Posts Tagged ‘aspects of the novel’

What Comes First?

A chef has an array of ingredients around a big mixing bowl. What does he put in the bowl first? An experienced cook has a method of operation, a conception of a tasty dish and an order for creating the finished recipe.  In the same way, fiction writers have the elements of theme, character, setting, and plot to manipulate.  The story can first arise from any of these elements and expand from there. Perhaps the story arises from a concept, an idea such as, the subjugation of women in a totalitarian society. Then, a novel like The Handmaid’s Tale might arise. What if the novelist is captivated with the psychology of an escaped slave? Then, a novel like Beloved might emerge. What if a writer is intrigued by an island off the coast of England? Then, a novel like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is written.  Suppose a novelist wants to write a story about a virus wiping out the world. Then, if he is Stephen King, he writes The Stand.  So it is that some books often are described as character-driven or plot-driven.

Whatever the germinating seed of the story, the other elements must combine to construct a well-developed narration. Starting with a theme, the writer conceives the characters who will dramatize that idea, a plot to propel the action, and a place where the action will occur.  A writer who is fascinated with motivation will begin with characters and explore their psychology, placing them in locales and in conflicts that illuminate the human condition.  Similarly, once a writer has a plot in mind, he envisions characters and places with which that action can be vividly enacted.

What comes first in a novelist’s mind may demarcate genre writers from writers who are called literary.  Character-driven works often fall into the literary fiction category. Toni Morrison’s Beloved that explores the character of an escaped slave is a character-driven novel.  Writers who conjure action-packed plots naturally would gravitate to the thriller, horror, mystery, suspense, or science-fiction genres.  That is not to say that genre fiction cannot have good character development and motivation integral to the plot’s unfolding. The distinction is their point of departure.  Is the focus the desire to know why people behave the way they do or the desire to tell a good story that will surprise and delight?

Admittedly, this is a very brief look at the subject and begs for more viewpoints.  With what element do you must often begin your stories?  What distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction?  Are the lines blurred in any writers you know? Does it even matter as long as the finished product is a seamless, artistic whole, a seemingly effortless work of fiction, which E.M. Forster elucidated so well in  his Aspects of the Novel, way back in 1927, yet still valuable today.

These are many questions to throw at my readers all at once, but the question “What comes first?” opens the door for as many answers as there are writers.