Do You Follow the Novel Rules?

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As children in the playground we learned pretty quickly what might happen if we didn’t follow the rules.  We heard “You can’t play with us!” “Freak!” or, sometimes, we even ended up with blood-stained shirts.  The group had its code and woe betide the brave boy or girl who thought to break it.

Now we’ve grown up and our playground is the world, but there are still rules.  Especially for writers.  We have a titanic iceberg with very slippery slopes to climb if we want to get published.  Fortunately, countless books on writing and the Internet, itself,  are awash with suggestions on how to do this.  Here is the structure (set of rules) to use for your novel.

Five Essential Elements in Your Novel

1.  Your characters must have motivation, be in some kind of conflict, which results in a great tension.

2.  An inciting incident must serve as the catalyst to get your plot moving and your readers interested.

3.  A story question such as “Will Scarlett survive the war and find happiness? is essential and, of course, self-centered Scarlett has an epiphany.  She finally realizes she must rely on herself and finds the strength to do this.

4.  And this is all leading up to a black moment, a climax for the main character in your novel.  If we don’t give these characters supreme hardships, there is nothing to keep the reader’s interest and nothing to overcome.  We readers love to cheer our heroes from the sidelines as they swashbuckle their demons.

5.  And win!  That’s the satisfying ending we are all looking for when we start the book.  The protagonist must grow as he or she conquers challenges to become a better, happier or smarter person.  And the ending must answer the readers’ questions without becoming long-winded and, dare I say it?, boring.

Well, loosely, those are the rules for writing your novel, folks.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

What is the thing you look for when you read novels?  Do you actually have a list like the above or do you concentrate on making a good story and just trust you’ll automatically include the five essential elements?   Consider leaving a comment below with your own suggestions. Readers, tell us what you love about your favorite novels.

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20 thoughts on “Do You Follow the Novel Rules?

  1. These seem to be the rules for North American novels but I find myself drawn more and more to British ones which seem to rely more on interesting characters whose lives are not ‘over the top’ with drama but I follow along to see what they do in their ordinary lives.

    Yes, there has to be a problem but not necessarily “great” tension. No supreme hardships evident.

    But then I’m an old fogey and definitely out- of-step.

    Ruth

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    • I’d never call you out-of-step, Ruth! Your actual age is much younger than what the calendar says. And that’s the way to be. As for the rules, you are right, as usual. I knew when I posted this list, there would be controversy and that’s good. I think if we care enough about the characters we’ll follow them wherever. Thanks for your excellent (as usual) advice!

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  2. I like this post. The rules are simple and the book I’m writing, my first, follows them. I do, however, agree with Ruth that the tension does not necessarily have to be “great.” And while readers like a satisfying ending, many of my favorites stories end tragically.

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  3. Easy peasy, Elaine, piece of cake. I went to see Harlan Coben speak last night and he said it takes 3 things to be a writer: inspiration, perspiration and desperation! We can outline, characterize, research till the cows come home, but it means nothing until you sweat it out and write the book. We all know, that’s the hard part!

    Great post!

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    • Oh, Sharon, you always bring it down to the bare, simple facts. And I love that. Of course, you are right. If people want to do all the graphs, character sheets, plot lines, and a million other bits and pieces, they should go for it. But it all means nothing till you write the book. Simple. Thanks, yet again, for a great response.

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  4. As a writer, sometimes all the rules suck the creativity right out of my soul. Whew. I can breathe now that I have that off my chest. Okay, I do try to play by the rules you’ve listed, and there are others that I’ve broken. As a reader, I’ve read some great books that do not follow the five listed above. I believe that Cormac McCarthy breaks #5 in his novel, The Road.

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  5. And I’ve felt that, too, Brinda. Right now I’m longing to just get writing and stop all the researching for book two. John and Lucinda just need to get on with their story and, if it’s a good story, the rules will follow or not, but the GOOD STORY is the focus. I am so glad to hear from all you experienced writers about this as sometimes the rules get in the way. Thanks you!

