may forgive a non-thrilling premise. Few, though, 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 (1949) 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 and anchors them in a key aspect of setting – time. Another example of a great opening is Toni Morrison’s first sentence in her haunting, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved (1987). 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 house where some of the novel’s tragedy 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 style
What makes a good story? One aspect of this is style. Writers are often told to avoid adverbs (instead of ‘ran hurriedly’ say ‘sprinted’ or ‘dashed’, for example). This is not because adverbs are ‘bad’, necessarily, but because often more descriptive verbs are available.
Something more abstract is equally important in style: 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.
A good understanding for how to use the rhythm of a sentence itself in interesting ways will make your writing more interesting to read. One way to develop this rhythmic skill is to read sentences and paragraphs aloud sometimes (even if it makes you feel silly).
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 rich description of the badger’s home in Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows (1908):
‘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 suggests a fitting mood of friendliness, familiarity and intimacy in Badger’s comforting home.
When writing description, remember to:
Use adjectives and verbs that carry associations or connotations that strengthen the mood and atmosphere you want to evoke (like Grahame’s ‘winking’ plates)
Use metaphors that enrich and add a breath of freshness to your descriptions
Describe (as Ann Marble suggests here) what your characters would notice. It helps characterization to filter scenes through your characters’ eyes. What will a painter notice in Badger’s kitchen, versus an architect?
4. Balanced showing and telling
The saying ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of the most abused and misused pieces of writing advice. As Ursula K. Le Guin states, if taken to heart it can inhibit you from describing at all. 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.’
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 is irrelevant to your story. So 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.
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 a good book also requires skilled characterization.
Some genres do allow characters that resemble cardboard cutouts. In a typical James Bond story, a bond girl is always a bond girl. A suave assassin is always the typical suave assassin. More interesting installments in Ian Fleming’s franchise have been those where the hero displays a surprising vulnerability or the ‘bond girl’ is more than a sex symbol. The story doesn’t only peddle worn out tropes.
To make your characters diverse and well-developed, do at least some of the following:
Sketch brief backstories for each important character: Real people have histories. They have upbringings, triumphs, disappointments, aspirations
Create contrasts between characters: Characters who all talk the same, look the same or think the same are dull. Find interesting differences
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 signature detail or two
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
6. Effective 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
Furthers the plot by letting the reader piece together a larger picture.
This third point is the ‘subtext’ of dialogue – the reasons, feelings, suspicions (and so forth) underlying characters’ conversations. Thinking about detail such as this and incorporating it in your dialogue sometimes will add depth and dimension. Why does a character not look another in the eyes while telling them an extremely important fact? What does the combination of speech, gesture, posture, movement tell your reader?
7. Strong internal story logic
One of the most common features of ‘bad’ writing is that the story makes no overarching sense. Maybe the heroine’s actions completely contradict her psychological description and backstory. Or else 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 narrative purpose of a scene (why the author is sharing this event) should make sense when examined alongside the whole arc of the story
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 characters act completely against the personalities and backstories you create, they may seem inconsistent and confusing
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
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.
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 (1966) tells the story of a secondary character from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Rhys uses this to tell her own story about gender and racial politics.
In doing so, Rhys recombines existing characters and existing worlds into something entirely her own.
Give borrowed characters or plot structures a personal twist: What matters to you?
Put your own unique background, history and points of reference to use. Nobody shares both your history and perspective so draw on both
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 (1995), the reader is made to expect a significant event that never happens.
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