10 Novels You Need to Read and Why
Copyright © 2014 George Green and Lizzy Kremer. All rights reserved.
Making a list of your ten favourite novels is great fun: Great fun, that is, in conversation with friends. Apart from anything else, you can change your mind. When called upon to do it for a book like this, however, the task is impossible. You keep remembering books you haven’t used that you think everyone should read.
So let’s be clear: This isn’t a list of the ten best books ever written – actually it’s far from it, and if this list were to be written again tomorrow it would probably be different. This list of books, arranged alphabetically by author and in no order of merit, is useful for looking at structure and technique. Another restriction in creating this list was to choose books that are easily available.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice is thought by some people to be a perfectly constructed novel. It can certainly be admired for the way it is put together, and it’s a masterpiece of verbal irony:
Have a look at the novel as a good example of the three-act structure: Introduction, Development, and Conclusion. Lizzie and Darcy meet, are attracted, and then fall out. They spend time apart, discovering things about each other. Then Darcy proves himself, and all ends well.
Appreciate that Austen writes in scenes. Each scene has a good reason for existing, and by the end of each scene the story has advanced and the characters are more developed.
Notice how many things are interwoven and kept going at once. There are three separate love stories, half a dozen major characters, and several strong themes.
The novel displays a good deal of observation concerning the social situation about which Austen writes, and much of the humour comes from this observation. In addition, all Austen’s characters are complex – no one is motivated by wholly bad impulses, or wholly good. In particular, the main characters, though admirable in many ways, are also flawed.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The Da Vinci Code is a massive commercial success, certainly, although perhaps not the best book ever written. Whatever your opinion, to put it simply, Brown did something right for a lot of readers. If you’re writing a thriller of any description, finding out what that something is, and seeing how you can use it, is worthwhile. In no particular order, here are some possible reasons for the novel’s success:
Subject matter: Conspiracy theories, especially ones involving the Church, are always popular.
Pace: The story is fast-moving: the characters are travelling quickly – running, flying, or driving – for most of the book. On its own, this isn’t enough to carry the reader along, but it certainly helps.
Structure: Brown unashamedly uses cliffhangers, usually at the end of chapters. If you want your reader to turn the page, finish your chapter with your heroes dangling by their fingernails from a cliff-edge. The reader wants to know if and how they’re going to escape. Again, it isn’t enough on its own, but so long as you deliver a convincing ‘if and how’, your reader is going to stay with you.
Variety: The plot combines complication and mis-direction all at the same time. Just when you think you’ve understood what’s going on, the writer turns the tables. A good thriller keeps you guessing all the time.
What Dan Brown does is actually fairly simple. The mistake is to suppose that because what he does is simple, it’s therefore easy. It isn’t. You need a clear understanding of the elements of what you are trying to do and then a lot of practice to get it right. A bit of talent doesn’t hurt either!
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Don’t read The Big Sleep for structure – Chandler wrote it in a hurry and was the first to admit that he managed to confuse just about everyone, including himself! Read this novel for dialogue and character interplay, and for atmosphere:
Dialogue: Chandler’s dialogue is legendary – the hard-boiled quip delivered from the corner of the mouth past a lazily drooping cigarette is a trademark. His dialogue is witty, yet not in any way arch or unbelievable. One of the joys of the book is the way that conflict is present almost permanently through the dialogue, between both enemies and friends, in a world in which everyone is constantly manoeuvring for position. Look out for the irony used in the dialogue to hide people’s feelings and positions.
Atmosphere: Part of how Chandler builds atmosphere is through description, but the crucial aspect is his choice of what to describe. An atmosphere of decay permeates the book, because so much of the description is of decaying things. Before long you realise that the characters too are decaying, morally and physically.
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
If you haven’t read this book, describing it is difficult. No other book is quite like it. Catch 22 is an excellent introduction to writing satire, and a good demonstration of how to build comedy, which in some ways is like building excitement in a thriller: by piling layer upon layer. Just as you think the novel can’t get any madder or more ridiculous, it does.
Heller excels in creating strong easily identifiable characters (not least by giving them good names: Heller updates Dickens’ habit of giving his characters names that suggest their personalities in some way). Notice how the whole book relates to Yossarian – it’s always his story even when he isn’t actually doing very much. This novel provides a good example of a third-person narration that sits right behind the main character and follows him around.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
This novel is a good example of comic writing involving a hero who isn’t really heroic in any way. You aren’t interested in Rob because he does extraordinary things; you read on because of the perceptiveness of his observations and the humour that Hornby draws out of them. Rob’s very ordinariness is interesting.
The Stand by Stephen King
The Stand is a long book (and an even longer ‘author’s cut’ edition is available!) with a lot of characters. The novel offers a good example of how to keep a large number of characters in line.
King utilises the cinematic technique of using one memorable feature to sum up a character. The broken-down boots of one of the main characters (who has no name but is referred to as ‘the Walkin’ Dude’ by everyone) is really the only strong detail the reader has of him for much of the book. It’s enough.
In your own novel, make sure that each main character has one characteristic that no one else in the book has. So you have ‘the red-haired man’, ‘the fat kid’, and so on. Don’t have two red-haired men unless there’s a very good reason. Also, make sure that you introduce at least a hint of their dominant character trait early in the story. For example: if a character is bad, have him do something – it can be quite small – which alerts the reader early on to the sort of person that he is. If the character is conflicted and confused, get that confusion out there so that the reader can see it.
You can also use alliances to help the reader keep characters straight in their head: Put simply, good guys generally hang out with good guys and vice versa. The reader doesn’t have to remember if an individual character called Johnny Fingers is a good guy or a bad guy if Johnny is always found sitting in cars and houses owned by Al Capone.
King also furnishes a good example of how to run several stories side by side. The several stories introduced at the beginning seem unrelated but the reader realises early on that they’re all destined to collide by the end because King introduces a strong thematic link early on indicating that all the characters are heading for the same geographical place, and that a reckoning is going to happen there. This thematic link is a good and obvious example of how this can be done: Usually the collision point is less plain, though no less present.
A lot of stories involve a showdown at the end, when everything is sorted out, one way or the other. In your story, you need to suggest that the various groups are moving towards that point, and what they stand to lose and gain from it.
An Instance at the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
This novel is a detective story set several hundred years ago in which Pears uses language to recreate and suggest the past without recourse to ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. The book is also an interesting example of multiple narrators. The story is told four times by four different people, and is different and reveals more with each telling.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Shriver’s novel is composed entirely of letters written by a wife to her husband. The book is an interesting exercise in letting a single voice tell a story and still giving the reader more than one point of view. Shriver also offers an effective example of how to get past the central problem of a first-person narrative: If the narrator knows everything (which they must, by definition), how can events justify surprising the narrator?
The ending of this book may or may not work for you. See what you think.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This book is a good example of a first-person narrative, and a good example of an ensemble novel, in which the characters aren’t all exactly equal in status but are all main characters. Notice how Tartt handles the character interplay and uses dominant characteristics to keep the characters clear in the reader’s mind. She gives to the reader The Strange Twins, The Fastidious, Slightly Cruel Man, The Inferior Narrator who is adopted by the group, and so on. This doesn’t, of course, mean that these characteristics sum up the characters! Just that they are the hooks from which the whole person hangs.
Julian by Gore Vidal
This is a historical novel about Julian, the last pagan Emperor of Rome, written entirely as an exchange of letters between two old men. The novel is a clever mix of history and gossip, intercutting information about events that have taken place with complaints about bodily infirmity and the correspondents’ attempts to one-up each other.
The novel is thematically interesting – Vidal takes time to make the book a meditation on power, and to discuss the growth of religion. These themes are also interesting from a writer’s point of view, in that you may feel that turning part of the book into an academic discussion of a fairly weighty subject is taking a chance with the reader’s interest.
Vidal clearly has strong opinions on these subjects, and he makes sure that you know what they are. Read the book and see if you think he integrates his themes into the book, or if they are overlaid on the story.
If your story has a message, you need to make sure that you strike a balance between the story and the content. No one reads to be preached at. This doesn’t mean that books should be trivial – far from it – but that the message needs to be integrated with the story. Adopt the maxim, Story First, Message Second. If your story is weak, the message isn’t going to get read anyhow!