A novel is a coherent whole. Everything that gets put in there needs to serve a purpose. I think of a successful novel as a well-functioning body. We need the bare bone structure of solid information, which are the facts we need to understand the book. And then, all the muscles and tissues connect to each other in some way to enable mobility. But how the body looks and feels is up to the author, because it relates to aesthetics. A body can be muscular or curvaceous; hair can be long, cropped, dyed, teased, absent. What I’m saying is, a successful novel has a self-containment that no matter how frivolous a single element seems when taken out of context, it still serves to create the whole.
An ugly novel often has too much unnecessary information or too little necessary information. For example, in a story about a war of warlocks, does it really matter if we knew the eye color of every character? What does matter is the set of rules for using magic in warfare. Eye color and rules are both information, but only the latter help us to understand what is happening in the book. The latter is necessary, whereas the former does not advance the story and should be used sparingly.
Also, the story does not need to show everything that happens. There is no use in showing the protagonist opening her eyes, turning off the alarm, jumping in and out of the shower, and eating cereal, if all we needed was the protagonist seeing Mr. X on her morning walk to get flowers. Know when to summarize or to skip deadweight scenes.
Let’s say that the author has a perfect sense of the information and the scenes needed in the story. Now, how to assemble them?
Many of the submissions I read are stories told in a linear fashion, which is definitely one way to write a successful novel, since many stories are event-driven. But I want to make aware the option of modular design.
Last week I read a submission in which we find out in the beginning that the protagonist’s mother has just passed away, and most of the rest of the book relates the events of their life together. This setup has great potential. The mother’s eventual death is a crucial piece of information that the writer can use to incite emotion out of readers: knowing the mother will die makes us put more importance on what otherwise might be mundane events, and perhaps infuse them with meaning.
Story structure is a decision the author has to make at some point. The default to linear design could work extremely well, but it is always useful to be aware of different writing tools.
If you’d like to read a much more detailed (and more elegant) discussion on linear and modular designs, Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design will rock your socks off.