What is a novel? Can any relatively long book that tells a story rightly be considered a novel? In the largest sense of the word, the answer to this is “yes”. That means that many of the books that you read as a child were novels – books such as Astrid Lindgren’s Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, Pippi Longstocking and The Brothers Lionheart for example. These books fulfill the basic requirements of a novel because they are narratives that have characters, plot, setting, point of view and an underlying theme. They have a lot more as well, but we shall come to that later. In addition, these books tell a long story.
Let us start with length as this is one of the most obvious differences between a short story and a novel. A short story usually has a limited number of pages (from one up to fifty, sixty or even more pages). A long short story can also be referred to as a novelette or novella. A novel, on the other hand, has no such limitations and can be several hundred pages long.
Obviously, with so many pages there must be some type of inner structure in order to help the reader along, and so most novels are divided into chapters. (Some experimental, modern novels have no chapter divisions at all, however!)
If we use The Brothers Lionheart (Brødrene Løvehjerte) as our example of a novel, we can quickly verify that there are several chapters in the book and that the book covers over two hundred pages. Chapters usually begin and end at logical pauses in the story. In other words, what goes on in a chapter is often a closed unit of action. From one chapter to another there can be changes of setting, characters, plot and so on. Having an unlimited number of pages available has many advantages, as we shall see.
First of all, as we have already mentioned, we can have several settings in a novel, whereas a short story is usually limited to one setting. Setting describes the time and place in which a story takes place. If we look at the settings of The Brothers Lionheart for example, we see that the story begins in a Swedish town sometime in the past. From descriptions of the living conditions of the family, we might guess that the first part of the story takes place sometime around the middle of the last century. After both brothers have died, the setting of the story shifts to a fantasy land called Nangijala in a time “out of time” – to a new setting, in other words. But even here we constantly move about from one setting to another, from the peaceful Cherry Valley (Kirsebærdalen) to the less peaceful Briar Valley (Klungerdalen) and finally, at the end of the novel, to Nangilima, a place beyond even death. Most novels make ample use of this freedom to move around from one setting to another – much the way films today do. When you read a novel, try to make a mental note of the different settings that the author uses in his story.
A short story takes place over a relatively short time span. Novels, as we have seen, can stretch out the time factor over hundreds of years or even beyond time as in The Brothers Lionheart. A short story is economical timewise. A novel need not be.
Possible questions to ask yourself about setting:
- Where does the action take place?
- What does the setting look like, sound like, feel like?
- For historical novels – in what period of history does the action take place?
- How long does it take for the action to occur? In other words, how many hours, days, weeks or even years are involved?
Characters are the people in stories or novels. Characterization is the author’s presentation and development of characters. Another difference between the short story and the novel is in the number of characters involved in the action and their development. Usually a short story will have few characters and the main character is usually easy to identify. A novel, on the other hand, will most often have many characters, each with a more or less well-defined personality. Since a novel is much longer than a short story, the author can spend more time developing his characters and giving them more complex personalities. This is called making “well-rounded” characters or characters with “depth”. But novels can also contain “flat” characters, which are characters who have only one or two main personality traits and are easily recognizable as stereotypes.
There may also be more than one main character. In the first part of The Brothers Lionheart, only the two brothers are important. Everyone else that we meet here is of minor importance and is quickly forgotten. Once in Nangijala, however, a whole new cast of characters makes its appearance and these characters are all necessary to the action of the story. Without Tengil, Hubert, Jossi, Orvar and Sofia, in addition to Jonathan and Kavring, the story would not be possible. Of the two brothers, Kavring is clearly the main character but without his valiant brother Jonathan, most of the excitement of the story would disappear. The relationship between the two brothers is also central to the story. It is their love for each other that motivates much of the action and suspense in the story. And what of Tengil and his dragon Katla? They too are necessary to the story as they represent the enemy that needs to be defeated. All of the other characters also contribute to give depth and meaning to the story in a way that the characters in a short story often cannot.
Possible questions to ask yourself about characters:
- How do we learn about the characters? For example by what is said about them, by what they say or by what they do?
- Are the characters flat (simple) or round (complex)? If they are complex characters, what makes them complex?
- Do they change in the course of the narrative? In other words, are they dynamic or static characters?
- What problems do they have and how do they attempt to solve them?
- Do they understand themselves better at the end of the narrative?
- How do the characters relate to one another? Is this a relationship that brings pleasure, or conflict, to the people involved?
The action of the story is called the plot. In general, a short story will revolve around one main conflict or crisis. In the novel, however, this limitation does not exist and although there is one main plot, there can be several subplots or “mini plots”. The purpose of these subplots is, again, to add depth and meaning to the main action or to make the novel more entertaining.
In The Brothers Lionheart the main action of the story deals with the conflict created by Tengil’s suppression of the people in Klungerdalen and the need to free Orvar and destroy Katla. The events in the story are related to and intensify this conflict (one thing leads to another) so that the story “rises” toward a climax or point of highest dramatic intensity. In The Brothers Lionheart this is the horrific battle where Tengil’s power is crushed and Katla is eventually destroyed. The traitor in Cherry Valley, on the other hand, is an example of a subplot. The need to find out who the traitor is creates a separate but related plot which also clearly revolves around a conflict. Kavring, who has been left to himself while his brother goes off to fight Tengil, thinks he has discovered who this traitor is. His accusation of Hubert and later his discovery that Jossi is the traitor is not, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary to the story, but makes it much more interesting.
