Making a Novel

December 3, 2008 | 5 2 min read

In the novel writing workshop I taught this fall, I asked my students to write down as many novel devices they could think of, starting with the basics (plot, character, and so on), and continuing into more shadowy, magical territories. I participated as well, and after a few minutes I found myself writing down some unexpected stuff – not exactly devices, and yet, integral to my own novel, or to ones I’d read and admired. Afterward, we shared our lists with one another; read aloud, they sounded beautiful, and wise, and often one word would hit me in the gut and I’d think, “Yes! That is necessary to the novel!” It was a strangely inspiring exercise.

What follows is the list of devices my class and I came up with. There were a few repeated ones, but for the sake of space I have only listed them only once. What would you add to this list?

character, plot, language, conflict, resolution, scene, setting, theme, point of view, pacing, voice, dialogue, style, tone, detail, summary, exposition, chapters, rhythm, time (of day, of year, of life), structure, protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, climax, mid-point, prologue, epilogue, double entendre, vernacular, structure, tension, suspense, story within a story, discomfort, context, seeming villains who turn out to be good guys, seeming good guys who turn out to be villains, description, historical period, biblical narrative form: (“and then and then and then…”), fantasy, fact, logic, dream sequence, “aha!” moment, McGuffin, red herring, discovery, desire, twist of fate, internal monologue, explanation, events, obstacles, eavesdroppers become involved in plot, autobiographical elements, prediction, magic, arbitrary action, humor, contrast (between characters, events, points of view), relationships, confession, events, growth, deus ex machina, references to literature or popular culture, innocents caught in a web of deceit, unreliable narrator, sex, perspective, flashback, slow motion, stasis, denouement, longing, motivation, beauty, surprise, sidekick, misunderstanding, secrets, entrances, exits, light

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. One of my favorite devices is the 'Nick Carraway', the character/narrator who tells us the story of the ostensible main character but whose own transformation lies at the very heart of the novel. Also, the 'thesis statement'—usually an innocuous-looking sentence or two in the first few pages of the novel that, when viewed in retrospect, precisely set out the themes of the novel. I hunt these out in the novels I read and, when I find them, point them out in my critical reviews over at

    Others: jump cut, time space/break, foreshadowing, repetition, recurring symbols and motifs, images, thematically consistent images, doubles (doppelgangers), mirror-image characters, return of the hero, love conquers all, allusion, the vast panoply of classical rhetorical devices (synecdoche, metonymy, etc.), use of mirrors in 1st person POV novels to describe the physical attributes of the narrator, dying confessions, transformation/transfiguration/change, epiphany/revelation/insight, aliens, evil albino monks, secret codes that only the protagonist can crack, letters, diaries, poetry, foreign language words, runes.

    This is so much fun. I could go on and on…

    elipses, lacunae, forgotten things, hidden things, false memories, historical events, apocalypses, frame stories, misunderstandings, bad choices, forgeries.

    Please stop me…

    Jim H.

  2. I'm glad violence doesn't make this list.


    new and unique experiences, settings, times

    interesting, wide cast of characters

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