The Novel: How It Works

A novel is a story where the road of progress from the beginning to end, motivated by an early inciting incident, is frustrated by some blockages or conflicts to be overcome.
If there is no incident, and then no conflict or blockage, then there is no story of any interest. It won't engage the reader. Well, there might be description, and all sorts of happenings, but there will be no arrow going through time: just time and incidents. Even personal diaries develop narrative streams among many incidents.
A novel should have a dramatic arc that consists of establishing the scenes, with background matters, the inciting incident, obstacles, the large-scale crisis, the climax and how it is all resolved including the way matters have improved in the end scenes. Throughout the novel can take time to discuss connected themes and issues.
The idea here is not to write in a manner of painting by numbers. The above is the rule of thumb, but it can be proportionately variable depending on the breadth and message of the novel.
A novel might be say ten years in the life, or ten generations, and may in fact be several overlapping novels.
Establishing the scenes is going to be descriptive and lays out something of the appearance of the stage - who is who and where it is at. However, to do this alone is too boring even if made initially pleasurable. It ought to include a loose hook to grab the reader, and early, and set the theme prior to all the drama. The progress desired should be laid out, and something of the frustration to be faced. So there is a dilemma bubbling up, or a clue leading to the inciting moment. Still, a map might be useful.

In my novel Serpensea Secrets, I have an early hook of two side characters appearing in a tabloid newspaper. It sets up the archaeology sub-theme and the sexual peculiarities of the geographical area, as well as the economy sub-theme. Plus the press will be important later in the story.
The background incident, that is all important, is the relationships the lead characters had as teenagers, and this comes back regarding their sacred commitment made at the time and then how it wraps into the institution of the independent Liberal Catholic Church.
With the scenes set, the inciting incident will be in context. This is the point where a something of central significance changes and matters are unresolved. Complex novels may have several inciting incidents, and they may look like overlapping novels.
Sub-plots can begin independently and be unconnected at first, but they must become connected and significant for the main plot. They can also generate context for the main plot, into which they can dissolve. They can arise out of the main plot, but their ending should not distract from the main plot nor leave the main plot forgotten.
In Serpensea Secrets, the inticing incident is actually of a sub-plot, which is the affair of the main character's husband. It sets incidents going and brings characters together that pulls forward background plots and themes and allows the main plot to begin later, which is about the activities of the suffragan bishop and whether to expose them or not the world's media. The main plot does need its own dilemma. The bishop's interest in the main character, a deacon seeking to become priest, arises as a result of taking her new lover to bed and ignoring a parishioner ringing on the front door bell. This inticing incident is dependent on the sub-plot and on information to be revealed about the bishop.
There is also the place of the red herring, a sub-plot that goes nowhere or ends in a twist to settle the matter. This is particularly useful in detective novels, although red herrings can exist as defective or deceiving information within a main plot or a sub-plot. A red herring can be false information or withheld information. The 'bad' character in the story can be a ready source of defective information. Questions of doubt in the reader's mind about the truth of information from some dialogue-interactions add to the story. The main storytelling narrative should not employ deceptive devices unless the narrative is by a character. Artifice should be avoided. Future discoveries to change things do not imply a red herring but it does have a similar effect regarding the attention of the reader and the work the reader does. It is easier in a first person novel to employ deception because he or she may be distant from the truth known elsewhere; in the God-like third person novel there has to be a justification for withholding true information from the reader. In Serpensea Secrets the bishop knows his motivations and what he is doing; readers don't because readers depend on the supicions of the main characters and some of those in dialogue with her.
The inciting indicent can be external, interpersonal or internal.
External is that which is readily identifiable and inanimate, like from conventions or cultures, laws or governments, or rules and more rules. These can ignite the character/s into action and can provide obstacles. Dialogue is likely to be sharp and instant; description is necessary.
The interpersonal is realised through dialogue and character description, the people in the story. They kick off the story, and they provide later obstances. Interpersonal conflict needs plenty of interactions.
Interpersonal involves a conversation, more than likely, where a character becomes an enemy or has introduced a dilemma to be resolved. In Serpensea Secrets a telephone call says the lead character's husband is having an affair when he visits Harwich. this is the inciting incident, even though it is not the basis of the whole of the story.
Internal incidents or conflicts are psychological. It is a thought that is unavoidable regarding future action, or what blocks progress from within the main character/s. It can be over activity or laziness, and various prejudicial attitudes. It's the part where the characters think and consider their motivations including from the very beginning. The dialogue characters make is as likely to conceal motivation as to reveal it, but the storyteller might be God-like and know what any person is thinking and let us in on the mind's secret. In a first person novel we should have access to that mind unless the first person is narrating and concealing. In Serpensea Secrets the lead character is a liberal thinker who has effectively lost her belief in anything specifically Christian and much of what she does is how she manages this in her paid deacon role, and deals with issues of qualitative truth and deception while her husband (who would have had her role) works ina quantitative truth or deception setting. An inticing incident that is internal would have to be a one large-scale psychological event (e.g. a religious conversion or deconversion).