Subplots do not generally live a life of their own in a novel. Most often they cross paths with the main plot, and this makes a story much more complex. As you read a novel, it should be relatively easy to identify the main plot of the story. Once you have done that, you should be able to identify any subplots in the story. It is worthwhile to ask yourself what they add to the main plot of the novel.
Possible questions to ask yourself about plot:
- What makes the situation unstable at the beginning of the narrative? In other words, what is the main conflict of the story?
- What are the minor conflicts or subplots and how are the conflicts related?
Which conflicts are external? That is, which conflicts take place between individuals, or between individuals and the world (for example human-created objects and environments or forces of nature )?
- Which conflicts are internal, that is within the minds of the characters?
- Where does the main climax occur and what makes it occur?
- Is the main conflict resolved? How is it resolved?
- Do any conflicts remain unresolved? If so, why?
Point of view
Point of view refers to who is telling the story. Put another way, point of view is the position from which the story is told. A voice outside the story (i.e. not a character in the story), which is able to see and know everything in the story (including every character’s thoughts) is referred to as the omniscient or all-knowing point of view. It is found in both short stories and novels. The advantage of this point of view is that it is easy to involve you, the reader, in the story if you are able to know the thoughts of many of the characters. The disadvantage is that we may lose out on the element of curiosity and surprise if we are told by the author what everyone is thinking.
The first-person point of view (where either the main character or one of the other characters tells the story from his or her point of view using “I”) is also found in both novels and short stories. This creates a nearness or “immediacy” to the story told. Charles Dickens’s famous novel David Copperfield is told from this point of view and begins in the following attention-catching manner.
I am Born
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
However, it is the third-person limited point of view which is perhaps most common in novels. In The Red Badge of Courage the author, Stephen Crane, uses this point of view thereby revealing to us the thoughts, fears and hopes of his main character Henry Fleming.
The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So they were at last going to fight. On the morrow, perhaps, there would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labour to make himself believe. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth.
The advantage of this is that it is easy for us to identify with the main character because we know his thoughts but can only guess about what others are thinking. If we go back to The Brothers Lionheart we can see concrete advantages to this “limited” point of view. If we had known Jossi’s thoughts, for example, and not just seen him from the outside as Kavring sees him, we would have known that he, not Hubert, was the traitor. That may have been valuable information, but we would have lost out on the added suspense of the subplot.
An author may also simply choose to switch between different points of view or not give the thoughts of any of the characters. What is useful for you the reader, is to try to identify which point of the view the author has chosen to use in the novel you are reading. An awareness of the author’s craftsmanship will increase your appreciation of any novel you read.
Possible questions to ask yourself about point of view:
- Which point(s) of view are used in the story?
- Once you have identified who tells the story, can you trust the narrator to tell you the truth about events, characters and the setting of the story? (In general, omniscient narrators may be trusted, but first-person narrators may be untrustworthy and therefore unreliable!)
- If a first-person narrator is used, what circumstances such as age, education, social status, prejudices and emotional states might influence the accuracy or truthfulness of what they say and think?
- What effects does the point of view have on other elements of the story, for example theme, characterization, setting or language?
Theme is defined as the underlying idea(s) in any literary work. It is the comment a piece of literature makes on the human condition. In a short story there may be several themes. The fact that a novel is infinitely longer does not mean that we will find infinitely more themes in the novel than in the short story. However, the themes that we do find in the novel will be more clearly developed than in a short story. In The Brothers Lionheart we can speak of the theme of freedom which is linked to the fight to overthrow an unjust oppressor. This ties in closely to the main plot of the story. But certainly the love of the two brothers for each other is also an important theme in the story, as is the theme of friendship and loyalty. On a more philosophical level, we can also talk about the theme of life and death that we find in this novel.
We could go on listing themes that are found in this story, but that doesn’t serve our purpose now. The point here is that in a novel the author has the opportunity to build out these themes to a much greater degree than in a short story, fatten them up in a sense so that they are perhaps more easily identifiable by the reader When you read a novel, stop occasionally and see if some of the main themes in the novel are slowly taking shape.
Possible questions to ask yourself about theme:
- What theme(s) does the novel have?
- Are moral questions being asked?
- What can the title, subtitles or names of the characters tell us about the theme(s) of a work?
- How do you respond to the theme(s) the author is trying to get across?
In a textbook it is not possible to include a complete novel. There are, however, several excerpts from novels in the book. Although the novel as a specific literary genre began earlier, it was during the 19th century that it was perfected. The excerpts in this book can perhaps be likened to tasty appetizers before a delicious meal. They are no more. But perhaps these literary appetizers will tempt you to read the entire novel at a later date?
In the course of this year you are asked to read at least two works of literature in order to fulfill the requirements in the curriculum. Many of you will read one or two novels, and as you read your novels think over some of the points that we have raised here. That will perhaps make your task a little easier when you either write about or talk about the novels you have chosen to read. Remember, too, that reading a novel is like embarking on a journey to unexplored lands. This is a journey that you have already embarked on several times in your childhood reading experiences. So get ready for a journey to unexplored frontiers every time you read a novel.
Genres and length
Some people find an analogy from track running useful to compare texts of different lengths. Accordingly, a short story is a sprint (100-200 meters); a novella is middle distance (800-1500 meters); a novel is long middle-distance (5000-10,000 meters) or real long distance (marathon or longer).