What are the critical components of any good novel?
- Compelling characters
- Compatible genre
- Convincing setting
- Compulsory plot
- Consistent theme
Out of these five components, I would posit that theme is too often the most ignored, though it is often the most important.
Theme is what creates classics. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a prime example. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is another. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter would be a third. If not for the themes of these novels, we wouldn’t be “forced” to read them in high school, write papers on them in college, and we’d likely not even recognize the titles as anything special today.
Today, when print-on-demand and self-publishing are such convenient options for aspiring authors, and when more books are released weekly (in any genre) than any sane person can ever hope to read in a single lifetime (around 76,923 each week), I would posit that theme is more important than ever.
When 76,923 books are released weekly, why should readers read your book? Why should readers drop $20 on my next novel?
By some counts, there are 23 unique genres of literature. This means that if you choose a genre, there could be anywhere up to 3,344 books released in your genre in a single week. The genre isn’t specific enough.
The setting can be more diverse, but even then, the earth only has 196,926,652.893 square miles of surface area. So unless you’re a fantasy writer and you create a brand new setting, that’s the area you have to work with. And even then, 70% of that surface area is water, so you’re actually left (unless your name is Jules Verne) with 59,077,995.868 square miles of land on which to base your story. And the wonderful thing about a lot of stories is that the setting isn’t usually that critical (though it could be a part of the theme). A story that takes place in a big city in Europe could likely just as easily have been set in a big city in North America–and vice versa.
This leaves characters, plot, and theme as the top three most original aspects of any story.
There are very few original plots anymore. Most lists, when I googled “plot models novels” listed anywhere from four to six or seven different plots.
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- The quest
- Voyage and return
However, one list gave thirty-six options. If we go with this latter option, it means there are potentially 93 books released with your plot structure every week. This can be depressing to contemplate.
But surely characters are unique? Right?
Yes. No two people are the same. And you could have two authors using the same character description sheet, writing two entirely unique characters, but we’ll discuss this more next week.
For now, it is worth noting that there are only a handful of answers to questions like: “What is your character’s gender?” “What is your character’s hair color?” “How does your character cope with stress?” If we’re not careful, characters can blend into one another.
So what sets your novel apart?
I’d posit again that the theme is the gamechanger. And themes are as unique as the author writing the book. What do you care about? What would you like to see changed in the world? What is a creative way that you can present this to the world (in the guise of a novel)?
For me, I won’t even pursue a novel project if I can’t pinpoint a theme I want to focus on. The theme helps guide the genre, the characters, the plot, and even the setting.
This is one reason why my fantasy series was put on pause. I wanted everything I write to have a point, and for the longest time, I couldn’t see an overarching point to my fantasy world. However, over the past year, I’ve really narrowed down a theme focus for my fantasy world, and now I can’t wait to finish some other outstanding projects so I can dive back into it.
Can you pinpoint a theme in the novel you’re currently reading?
If you’re a writer, what is the theme of your current project?
My current project–Switched–has fatherhood as the theme. Now that I’m a father, the book means even more to me.
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading