Writing The Topical Novel

Writing The Topical Novel: Ripped From The Headlines


Sometimes writers take inspiration from the world around them – from political scandals of the day, crimes that grip the imagination, and social or environmental changes that keep us up at night. They take the issue and turn it into a topical novel.

What is a topical novel?

Look at these examples:

  1. Inferno by Dan Brown is a nail-biting thriller but it also has a thought-provoking theme: the consequence over population. Of course, the villain’s plan to eradicate half the world’s population is radical, but it does raise an issue most of us don’t think about very often.
  2. In Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, the disturbing trend of teenage suicide and bullying in an age of social media is examined through a controversial and intriguing young adult novel.
  3. Tampa by Alissa Nutting, takes fiction into the realm of reality television, exploring a teacher’s affair with an underage student.
  4. In Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, the issue of climate change is explored in a lucid, vivid story that also serves as a wake-up call to society.

So, if you are going to write a topical novel, what should you keep in mind?

  1. Lead with story and genre. Genre fiction, such as sci-fi or a thriller, gives you a framework for the message you want to convey. It makes the story more accessible to readers. While your theme may be compelling, it should not take the place of a well-crafted plot. Theme must not be more important than well-drawn characters or a clear genre expectation.
  2. Make sure the issue is compelling and strong enough to sustain a story. Political corruption has been the theme of many hard-hitting and satirical novels. As long as there are people in power, there will be abuse of that power. It’s an enduring theme. But ‘fads’ come and go and may be gone before you finish your book.
  3. Don’t whine. The last thing you want your book to come across as a privileged whine or self-righteous rant. So-called ‘first world problems’ could give you theme for a a great novel – as long as it’s self-deprecating and has a moral lesson in it somewhere.
  4. Don’t preach. The most dangerous trap a writer can fall into is to become preachy. Readers can recognise a soapbox a mile away. Be sure to explore different sides of the argument with well-rounded characters who are either ambiguous or sympathetic. Don’t fall into clichés or generalisations. The theme must serve, rather that take away, from your story.

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