What makes a novel feel big?
It isn’t a function of length, setting or theme. Some of the smallest manuscripts I’ve read were the longest. War stories and epic sagas don’t necessarily have much to say. Universal themes—love conquers all, for instance—can be familiar and flat.
Bigness arises in other ways. A microcosmic world portrayed in detail can feel bigger than its boundaries. A less obvious insight can strike us with the force of truth. The eyes of a simpleton can show us humanity’s infinite variety.
All those things are so, yet the novels which illustrate those principles can be one time accidents. For professional novelists the challenge is to create fiction that feels big every time. For commercial novelists, that can mean every year. Are there guidelines to help?
Recently I had the privilege of co-teaching workshops with two contemporary novelists whose work embodies bigness: mystery novelist Nancy Pickard and women’s fiction author Susan Wiggs. In interviews and with in-depth analysis of a novel by each (The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy and Just Breathe by Susan) we were able to discover, at least in part, the methods of bigness.
Multiple points of view are a hallmark of big fiction, but how many? It fact, it takes only three major points of view for a story to feel like it has many windows. One POV anchors with 40-50% of the scenes. The second and third POV’s carry the rest of the story, with minor POV’s sometimes taking several scenes. The three major characters connect up, of course, their storylines inextricably woven together by circumstance or the plot.
In big fiction the main protagonist generally has several big things going on (plot layers, in my terminology), and a couple of minor problems too. One or more of the major POV characters also is on a personal journey. Think of this as an emotional sub-plot, such as a wound that needs healing. This inner need can generate as much plot as external problems.
There are other factors at work to create a sense of bigness, like parallels and reversals, recurring symbols (lots of them) and universal human moments to which many readers can relate. Add to that the elements that always are found in great fiction, like a highly developed story world, three-dimensional antagonists, hyperbole and high drama, strong voice and constant micro-tension.
Not much to ask, is it? Crafting a big novel is a big commitment. But then, who wants to write small?
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