Every novel needs three elements:
In fact, it really needs characters. Plural. A protagonist and something else that isn’t the protagonist. Probably an antagonist in that it’s some significant figure that needs to be outsmarted, outmaneuvered or otherwise overcome.
That antagonist can be a person, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an animal, or an entity, or an object, or a force of nature or something entirely different that’s beyond my imagination’s grasp at the moment.
But some kind of driving or reactionary element probably needs to exist nonetheless in order for a story to work. I just genuinely don’t think it’s possible for someone to write an entire 70,000-word or longer story without it.
Admittedly, you can write a story where the protagonist is the antagonist. In other words, he’s getting in his own way. That’s something we’ve discussed before.
Even so, it would have to be a short story if it was just him against himself – with absolutely nothing other than himself to interact with. In which case, let’s officially revise our list.
Here are the four things every novel needs:
A main character
Do you see something there that’s missing?
What’s missing up there is dialogue.
It’s a major part of every creative writing class or course. It prominently features into almost every single novel you’ve ever read, if not every single one. And yet, technically, you just don’t need it when writing a novel.
In saying this, I’m not even referring to epistolary novels, which are told entirely as letters back and forth from the protagonist or between characters. If you look up “epistolary novels” on Wikipedia, for instance, you’ll find works such as:
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga in 2008
Aeternum Ray by Tracy R. Atkins in 2012
Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern in 2006.
Apparently, Where Rainbows End wasn’t Ahern’s first such novel either. She also published Love, Rosie the year before.
The whole idea of writing an epistolary novel is an interesting concept to consider. But again, that’s not what I’m referring to when I say that dialogue isn’t mandatory in a novel.
I’m not saying that most novels without dialogue would be at all interesting. Now that I’m really thinking about it, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf might not have had any dialogue. And reading that thing was like going into total zombie mode.
(Stream of consciousness. Whoever thought that was a good idea?)
Chances are, a novel without dialogue would be unengaging and boring as – someplace that’s really, really boring. Yet it is a thought that’s been nagging at me nonetheless.
Because as great as the chances are that a dialogue-less non-epistolary novel would be a pointless piece of trash… I don’t usually believe in saying "never" when it comes to creative writing.
There’s almost always an exception or two to the writing rules out there.
So. Can it be done? And, moreover, can it be done well? Interestingly? Engagingly?
I honestly think it can. With a lot of work and careful consideration.