What is a novel? This is such a good question, and it’s important for you to learn now that not everyone agrees on the answer. As is the case in any field, there is debate. Some writers believe that writing should be heavily literary to be a true novel. Others place more commercial works like romance, science fiction, or fantasy stories within the category of novel.
The terms "literary fiction" and "commercial fiction"
The terms “literary fiction” and “commercial fiction” reference the style and content of a novel-length work. Literary fiction tends to be more artistic in style, and focuses on a character’s internal motivations and experiences. On the contrary, commercial fiction is not read for its art but more for the entertainment value of its fast-paced plot. This is not to say that literary novels are not plotted or that commercial novels do not demonstrate character development. In fact, the best novels often implement all of these critical elements: character, plot, internal motivations, and style. Nevertheless, there is value in understanding the potential differences between these two “types” of novels.
Britannica offers this detailed definition of a novel: “an invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience, usually through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting” (Novel).
When discussing the concept of a novel, writers usually mention character, setting, and plot (a connected sequence of events), but the unique aspect of Britannica’s definition is “human experience.” The novel, by intention and definition, explores human experience in a way that is meaningful to readers.
Adding to Britannica’s definition, the novel is a longer work of fiction that relies on prose style.
Let’s break down that definition a bit. First, we have "a longer work of fiction." I’ll take for granted that you know fiction means a story that is not entirely true, although it can be and often is based in reality.
What does “longer work” mean? In “Word Count for Novels and Children’s Books: The Definitive Post,” works of fiction are defined in terms of word count. To familiarize yourself with these conventions, read this article now, but also read it a few more times as you develop your own novels.
As you review these guidelines, keep in mind the difference between the terms “age category” and “genre.” Some people will refer to young adult, or YA, as a genre, for instance. Actually, YA is an age category with many genres within it including fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, thriller and so on.
Age categories for novels are primarily: children’s, middle grade, young adult, new adult, and adult, although there has long been debate regarding the success and therefore validity of new adult as a category.
Genres for novels are diverse including fantasy, romance, science fiction, dystopian, western, contemporary, and so many more. Within the genres, there are also sub-genres. For instance within the fantasy genre, there are sub-genres such as high fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical fantasy, magical realism, etc.
Getting back to the Writer’s Digest article, the word count guidelines represent the conventions for the contemporary novel. That means, writers today generally follow these word counts when they write fiction. There will always be dissenting opinions. There will always be outliers. However, for a debut author, it’s best to stick to word count conventions to avoid being immediately rejected by agents and editors based on a number alone.
Is that fair? Perhaps not, but there is some logic to the approach. In an essay writing class, your professor may say they’d like to see a three-to-five-page essay or perhaps eight to ten pages. They make that recommendation based on the complexity of the topic and the expectation for depth in the writing. In other words, an essay submission that is a few pages too short likely doesn’t discuss the topic to the appropriate complexity and depth. An essay that is pages beyond the target range may not be well-edited and as focused as it should be.
Similarly, novel length conventions are as they are because writers are expected to hit the marks of plot structure, character development, and world building within those word lengths. If the word count is significantly less than the target for that particular genre and age category, then perhaps the character development or world building require enrichment to truly impact readers. If the word count is too long, perhaps the author is not staying on focus with the plot structure or slowing down the pace with too much description, backstory, or setting.
The target is the target for very good reason. There will always be outliers, but you want to strive to follow conventions as much as possible.
With that caution in place, let’s get back to our definition. A novel is a work of prose. What does that mean? Prose basically means writing that naturally flows like speech might, which is interesting because prose is truly determined by the narrator’s voice. We will discuss narrative voice in more detail later in the text.
Furthermore, prose should generally follow the grammatical structure of spoken language. While sentence fragments are frowned upon in academic writing, they are allowed in creative writing because people naturally speak in sentence fragments. Prose, then, is closely connected to voice, as mentioned above.
As an overview, though, prose style varies based on the character’s voice. For instance, imagine in your head the voice of your parent. Now imagine the voice of a young child. Those voices differ, right? Okay, what about the voice of a well-educated, rhetorically polished politician sharing their view of community needs with voters? How does that voice differ from the voice of a local mechanic talking with his co-workers? In prose, your writing should reflect these differences in character. The dialogue and narrative voice should honor the respective identities of your characters.
