11 Important Elements in a Novel or Memoir

A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila.

–Mitch Ratliffe

Your computer ends the physical drudgery of writing. But it can’t prevent you from making mistakes or ensure that what you write is salable. You may have only seconds to seize the interest of agents and editors who are swamped with submissions. In descending order of importance, here are the eleven most important elements in a novel or memoir:

  • The idea: Will it excite editors because it’s new or a fresh take on an old idea?
  • The first page: Do the first sentence, paragraph, and page compel readers to keep going? (For more about this, please see my earlier post on The S Theory.)
  • The story: Do your conflicts, story twists, and subplots make readers want to know what  comes next?
  • The people: Will your readers connect with your characters and care what happens to them?
  • Page-turnability: Does the pace vary and does the tension or suspense keep your readers turning the pages?
  • The dialogue: Is it varied and distinctive enough and to portray the characters through  tone, emotion, and the way they speak?
  • The writing: Is it good enough for the kind of book you’re writing?
  • The setting/s: Does it reflect, enhance, or drive your story?
  • The structure:  Is how you constructed your story the most effective way to build tension until the climax?
  • The ending: Is it the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal?
  • Your future books: Do you have a synopsis or proposal for a follow-up book?

 Also Worth Noting

The synopsis: Does it tell the whole story in a way that will make agents and editors who read part of the manuscript eager to read the rest of it?

Rising Fast in Importance

  • Your promotion plan: Will it help get enough books to the cash register?
  • Your platform: Do you have continuing visibility, online and off?

You need knowledgeable readers to help you answer these questions. Ask them to use this list when you share your work. My partner Elizabeth Pomada, who handles the fiction and memoirs in our agency, and our assistant, Claire Cavanaugh, helped with this list, which doesn’t claim to be definitive. These elements may vary in importance.

Two suggestions to help you:

  • Make your models first resource: the books you love that inspire you to write yours.
  • As in all things, trust your instincts and common sense.

The S Theory of Compelling Storytelling

  Forcing Fiction and Narrative Nonfiction Readers to Turn the Page

 The first page sells the book.   –Mickey Spillane

 Agents, editors and book buyers only read far enough to make a decision. If they don’t like what they read on page one, they won’t turn the page. Book buyers may not read the second sentence of a book in a bookstore. This leads to “The S Theory of Storytelling” for fiction and narrative nonfiction that writers want to read like novels:

 Style

Story

Setting

Someone

Something

Something Said

or Something Else

on page one must be compelling enough

to make agents, editors, and book buyers turn the page.

Your book will compete with the growing number of ways consumers can use their free time and discretionary income. So every word you write is an audition to get your readers to read the next word. Every line you write must convince your readers to read the next line. Assume you have only one sentence to convince browsers to keep reading. Every page you write must arouse enough interest to keep readers turning the pages. And you face that challenge on every page you write except the last one.

The last page sells the next book. –Mickey Spillane