Friday, September 17, 2010

How to write a novel

Billboard at background by PNG Tourism Authority; this photo and others on this page by storyboard.
Setting out to write a novel is like inviting your friends to jump into your car so that you can take them out for a ride. But you cannot take them out unless you have a driver’s licence.

The analogy here implies that your friends are safe in your hands as a driver, that you know everything about the mechanics of your car as much as traffic rules and that you win their confidence and trust that way. That is tantamount to saying that not only do you know the rules in writing a novel but that you are also proposing to tell your friends or readers nothing but the truth.

Truth is the word that impels you to start looking for the best authority on the subject matter. That authority is E.M. Forster and his book called Aspects of the Novel.

Everything you want to know about novels is covered in Aspects of the Novel.

According to E.M. Forster there are several elements of the novel that you must be aware of. But all that depends on how much truth you know to tell your reader. The amount of truth you have to tell in turn determines the length of what you are going to say. If you have so much truth that endures for 50,000 words, then that is the length of your novel. If you have less truth to tell, meaning you have less than 50,000 words to utter, try the short story. Or else regard your prose exercise in creative writing as a novella if it falls several words short of the 50,000 mark. Thus, by way of definition, a novel is a narrative that runs for 50,000 words. That’s your first rule.

A point before we go on. Of course, when talk of truth we do not say that E.M. Forster directly talks about truth. But we feel that throughout the pages of the Clerk series of his Cambridge lectures which he had compiled into that publication called Aspects of the Novel he does. At least in Papua New Guinea we believe that he does.

Now the second rule to consider consists of the words “story” and “plot.” These sound like the same creatures by way of definition but they are not. A story, according to E.M. Forster, is a narrative of events told in their time sequence, and these events are logically structured. Thus, your story begins at point A and it must no doubt end at Z – in that logical order. Your plot is what you actually do with your story. It means creating drama, excitement, suspense, climax and resolution. After all, what is a good novel if it lulls you to sleep? Forster offers the definition that a plot is a narrative of events told in their time sequence but with the emphasis falling on causality.

Now many students of literature mistake the word “causality” to mean “casualty”, which is quite all right if your story is full action, accidents and the need to rush to the hospital. But what Forster is saying is that a story cannot be a story if nothing causes it to be told in the first place. If you consider that remark a little you will notice that the whole world is full of novels that tell you nothing, meaning they are just there to waste your time. You learn nothing from them. And he even gives several examples of which we could spare their authors by not mentioning them here.

Then of course you have to identify the setting where your novel takes place. If it is Papua New Guinea, let it be so; France, France; Scotland, Scotland; and so on. Your setting is important and it becomes our third point to consider when setting out to write a novel.
No novel exists as a work of art without people. There must be people present in a novel. And these people known in fiction as characters must be believable looking or sounding types. Forster classifies them as “round” and “flat” characters. A round character is the one that you identify yourself with because he appears true to life. That character you regard as your hero, commonly referred to as the protagonist. He is also someone who “changes” from one personality to another, such as from bad to good during the course of a narrative. Sometimes such “round” characters are referred to as, for example in the Shakespearean or Aristotelian sense, “tragic heroes.” A “flat” character, on the other hand, does not change at all. He remains the same good old Bob from the beginning to the end of the novel. But his presence is necessary to enable the protagonist to stand out clearly.

The next element to consider is the time factor. When did your novel take place? Dates are important as they reflect character, scenes such as landscape and style of buildings and architecture, dress, dialogue and mannerisms and so on. Time indicates a certain level of understanding of what are current and what are not. For example, it would be ridiculous if a novel set in ancient Persia of something hundred B.C. had a character saying, “Yeah, yeah this happens Tuesdays and Thursdays, Government pay week.”
The other elements of the novel which Forster talks about are your sense of style and rhythm in story-telling, mood of narrative; dialogue of given characters by gender, age, social class and so on. These are important and a good writer pays particular attention to these little details in order to make the novel sound interesting as well as truthful. However, the most important thing to consider about novels is their quality of permanence as well as their ability to truthfully portray humanity itself as the most mysterious as well as monumental entity on earth. Are there novels that best express that idea?’ There are indeed, declares E.M. Forster, and cites Leo Tolstoi’s War and Peace  as supreme example of the destiny of man: from page one to the last Tolstoi’s novel does that and we see characters born and they go through the process of growth, decay and death.

Having ourselves made aware of these elements of the novel, it is time for us to sit down and start constructing the story. But we must remember that successful writing always begins by looking at the rules that are very simple indeed to follow.