All inciting incidents involve motivation, especially with the main character/s regarding their progress, but also usually from those that provide the blockage (some blocking external incidents are just as they are).
So the inciting incident is a predicament that means something must be done. This is where the progress needs to be made. In Serpensea Secrets the main character deviously uses her husband's firm's self-checking procedures to expose him having an affair.
Then come the obstacles. Obstacles are also internal, interpersonal and external in direction, and it would be more interesting to have several of different kinds.
The conflicts can be subtle or extreme; the greater the desire to get to a solution the greater ought the conflicts to be, though some can be less than others.
In Serpensea Secrets there is a shift of the story from sub-plot to main plot; a supposed resolution of the affair becomes a question about the progressive or otherwise suffragan bishop, based on the iconic Serpensea Cross. They focus then is much more strongly on the lead character's career.
Conflict should be dynamic, so that a sense of crisis builds and there can be a crisis point; resolution then becomes all the more dramatic too. So the crisis comes late in the novel.
Conflicts and blockages come in many forms.
They can be physical and rather concrete: it might be simple enough to walk around them (either literally or metaphorically).
External Conflict is that which is readily identifiable and inanimate, like taking on conventions or cultures, laws or governments. Rules and more rules frustrate the freedom of the character. Dialogue is likely to be sharp and instant; desciption is necessary.
Interpersonal conflict is realised through dialogue and character description, the people in the story who frustrate the progress of the main character/s whose solution the story seeks to work through. Interpersonal conflict needs plenty of interactions.
Interpersonal dialogue is not the same as conversation. Whilst not everything should be plot related and driven, dialogue is a main method by which a plot progresses. Dialogue can also give information or show something about the character. Conversation, as in real life, can be passing and irrelevant. Whilst there should be space in a long novel for the odd diversion, even then dialogue should reveal something about the character or give insight into the environment of the novel. In Serpensea Secrets, a walk with a friend early on gives insight into the area and about the economics theme to be developed later, and tells of the progressive stance of the main character, the deacon.
Dialogue should be efficient and to the point. It might give insight into class, by hints at a dialect and accent. The dialogue should remain easy to read and understand, and subtle hints at dialects are better. Class and education can be indicated by dialogue: higher classes and the better educated use more latinate words whereas others are more Anglo-Saxon, and this should be consistent if used. When speech patterns change, the Anglo-Saxon can be employed for anger and impatience (and so this is not to imply that class and education are the same, or that the lower classifieds are angry and impatient). In all cases, understanding should be clear.
It is always important for the reader to know, and at the earliest opportunity necessary, who is speaking. A reader that wonders who is speaking is losing out on what is actually being stated. Writing 'said' a lot is perfectly acceptable; other words like 'replied', 'responded', 'cried' and 'exclaimed' should be used more sparingly.
Internal conflict is psychological. It is what blocks progress from within the main character/s. It can be over activity or laziness, and various prejudicial attitudes. It's the part where the characters think and consider their motivations. The dialogue is as likely to conceal motivation as to reveal it, but the story teller might be God and know what the person is thinking.
Obstacles include twists and reversals. A twist is something unexpected that changes the perception of the reader about a situation. It may only be temporary. A reversal is more thorough and longer term in impact and may change the whole direction of the progress sought. What was thought to be the case is no longer, and it may well be that the reverse is true: thus reversal is more than a twist. Perhaps an obstacle became a blessing in disguise.
In Serpensea Secrets the twist is about the suffragan bishop; the crisis isn't just the independent Church's strange Eucharist in the parish church that forces the career future for the main character but the later twist whether to trust him and take him in rather than expose him and his activities to the tabloid press.
The crisis is the biggest obstacle, but to work within a novel its resolution should sort out the whole and allow the progress desired to be fulfilled. The crisis should have a kind of will it won't it knife-edge aspect to it, either in short or longer time.
All then time themes can be discussed. In Serpensea Secrets there are themes of secularisation, illusionist magic and religious magic, Liberal Catholicism, Unitarianism, the decline of Christianity, archaeology changing its mind about the Romans and its economy, sexual norms, naturism, mental health, and the condition of the post-industrial economy and what is actually being value-added.
When the crisis is solved the resolution should be well worth having, the progress of the novel all the more underlined. The crisis and how it was handled (in the end) leads directly to the benefits of the resolution.
And with the crisis completely solved and resolution come as a reward, the novel can end with some scenes of happiness or satisfaction over the progress achieved.
Some novels, however, build in a slight edge to the satisfaction by which all could kick off again. Life is like that. A sequel might follow.
A sequel to Serpensea Secrets would be among the practitioners of the independent Church, and perhaps would centre around a conflict with the parish church and national Church (note: it is never called the Church of England!), or with the police, or with a rival Church. Perhaps it could be bizarre and introduce time travel, a portal or portals by which the lead character can visit situations and settings of the past - when religion was supernatural and magical religion.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful