Six elements of a novel: Part one — plot and theme

Abidemi Sanusi
Nov 9, 2017 · 5 min read

The first in a three-part series on the six elements of a good novel. In this post, we tackle plot and themes.

There are no right or wrong ways to write a novel. However you choose to write yours, there are roughly six elements that your novel should have, for a better chance at being successful:

  • plot
  • theme
  • setting
  • conflict
  • character
  • point of view

When these elements are in sync, the result is a beautifully-woven novel, one that your readers will love and can also help you build your fanbase.

In this post, we look at plot structure, development and themes in novels.

What is a plot in a novel?

On the surface, this seems like an obvious question, after all, everyone knows what a plot is, right? Not necessarily, which is why, for the most part, people tend to confuse the novel’s story with its plot and vice versa.

Eyo is about a ten-year-old Nigerian girl who was trafficked to the UK.

That’s the story.

Eyo, by Abidemi Sanusi
Eyo, by Abidemi Sanusi

The novel follows her journey from Nigeria to the UK and her fight to escape, only to find out too late the devastating price society exacts on those she should protect.

That’s the plot — the events (touchpoints) that make up the story.

J K Rowling’s book, Harry Potter is a series of fantasy novels about a young wizard at the Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and his fight to defeat the Dark Lord Voldemort.

That’s the story.

Harry Potter the Complete Collection
Harry Potter the Complete Collection

Each book in the fantasy series chronicle a year in Potter’s time at Hogwart’s, and he and his friends adventures and battles against Voldemort.

Everything that happens (the events) during his time at Hogwarts is the plot. How those events drive the story is the plot development (a writing technique).

Why plot structure and plot development matter in a novel

Your novel starts out as an idea in your head (the story). What makes it into the novel is the plot (that is, the events that happen in the book and make up the story).

Sometimes, the difference between a well-written novel and a poorly-written one is the plot’s structure. That is, how you develop the plot (the events) in the novel, which is usually done through your chapters.

Have you ever read a novel and felt that the story was all over the place?

Usually, it’s because the novel is poorly-structured.

The Timekeeper’s Wife is about a man (Chicago librarian Henry De Tamble) with a genetic disorder that causes him to travel through time.

Time Traveller's Wife
Time Traveller's Wife

That’s the story.

The plot is the events that lead to him meeting his wife, their marriage and how they cope with the unique challenges of this disorder.

On paper, it’s a story that shouldn’t work, but it does — wonderfully, I might add. The novel was a well-deserved worldwide bestseller from author Audrey Niffeneger. I honestly believe that her deft handling of the plot’s development and structure had something to do with this, particularly as the Time Traveller’s Wife is a rather complex, intricate tale.

The chapters go back and forth in time, in sync with the character’s time travels, without any confusion on the reader’s part, and that takes skill, especially when weaving such a layered, tightly-woven tale.

This is storytelling at its best.

Your plot structure is closely linked with your chapters, because it’s the events that drive the story. That’s why I highly recommend budding authors to spend time on their chapter summaries before they even start writing the book. Doing so will help you see at a glance how your story plays out in your book.

The hero’s journey — themes in novels

Joseph John Campbell was an American writer and lecturer in comparative religion. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he outlined the monomyth, what he called the hero’s journey, which also forms the basis of most storytelling narratives. Christopher Vogler, a screenwriter, modernised the framework for modern audiences by reducing it to 12 steps.

I’m going to reduce the hero’s journey even further, to six:

  1. hero hears the call
  2. resists
  3. accepts
  4. goes through challenges
  5. almost gives up
  6. eventually triumphs

Look again and you’ll see a template for many movies, books, plays and even, some entrepreneur’s lives (they call it brand storytelling. Think Steve Jobs — Apple, Jack Ma — Alibaba founder, Oprah Winfrey).

Look even harder at the stages in the hero’s journey and you’ll see some universal themes emerging:

  • selfishness
  • resilience
  • pain
  • disappointment
  • success
  • love

These themes create empathy between the readers and your novel. After all, who hasn’t felt the pain of betrayal, the loss of a loved one, or the ache of unfulfilled dreams?

These are universal themes that everyone, regardless of culture or age, identify with. They are usually played out in the novel through events in the plot and seamless chapters that enable your story to be told the way it should be: masterfully.

In the next post, we look at another two elements of a good novel: setting and conflict.

Abidemi Sanusi is an author, creative entrepreneur, and the owner and founder of (yup, that’s this website). When she’s not writing out long job titles, she cooks, eats and takes photos.

Abidemi Sanusi

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Author. Nominated for Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Helps writers write better & make more. Write your first book:

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