6 Elements of a Great Novel: an editor’s perspective

Posted by: Bridgett.

What makes a novel unforgettable?

Some stories are like magical portals, vacuum cleaners, or black holes…They grab onto the reader (or editor/agent) and just suck her in, trapping her within a new world, a grand adventure, or the chaotic mind of a person she’s never met. And the reader has no desire to escape.

How do they do it?

Karen Schurrer Photo courtesy of winniegriggs.com

Karen Schurrer
Photo courtesy of winniegriggs.com

At a recent meeting of MN N.I.C.E., Minnesota’s chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), I had the privilege of hearing Bethany House Publishers fiction editor Karen Schurrer speak.  Karen has edited such bestselling authors as Tamera Alexander, Kristen Heitzmann, Karen Hancock, Patrick Carr, Karen Witemeyer, Minnesota’s own Julie Klassen, and others.

During her presentation, Karen revealed the six elements she looks for in a novel. So, how does a book catch an editor’s eye?

A great novel will:

1. Take readers to an amazing world. The setting and story world should:

Be written with enough description to prompt imagination.

Be familiar enough to be relatable for the reader, but not boring.

Be revealed through the experiences and actions of the viewpoint character(s).

Involve all 5 senses.

Have at least one unique or compelling aspect.

*** Setting and world-building are especially important in fantasy, sci-fi, & historical novels.

2. Introduce an appealing or intriguing main character.

Appealing characters: are positive and likable (especially important in Christian fiction). The writer should:

Make them complex and memorable.

Create compelling obstacles for them to overcome.

Secondary characters in this instance: are often quirky, intersting, or annoying. They shed light on the main character’s strengths and weaknesses.

Intriguing main characters: may not be likable, but are complex, more than meets the eye.

They must have at least one positive trait (reader needs a glimpse of this early on). Show inner struggle.

The writer should create at least one secondary character who believes in them.

Some type of growth should occur early on.

For the Christian market, this character should have a happy ending, some type of redemption, or overcome a major flaw.

3. Ensnare readers in a gripping plot. The best plots include some or all of the following:

Internal and external obstacles to main character’s goal/desire.

Karen Schurrer presentationDanger (to main character).

A mystery to solve.

Action. Main Character must DO something.

Some level of romance.

Ebb and flow. Circumstances become bad, improve, then become bad again, etc.

Events shouldn’t feel too normal or mundane.

4. Have a unique voice.

Lyrical writing will grab an editor’s attention, but must be supported by other strong elements.

The writing shouldn’t call attention to itself.

The voice and style of writing should add to the plot and characters and set the tone of the book.

5. Prompt an emotional response.

Humor and joy: The reader doesn’t have to be as connected to the main character to feel these emotions. Examples:

An emotion-rich scene that makes the reader tear up with joy. (child reunited with family, etc.)

Comic relief. (scenes or characters whose humor breaks up the tension)

Belly laughs. (just plain funny moments in the book)

Negative emotions: reader must be connected to viewpoint character to care or feel these emotions with that character.

Examples: sadness, anger, loss, betrayal, despair, fear, etc.

6. Make the reader consider something new. The best novels help us see something through a different perspective, teach us something about the world or ourselves, or inspire us to take action or embrace noble qualities.

A novel’s intention isn’t to teach or preach, but to inspire through entertainment.

The writer shouldn’t be blatant with the theme/message. (that’s for nonfiction)

The message should grow from the actions and experiences of the characters.

The same novel may teach different readers different things.

We read to meet new people, be taken on a ride, and explore new places.

Writers, resist the urge to be redundant or over explain.

Fantastic advice from a talented veteran of the publishing industry!

I challenge readers and writers to think of their favorite novels in terms of these six elements. Can you pinpoint how they were used?

Your turn to Shed Your Light below…

Readers: Which element above all others makes a novel hold your attention to the end? Beautiful writing, unforgettable characters, a unique setting that sweeps you away, gripping suspense and adventure, or a constant tug at the heartstrings?

Writers: Which element would you like to us to explore in more depth?

About the author:

Bridgett's promo2Bridgett Powers has defied the limitations of impaired vision and overcome a 21-year battle against chronic pain, all of which taught her a profound truth. God shines brightest through cracked lanterns.

Now, she shares that truth through her fantasy novels, picture book, and short stories. A member of ACFW and MyBookTherapy, she also serves as co-leader and writing coach for her writer’s group, operates a proofreading and editing service, and teaches writing workshops.

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About Bridgett

fantasy novelist ~ picture book and short story author ~ freelance editor ~ writing coach

Shed Your Light

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