What is a novel?

In this post, I will attempt to define and contextualize the word ‘novel.’

Novel, story, narrative: what’s the difference?

It’s probably unnecessary to consider this question because in contemporary terms, and for most practical purposes, the three are virtually synonymous. But, having a ‘legal mind’ forces me to start at ground zero.

First, I’ll summarize what I’ll be attempting to say throughout this post. A novel is a description of imaginary people and related events arranged in a logical sequence to reveal a particular point of view or set of values.

In other words, a novel is a story. And, you already know a lot about story. It’s simply the telling of an event to a listener and the latter experiences or learns something just because he heard/read the story. A story can be either true or false.

A novel is a particular type of story, one that is ALWAYS fictional (not true in the sense it actually happened). Whereas a story or narrative can be either fiction (false) or non-fiction (true). A novel is always made-up, mostly from the author’s imagination, or an actual event, one either experienced, observed, or learned via reading, hearing, or by some other means.

In my last post, as to what was intended as an actual event, I provided an example of a guy who got snookered by a friend. A novel can be built (via fictionalization) around this, or it can become a memoir (an account of the author’s personal experiences), or an autobiography (a biography of yourself).

Merriam-Webster provides a good definition for the novel: “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events.” Notice that the word ‘narrative’ is used to define the word ‘novel.’

Before we look at ‘narrative,’ let’s flesh out Webster’s words. Invented obviously means it’s fiction. It’s made-up, created if you will. It’s made-up prose. Prose writing is ordinary writing, as distinguished from verse. Here’s an example of prose writing (the last sentence I wrote yesterday in my current novel-in-progress): “By twilight, with the goats fed and my impatience firing, I packed a bag and headed to Lillian’s vacant oasis.”

When I hear ‘verse,’ I think of poetry. Here’s a stanza of mine from a long ago poem:

“You melted my heart and mended my mind.
You gave me love and time,
a once in life discovery.
A unique couple, moonstruck but fiery.”

Not that good, but you get the idea.

One other thing about Webster’s definition. A novel is ALWAYS long—between 60,000 and 100,000 words. Compare that to a short story (another work of fictional prose) which typically runs between 5,000 to 10,000 words.

“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”

Lorrie Moore

A novel is normally “complex and deals especially with human experience ….” This means there is a lot going on: the characters (likely, many), most all with differing wishes, desires, and conflicts. Plus, there are usually one or more subplots that are happening, all necessarily related to the main plot. Of course, not all novels deal with ‘human experience,’ but I’d wager that most do. Likely, because most people read fiction for two primary reasons: to be entertained, and to learn from experience without the experiencing part (I’ll leave you to figure that out).

“A novel must show how the world truly is, how characters genuinely think, how events actually occur. A novel should somehow reveal the true source of our actions.”

Kevin Hood, Becoming Jane

And, yes, I know there’s a lot more in this component of Webster’s definition that needs attention but today, we just don’t have the time.

Now we come to the word narrative. Recall, a novel is a story, a made-up one. Narrative is simply how you tell this made-up story. It is, “a spoken or written account of connected events,” to quote Google. But, narrative is much more.

A quote from Guillaume Wiatr (Principal and Founder of MetaHelm) excellently encapsulates the difference between story and narrative: “People will pay for a story, but people will die for a narrative.” I think what Guillaume means is that a story can grab our attention, entertaining us for the moment, but a narrative (how the story is told) can change us for a lifetime, “[i]t shifts the way we think, for good or for the worst[,]” again quoting Guillaume. He also says this in different words: “Someone died, and that was very wrong[,] starts a narrative that can turn into a revolution.”

Reconsider my summary definition from the beginning of this section: “A novel is a description of imaginary people and related events arranged in a logical sequence to reveal a particular point of view or set of values.” The underlined portion is the heart of narrative. To me, narrative produces theme, it reveals the meaning the writer has explored throughout his entire novel. He’s done this “… [b]y using characters, setting, dialog, plot or a combination of all of these elements[,]” as K.M Weiland says in writing your story’s THEME, a book I highly recommend.

Now that we’ve laid a foundation for understanding the literary form known as the novel, we must look at story structure. Knowing the framework of the ‘building’ you are trying to construct is imperative for writing a novel worth reading. I wish I had learned this much sooner.

We will look at story structure in my next post, but first, you need to understand what you’re getting into (writing a novel) is a challenging but highly rewarding endeavor. With only minor inconveniences as described by one of the greatest writers of all time:

“Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.” ― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

Sign up for my Myths, Mysteries & Murders readers group and receive a FREE digital copy of The Boaz Scorekeeper: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/r6dwwflvxx. If you have already signed up, send me a message and I’ll forward you a copy.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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