Novelty and the Novel

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From Writer Unboxed:

Chattering teeth.  Wind them up, set them down, and instantly those plastic choppers are clack-clacking away faster than a jackhammer, skittering around in circles on a Formica table top.  For a boy in the early 1960’s, there was nothing better.

Well, except maybe for X-Ray spectacles, trick handcuffs, a dribble glass, rocket kits, coin tricks, ant farms, muscle builders, hypno-coins, two-way radios, snake-in-a-can, joy buzzers, invisible ink or fake vomit.  These mail-away delights could be found in the classified ads in comic books and Mad Magazine, to which I was devoted.

Most of those items were manufactured by the estimable S.S. Adams company of New Jersey.  They knew their market and worked tirelessly to improve their products.  (Itch powder was particularly difficult to get right.)  To get these necessities, you had to send away.  In those days there was no Amazon offering expedited delivery.  You had to wait for weeks, tingling with anticipation so long that you almost forgot what you’d ordered so that when the package eventually was stuffed into your curbside mailbox, it was Christmas in July.

Chattering teeth belonged to a category of goods called novelties.  Novel.  Ties.  Yes, it makes one think of water-squirting neckties but it also, for us, recalls the story form that is the unifying topic of this blog site.  Novels.  Surely that shared root word is not an accident?

The Roots of Novelty

The word novel derives from the Old French nouvel, meaning young, fresh, or recent, and comes from the even older Latin novellus, which meant the same thing, and which was diminutive of the Latin novus, meaning new and novella meaning new things.

The use of novel to mean a fictional prose narrative began in Italy in the Sixteenth Century, originally referring to short stories in a collection (as, say, by Boccaccio), then in the Seventeenth Century began to describe longer prose tales.  (Before that such a story would have been called a romance.)  The root word gave rise to other English words too, such as announce, need, neon, newborn, news, pronounce and renew.

The need for novelty is hard-wired into our brains.  When we encounter what is different than expected, dopamine is released.  It arouses our interest and drives us to seek the reward of exploring and learning.  I’ll spare you the math behind Bayesian Surprise, but suffice it to say that substantia nigral/ventral segmental area (SN/VTA) in our brains lights up when we try a new route, travel to new places, try on new clothes, try a new approach, get a makeover, redecorate, meet someone interesting, see new things, encounter the unexpected or discover something we didn’t know before.

. . . .

Novelty as Practical Craft

In practical terms, how is novelty introduced into contemporary fiction?  Science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian, paranormal, slipstream, fables and altered reality tales might seem automatically a novelty banquet.  Realistic novels, on the other hand, might seem inherently to be novelty-starved.

Neither proposition is necessarily true.  Spec fiction can lean on dull, familiar tropes and lack novelty.  Realistic fiction can play with curious, exciting, amusing and unlikely characters and events and provide us with great novelty.  There’s no inherent advantage or pitfall in your type of story, whatever that may be, it’s all in how you approach it.

Here are some ideas for providing novelty in your novel:

  • Pick a character in your novel to make eccentric. How can this character’s behavior be odd?  How can he or she behave in ways that are outside social norms, conventions or propriety?  Who can be a rebel?  Who can have a notorious past?
  • Which character could be rigid, fussy, dogmatic, shrill, convention-bound, old-fashioned, judgmental, or set in his or her ways? What’s the greatest length to which this character will go to resist change?  What can this character do to surprise us?
  • Who can have an unusual profession? Who can do a common job in an uncommon way?  Who can be the most unlikely math genius, orator, emergency responder, drunk, chess demon, nude dancer, travel guide, fashion icon, philosopher or cheat? [Note: check the website TV Tropes for over-used stock characters.]
  • Who can come to the door unexpectedly? Who can make an uncharacteristic choice?  What decision can be a shocker?  Who can fall in love when it’s least likely?  What’s an unexpected reversal of fortune?  Where’s the place we don’t expect a monster to hide?  Whom can suddenly drop deadIntroduce a random variable. Roll the dice.  Pick a card from the deck of chance.  Throw a dart at a list of archetypes. Turn a plot template on its head.  Have an argument with your genre.  Break a rule with panache.  Do something in your novel that no writer has ever done before.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed