With my first novel draft heading into the climax right about... NOW, I found this essay among my files. Originally written as a University assignment, this answers the question, what is a novel?
A Novel By Any Other Name Is
The task of deciphering what a novel is seems insurmountable in its simplicity. Who is there, in the twenty-first century, that doesn't know what a novel is? Yet, to define the novel is to break down its formal, constituent parts and also its hidden, assumed parts, the extended familiarity with which has caused the existence of such elements of a novel to become accepted instinctually, and, therefore, to be subconsciously understood. Defining the novel, then, requires making the subconscious conscious, and then transforming the conscious mind into text.
The novel is, above all else, a story. While it may be lyrical, may be experimental, may be educational, no novel is a success unless it tells a good tale. Novels must, therefore, remember to be entertaining, first and foremost. In order to tell an interesting, entertaining story, a novel must induce a sense of its own veracity in character and setting, as well as in situation, it must move with appropriate pacing and rhythm, and it must be represented by an appropriate writing style for the type of story being told.
In the novel, macrocosms and microcosms of existence meet, and it is through these layers of existence that a feeling of veracity is established. By veracity, I mean a sense of the authenticity of all contained between the covers of the book. What is desired is that the reader of the story becomes so convinced of the happenings there, that at the conclusion of the novel, the reader feels that the characters are real people, existing in the real and continuing world. As depicted in the movie, Stranger than Fiction, the fictitious character is in fact so 'real' that he lives and breathes independent of the text, and interactively relates to the story as the novelist writes it, so that the events of the novel affect the events of his 'real' existence. When he dies at the end of the story, it is as if a real person has died. This is the precise effect the novelist strives to create.
Although a novel takes places over a set period of time – be it a day, an hour, a year or more – the chronology of the characters and of the situation begins long before page one of the book. For any element of a story to attain a sense of veracity, it must have a consciousness of itself as pre-existing the telling of the tale. Only then will the character continue to 'live' at the completion of the novel. As well, every element of a novel represents a judgement call on the part of the author. Every decision made by the author will determine the weight of the story, both in the overall entirety of its effect, and in the individual components within the story.
The decisions made by an author are like the pieces of a puzzle being fitted together. Every piece has it place, but the different fundamental pieces -- plot, character, theme, voice, dialogue – can not carry identical weights if the story is to succeed. Making a novel equal parts description, action, conflict, resolution etc. will unnecessarily burden the story, and will cause the story to immediately lose all sense of authenticity, since in real life the aspects of any period of time never contain equal relevance or weight. The manner in which a novelist weights the elements in the novel is equal parts contrivance and chance. While a novelist may wish to construct every aspect of the novel, in real life human lives are more often tangled rather than geometric, and if the story is to establish authenticity, it must concede to the principles of authentic life. Therefore, where a novel ends is as much random chance as it is construction or planning, and in this, veracity is retained.
There is one more element of life that must be authentically captured if a reader is to be convinced that this particular situation and these particular people could exist in reality, and not just on paper. Rarely in life does the conclusion of an experience mean that every single question is answered, or that every single loose end is tied up, or that every single detail makes logical inviolable sense. In real life, when everything is resolved little is left to the imagination, and there is little impetuous to revisit such details of existence. In other words, in real life, the incomplete, the unsatisfied, the unexplained is also the interesting and the captivating. A carefully constructed sense of reality in a novel can be completely destroyed by the simple act of tying up every single last detail in perfect minute detail. Historical romance author Diana Gabaldon has a series of Outlander books set in 18th Century Scotland, in which an unrequited homosexual attraction leads to the main conflict of one of the tales, as the hero is captured and voluntarily consents to being sodomized as a means of guaranteeing the safety of his wife. This action leads to all manner of repercussions – from the hero's psychic disturbance and the decline of his physical health, to (temporary) matrimonial rejection and the ultimate triumph of the healing power of love, to the need to avenge himself on the perpetrator. The situation is compelling in and of itself, but what makes it memorable is the lingering question of the prevalence of homosexual identity in the British military and in all medieval Europe. This question forms the backdrop of the story, but is never formally addressed, and as such, leaves enough room for doubt that the reader will continue to linger over the issue long after the story reaches its conclusion. There is obviously a fine line to be walked here, for if too much doubt occurs in the reader's mind, they will find the story inauthentic and unbelievable, but if no doubt exists in the reader's mind, they will find the story boring and unbelievable. Walking this fine line depends, to a large extend on the rhythm the story contains.
The rhythm of a novel is, to a large extent, an instinctive expression on the part of an author. The quality of rhythm is dependant upon the personal library inside the author's head. Rhythm occurs at an emotive level, much like bars of music, and is a factor of the way an author hears the spoken word. The novelist simply gets a sense of completeness when completeness occurs. While it is conceivable that pacing can be mimicked with much reading in and studying of the expectations of particular genres, if an instinctive rhythm does not naturally exist inside an author, it is unlikely that this quality can be learned, since rhythm occurs as an element of personal style. Rhythm is also crucially important to the effective development of the successful story.
Rhythm develops inside a story through page breaks and chapter lengths, but it ultimately develops through the contrast between what is emphasized and what is de-emphasized. Although Diana Gabaldon's novels have a historical setting, the emphasis in her books is on the interactions between the characters, never on the historical detail contained therein. The amount of time Gabaldon gives to building the conflict, the amount of time spent on the climax and the amount of time she gives to resolving the issues created by the climax of the conflict keeps the reader engaged with the emotion experienced by the character and allows the reader to return with their questions to the details of the setting after-the-fact of the conclusion. Rhythm in a story is a simple balance between complementary and contrasting crafted elements. The key to establishing rhythm in a story is symmetrically balancing the infinite possibilities of the indefinite.
The rendering of possibility within a novel is a matter of representation. Italo Calvino suggests that in novels, all “beginnings develop in different ways from a common nucleus” (120). It is the manner in which characters and events are represented which accomplishes this, and which makes each novel unique. It has been said that there are really only a handful of stories in the world. It is representation that makes the story in each novel new again. How an author chooses to represent each character – is the hero the stereotypical strongly built, a-type persona or is he a closet cross-dresser with body piercings and tattoos – how the author chooses to represent that character to the events – does the hero rob toy stores so he can secretly distribute toys to needy children because he grew up in a broken home and has a deep seated need to better the existence of others – and how the author represents the novel in its totality to the world – would this man be caught and his actions justified, suggesting a world that is understanding and empathetic, or condemned, suggesting a world of black and white lines – determines what the novel will become.
Every novel is a representation of the “density and continuity” (75) of both the fictionally represented world contained inside the story and the shadow of the 'real' world, in which the author lives and breathes. Novels are ultimately the extroverted expressions of the introverted, who do, but also do not want the world to see them, since the world might not understand (Goo Goo Dolls “Iris”). Novels are the shields that allow the realities of the author to be expressed without the fear or requirement of full exposure. Novels bear the thoughts and beliefs of their authors, but they also depart from the reality of the author – extend beyond it to a world of images extending beyond experience (Calvino 98). In this way, a novel is a safety net for its author. Novels are the representation of all that is real and authentic in experience and are simultaneously the representation of all that is imaginary in the world. Novels are the fictitious documentation of human experience and the expression of the human desire to continue the adventure of experience. Novels are an expression of knowledge, and a demand for more knowledge. Novels, ultimately, are a representation of what it means to be human.