How to Write a Classic Novel: 5 Elements That Will Turn Your Book into a Masterpiece

Want to write a novel that doesn’t just sell well but is also a classic, one that people are reading 100 years from now? Who doesn’t, right? Well, if you have some talent and try to include these 5 elements, your words—if not you yourself–might become immortal.

#1 Develop a strong narrative voice

You’ve got to have a powerful, sure-footed narrative voice. Your prose must percolate with life, full of energy and drive. Easy to say and easy to spot when you read it, but how exactly does a writer pull that off? How do you develop a unique, strong voice?

  • Read the classics and observe how the great ones did it. I don’t necessarily mean Plato, Virgil, and Shakespeare—though they couldn’t hurt you—but the more recent English language classic novelists, such as Faulkner, Hemingway, Wharton, Melville, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne…the list goes on. Throw in some late-20th century writers who may well pass the test of time, such as Updike, Bellow, Vonnegut, Cheever, and Malamud.
  • Just read good, solid novels in general. If you’re not sure which books are just good and which may be great, Google for lists of classics.
  • Study their techniques—their vocabulary, phrases, and sentences. See how they use point of view, tone, diction, figurative language, and the like.
  • If you’re not even sure who those writers or what those literary terms are, then you have a lot of homework to do.
  • Note that I said “develop a strong narrative voice.” Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have it right off the bat. Not many do. It takes total dedication to your writing craft and upwards of 10,000 hours of reading and writing before you get it.

#2 Dream up a new and interesting story—your story

Who wants to read the same old thing over and over again? Well, some people do, I guess, but most readers want to be surprised and delighted by a story that is unlike anything they’ve ever read before.

All the classics broke new ground. How can you tell a story no one’s ever read before? Why not look at your own life rather than, say, dragons and wizards and vampires? Those creatures populate some great books, but can you really tell a fresh, new story about subjects that have already been written about so often and so well? The really amazing fantasies, the truly wondrous stories left to be told are those about your own life.

You are a great story. Aren’t you? Haven’t you often thought and even told people, “My life would make a really strange (or great or weird or dope) book.” So…what are you waiting for? Sit down and tell some real life stories. Stories about you. Change the names, probably. Do some plotting and condensing and other essential novelistic tasks. And shape those episodic experiences of yours into a plotted novel, one with a conflict, a beginning, middle, and end, an arc, plot points, and resolutions.

Melville went to sea for years and wrote Moby Dick. Fitzgerald partied for years and wrote The Great Gatsby. Hemingway went to war and wrote A Farewell to Arms. Vonnegut was a prisoner-of-war and wrote Slaughterhouse-5. Almost all the classics were based on true stories—crafted, morphed, or mashed-up in one fantastic new way or another.

#3 Make it all fresh: style, plot, characters…everything as fresh as tomorrow’s tweets

Here’s what bores readers:

  • clichés or stereotypes
  • stock plots
  • a feeling that we’ve read or heard this all before
  • vague, lazy diction
  • one-dimensional, unsurprising characters and action

Here’s what thrills and amazes readers:

  • universality: a story that transcends time and place and could happen anywhere, anytime
  • being surprised by what characters say and do
  • defamiliarization: stories and characters that go against the grain, making the familiar seem strange. For Milan Kundera, one of the purposes of the novel is to question the commonplace, making it seem surprising, enigmatic: “It doesn’t just represent situations–jealousy, say, or tenderness or the taste for power–it arrests them, comes to a halt by them, looks closely at them, ponders them; interrogates them, asks questions of them, understands them as enigmas.”

# 4 Create metaphoric magic

Weave a tapestry of images, resonating motifs, tropes, and threads of figurative language throughout your novel. Again, if you don’t know what these terms mean, do your homework and learn. They’re essential elements of great fiction. Without them, your novel will seem dry, stale, somehow empty and unfulfilling. Readers might not even notice they’re missing, but they’ll feel that something is missing as they read.

#5 Think thematically: make it deep

Likewise with themes: without them, the readers will be left with a sense of “Is that all there is?” Books without rich, thematic content are like stomachs full of candy. What’s your point, moral, meaning, lesson? What did we learn, garner, get from the book? How did it enrich, teach, instruct us? What does it say about human nature, society, culture, issues, the world, the universe, life? Be sure to show the book’s theme through the plot points and characters’ trials. Don’t talk about the themes; don’t preach or pontificate. Make the story resonate with rich insights and moments of eureka-like crystallization. But never explain or draw blunt attention to the theme/s. Stop the readers in their tracks, making them pause to mull over and think about what just happened. If you can do that, you’ll have the makings of a classic.

6 comments

  1. Dear Dr Baldwin

    I have been working on a novel for several years, (in my spare time). I am finally ready to actually work on it and finish it. But then, what is next? shop for a publisher, or get an editor? I do not know. And where to you fins publishers and how do you submit the final work?

    1. Hi,

      Well, first you need it well-edited. If it has any problems, it will be immediately rejected. Then, try to find an agent. Publishers don’t accept submissions from authors. You have to find an agent. We could make some recommendations about how to do that. If that doesn’t work, you can consider self-publishing. We have lots of advice on the website. Email me for more information.

      Marc

  2. Thanks for this great information. Just what I am looking for as I am beginning to edit a draft of a first novel. In particular I appreciate the part about writing my own story. That seems like sound advice as that was the original premise for this novel and then it became abstracted. Think I’ll go back to the original premise. I know what that’s about. Thanks again for good advise.

  3. I realize this is an old post, but thank you for the short and very informative article.
    My debut novel will be out soon, and one can only hope that readers will find something for themselves in it, other than the typical plot-driven dungeons and dragons.

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