Prose may incorporate, and should incorporate, literary devices such as symbolism, metaphor, alliteration, and so on. However, prose is not entirely poetic. There are many writing styles. For instance, expository writing explains. Argumentative writing persuades. Prose writing, however, should show - again with the voice of the narrator in mind.
Let’s look at an example:
“The engine whined against my attempt to go faster. The yellow lines of the road went by on my left in a blur. The ocean on my right didn’t seem affected at all. It created the illusion that I wasn’t going fast enough. The gentle curves on this road begged to be taken at high speeds. I pushed down another inch on the gas pedal and the car lurched forward. My heart picked up speed and I couldn’t keep the smile from my face. Wind whipped through the cabin, sending my hair flying and drying the sweat on my forehead from my last practice of the school year. Red and blue lights flashed in my rearview mirror. I pointlessly lifted my foot off the gas pedal as if that would help.” - On the Fence, by Kasie West
The voice in this YA novel is strong. The main character narrating the story shows us she loves driving fast. She describes the rush of the experience in a way that tells us she’s probably done it before, and she doesn’t seem surprised when a police officer catches her.
So think about this moment, this scenario, because your novel should be built on moments that show what you want the reader to see. In this action, a person is speeding. That’s the simplified explanation of it. But she is somewhat unconcerned about her speeding. What does that say about her as a character?
Novels have other conventions to keep in mind. Here are a few for you to consider:
- Novels tell stories. The element of story is critical to a novel.
- Some novels have multiple main characters or an ensemble of narrative voices. Others rely on one narrative voice.
- Novels include a specific structure of rising action. That structure has been defined in some cases as the hero’s journey or in specific beats.
- Novels include scenes with specific goals and dialogue that follows conventions, so readers understand who is speaking.
- Novels include conflict - usually about a character who wants something desperately but cannot have it for many reasons.
- Novels include tension that keeps readers turning the pages.
- Novels are not written in one sitting. They are envisioned, rehearsed, planned, written, rewritten, re-envisioned, re-rehearsed, replanned, and rewritten yet again.
- Novels can be self-published, published by small presses, or published by large publishers with the assistance of a literary agent.
- Novels can be stand alone works, or they can be part of a larger series.
- Novels come in many forms: epistolary, romantic, historical, pastoral, detective, mystery, thriller, western, fantasy, psychological, and more.
Novels are many things. In this text, we will discuss so many of these points, but we won’t cover everything. That’s not possible. Many writers work on their craft and understanding of building novels for years, if not decades, before they publish. Others write a novel in a year and get published immediately. If you ask me, a lot of that depends on the amount of reading and/or planning a person has done coupled with the market—if the new writer happens to be writing on trend, publication could happen much more quickly.
Publication is not often something a writer can control though—unless the writer is self-publishing, so it’s probably best not to think about that too much in this class. Or at least not until the end of the class.
First we need to learn how to write a novel. Then we have to write one.
Two very large tasks. Let’s get started.
- Visit your personal bookshelf or a public library or bookstore. Select five novels from different genres or age categories. Stack the books. What do you observe about the thickness of each spine? Place the books side by side. What do you observe about their covers? Flip the books over, and read the back cover copy. What do you observe about the marketing approach for each novel concept? What does this observation tell you about the diversity and/or conventions of novels?
- Think about the novels you prefer to read. Do you also plan to write in that genre or age category? Or do you prefer to read in a different genre than the one you’d like to write? What can you consider about your personal preferences that helps you better plan for your experience writing a novel?
- Let’s play the imagination game again because that’s why we’re here. Grab a piece of paper or open a Word document on your computer. Now, I’d like you to write a brief scene in which a character is speeding, but the character should have a significantly different voice than the one in West’s book above. Here are your options:
- An elderly nun with a carful of other nuns.
- A stressed mother of four with her children in the car.
- An off duty police officer.
What does the character’s voice, life experience, and view of the world show in the words you wrote?
The Rise of the Novel
The Rise of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century
A note about the resources in this book: You will notice that many of the resources I suggest are from online websites and blogs. There are great vlogs that I have not included as well, so seek those out on Youtube. While scholarly sources are best for academic writing, I find it is often incredibly valuable to learn about the craft of writing from other writers. Don't be afraid to read a blog by an author you don’t know well and consider that a valuable resource to learn about creative writing. Also, read widely! There are so many perspectives on all of these points. Don’t take one perspective as fact. Explore various points of view, and decide what works best for you and your writerly journey!
"Chapter 1: What is a Novel?" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.