How we choose to do that is up to us, and the details that goes into our novels vary widely. Ten writers can use the same idea and create ten different books, because what they consider “interesting” changes from writer to writer. As liberating as this is, it’s also a little scary. It doesn’t give us any guidelines to work with when we start a new novel.
No matter what genre you write, here are four things you can strive for that will help you craft a novel readers want to read.
1. Have an original premise done well.
If you’re a skilled writer, you can take someone else’s idea and do a solid job of writing it (I’m not saying do this, just saying that skill level is only a small part of what makes a good novel). An original premise is much harder to develop, and can be a challenge when folks like me keep saying, “You need a fresh idea” to sell your novel. But to give your novel the best chance of being seen by readers, you want to offer them something them haven’t see hundreds of times before.
However…originality doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with an idea no one has ever seen before. Fresh doesn’t mean unique. Love triangles have been written countless times, but the right love triangle with the right trio of characters still makes readers eager to read the story.
I know this sounds contradictory, and it’s one of those things that frustrates a lot of writers. The old, “Give me something different, but the same” spiel. Just remember, original means your take on an idea. Maybe your love triangle is about three friends, not lovers, which puts a whole new spin on the premise.
2. Create a compelling protagonist who intrigues readers.
Notice I said “intrigues,” not like. While most protagonists are likable, and readers want to know their story and enjoy spending time with them, there are also protagonists who no one would want to hang out with, but are fascinating to watch (Dexter, anyone?).
A compelling protagonist is special in some way that enhances the story, such as great analytic skills (Sherlock Holmes), a unique viewpoint about a tough situation (Hazel Grace, The Fault in Our Stars), or a can-do attitude (Ramona Quimby). As with Dexter, it can even something as horrifying as being a serial killer or descending into madness. Whatever it is, they have a trait that readers want to see “in action” and look forward to reading about how that trait will help (and hinder) the character throughout the story.
Few readers will read a story about a character they have zero interest in. As long as the protagonist is doing something intriguing or behaving in a way that makes readers want to see more, they’re doing their job as protagonists.
3. Spin an intriguing plot that keeps readers guessing.
Even the most interesting person can get tiresome if all they do is stand there and chatter on, so a solid plot is a must. But plots with one clear solution tend to bore readers, because there’s nothing for them to wonder about or anticipate. The end of the book is a given, and the path the protagonist is going to take to solve the conflict is clear.
However…(you knew there’d be a but, right?) There’s a difference between an ending that readers can see coming, and an ending that readers expect, but don’t know how the story will get there.
Everyone knows the two lovebirds in a romance will fall in love, but it’s how they do it that keep readers interested. What struggles will they have to overcome? How will they win the other’s heart? What wounds will be healed along the way?
A plot might be twisty turny, or it might be a straight line, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be unpredictable. Don’t take the easy path and just write what happens—dig deeper and do the unexpected.
4. Provide an emotionally and/or intellectually satisfying resolution to the novel’s conflict.
For many readers, a novel is only as good as its ending. How the story wraps up is everything, and if it doesn’t follow through on its story promises, or the solution drops in out of the blue, readers will be unhappy.
But luckily, different readers look for different endings. The romance readers want the Happily Ever After, and the emotional payoff of love. The mystery reader enjoys the intellectual thrill of solving the puzzle. Some stories offer a puzzle to be solved and a character arc to be completed, and touches on both the emotional and the intellectual.
However you get there, fulfilling the story promise you made at the start of the book (or in the blurb) will satisfy readers. The greater the satisfaction, the more they are to read your next book, or suggest the current book to friends.
Obviously, more goes into writing a strong novel than these four elements, but spending time to make sure these four things are covered will help you avoid a lot of common writing issues, such as, stories readers have seen before, characters who don’t connect with readers, predictable stories that go nowhere, and endings that fall flat and leave readers cold.
What do you strive for when you write a novel? What aspects do you want to see in the novels you read?
If you’d like more on plotting, I recommend my book, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, with over 100 brainstorming exercises and plotting tips designed to help writers develop their novels.
Janice Hardy is an award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. When she's not writing about writing, she writes science fiction and fantasy. Her teen fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, includes The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.