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  6. Elaine, someone told me once, put your character in the most difficult place they’ve ever been — and then make it worse. How they overcome that makes your story. Hard for me to do because I hate hurting people and my characters are so REAL to me. But it truly is what makes a great story, that sense of “are they going to make it through this or is Darth Vadar going to catch them?”

    The other rule: Write from your heart. If you care about it, passionately, others will too.

    As for the rest, you are right, the good story is the focus and I am confident you will write a good story whether you follow all the rules or not. I do sometimes and other times, not. I just want a great story on paper.

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    • Habisha, that first sentence sounds just like what Barbara Kyle told us when I told her course a year or so ago. And it’s great advice, particularly for those of us who have soft hearts and just want to be kind to our characters. That does not exciting writing make and if everything goes well for our characters, why would our readers not toss the book? We thrive on controversy and watching people overcome trials.
      Write from your heart. Amen. Thanks for your excellent comments, habisha!

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  7. Another good post, Elaine. Though I didn’t set out to follow a list of rules, I think my novel does follow your 5 rules for the most part. Some rules can get in the way of creativity and even flow, but of course we do need some form of structure to follow or the story won’t be coherent. Without a planned and solid foundation a building would not stand for long. Without that foundational structure a story will fall apart sooner rather than later. Thanks for sharingmore of your tips.

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    • Absolutely my pleasure, Diane! And I’m glad to hear that you have concerns about rules crowding out imagination as I feel that way, too. I found these on the Internet and think they are good general ideas but I was really intrigued with Ruth’s comment about American versus British fiction. Gives us something to think about, doesn’t it? Thanks for your input. 🙂

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  8. Be interesting to see how many old classics violate one or more of these rules. On reading them (and hearing about the very concept of “rules”) I am now so tempted to write up something that violates every single one of them while still making it a workable story.

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    • Go for it, Mark! For every one who loves a set of rules as a guideline, there seem to be two who are less than enthused. I still think rules are useful if you are starting out or uncertain exactly what to do, but I firmly believe novelists should follow their own hearts, or what’s self expression all about. Thanks so much for your comment.

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  9. I try to follow these rules, actually I think these are the bare minimum. There are so many other rules that if you just follow these I think it makes it much easier. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck out there and say, if you follow these rules you have a very sellable book!
    The one rule (not on the list) that I see major controversy about is Point of View. As a reader, who is also a writer, I really struggle to read books where the POV shifts constantly. It may not be a rule others like to follow, but it’s one that will have me putting a book down fast. And I need a HEA. No more sad books for me! I read them all in school, now it’s time for happy, happy, happy endings!

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    • Point of view is a tricky one, it seems. What I’ve learned is that once a character has been adequately introduced you might switch to his or her point of view but do it when switching a scene. Use some kind of break to show that it’s someone else’s point of view, like an extra line space or a little squiggly thing. These help the reader know that something else is coming. And, yes, there are as many opinions about this as there are readers and writers. This is just what I’ve found works for me.
      I am not surprised you like happy endings, Jessica, as you are such a happy person. Reading your stuff just makes my heart sing. You must be a ‘wild thing!’ Thanks for visiting!

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  10. Elaine,
    I’ve read your post and the replies. As you know my story outline, so you also know these rules do apply to my personal story.
    My story tells of a most dangerous assignment which I volunteered for overseas, one in which only I would accept. My story has all five elements discussed here, and when I took the assignment I left a tape for my family so they would know if I was murdered, why.
    I walked where angels never dare.
    These five elements don’t apply to all stories, but they do to mine.

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  11. I found your blog very interesting and also the following comments. I hope it is appropriate for me here, to ask where I might find a writer who would be willing to collaborate with me on a novel based on a little known fact regarding the “troubles” in Northern Ireland in the 60’s n 70’s. Sorry if this is not the right place for such a request please forgive me if this is so.

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