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Mass-1024x698-1-525x358.jpgChattering 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.

If you look more closely at the toy novelties of a Sixties childhood, it becomes apparent that their appeal lay in more than surprise or amusement.  Each novelty in some way said something about who we long to be.  Novelties stirred up our feelings: our dread, our dream of flying, our curiosity about our neighbors, our desire to be strong, our feelings of disgust, our need to be absorbed, our need to be amused, our fear of appearing foolish, our hope of being unlike anyone else, our delight at being in on something that others aren’t, our hope that magic might be real.

Novelty excites our curiosity in a way that ordinary things cannot.  The effect of a written novel on readers depends on verisimilitude—the suspension of disbelief that allows us to feel that the story’s events are really happening—but it also depends on novelty.  That which is unlikely, unexpected and sudden stirs our interest, makes us eager, and propels us forward in a narrative.

For our purposes, we can define novelty as an element in a story which surprises, excites, intrigues, runs contrary to expectations, is incongruous or which we simply find amusing, particularly when such an element is touching or terrifying, evoking something that we long for or fear.

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.
  • What is something readers can learn about through your story? What doesn’t the average citizen know?  Which character is an expert in that topic?  What is the greatest unanswered question or unsolved mystery in this area?  What is this subject’s most intriguing and unexpected fact?
  • Where can your story take us that is wondrous? What might we not expect to find in your setting?  What is legendary there?  What is magical there?  What is better than expected?  What is this place’s dark, cruel or ugly side?
  • Invent something that doesn’t exist. What is the modern version of an old machine, or the old solution to a modern problem?  What is logical once you think about it, except that nobody thinks about it?  Who has unusual insight into people?  How can you make your readers think?

Novelty as Necessity

BTW, I do not mean to suggest that only the old mail-away novelties appealing to boys are worthy of study; however, I have not been similarly inspired by the classified ads found in the vintage romance comic books that were aimed at girls.  Those fell into several broad categories.  One was products for weight loss (“Stay fit and Slim By taking Amphetamine”) or weight gain (“Try Amazing New Wate-On”).  Also pedaled were bust-enhancing braziers, waist-reducing undergarments (the “Compreso-Belt”), and schemes to sell dresses or greeting cards for extra pocket money.

(Also unhelpful were the comic book stories themselves.  One, “I Still Hear Wedding Bells”, ended with the heroine’s last-panel declaration of happiness: “Now I wouldn’t trade my new job of housewife for all the professions in the world!”  -Lonely Heart #12, September 1955.  Needless to say, I struggle to fit that into my understanding of the Heroine’s Journey.)

Mail-order novelties were cheap diversions and hardly durable but they gripped a youngster’s imagination for a reason.  Dead skeleton jaws do not move.  You can’t easily escape from handcuffs.  Rockets soar high into the air.  Ant farms are endlessly busy.  Coins impossibly vanish from your hand but then can reappear in your friend’s pocket.  Anyone can get muscles.  Anyone can master mind-power.  A can of nuts doesn’t ordinarily hide a snake.  There are hidden messages.  We are all-too-ready to believe that gross stuff is real.

Sure, those novelties were made of cheap plastic and rubber but, in another way, they were made of the stuff of our dreams and nightmares.  We identify with what’s familiar, certainly, but we do not—I would say that we cannot—immerse in a story the setting, characters and events of which could be anyone’s or anywhere.  Ordinary is for 9AM.  Novelty keeps us turning pages past midnight.

To sum it up: We anchor in what is human but set sail on a voyage because it offers us novelty.  For fiction writers, however, there is nothing accidental about that.  Hand me a can of nuts with a coiled-spring snake inside and I’m yours for the duration.  Novelty in novels is a necessity and—best of all—to obtain it you don’t have to put a dollar in an envelope and send it through the mail.  It’s right there in your imagination.

What’s novel in your novel?  Share!

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About Donald Maass

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.

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