In the first post of my four-part series, I introduced ANTS, my framework for helping storytellers make strategic choices that increase reader engagement. ANTS stands for the effects a storyteller should seek to cultivate in their story: attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction. Last time, I covered the basics of attachment. Now it’s time for a closer look at novelty.
Novelty comes in countless forms. It’s found in jokes that make us laugh, uncanny description that creeps us out, and deep characters that fascinate us. It holds up the monsters that scare us and the mysteries that fill us with awe. It’s so varied, I wouldn’t blame you for wondering how I could possibly classify all those elements as the same thing. But regardless of the form, novelty reveals itself by generating an early burst of interest that fades quickly with exposure. Jokes are never as funny after being retold a dozen times. Monsters aren’t as scary once we become familiar with them. Novelty is embodied by ideas that are new and unexpected.
In many ways, this makes it the opposite of attachment. Whereas attachment takes time to establish but can endure long after, novelty is instant but ephemeral. That also means novelty is the most viral of the ANTS effects. Look at any instant online sensation, and you’ll see novelty is the key ingredient. For a meme to go viral, it has to engage people after a brief glance, but once someone shares it, it doesn’t matter if they forget about it a few seconds later.
In writing circles, we don’t discuss novelty that often, but we do have a special slur for its opposite: cliché. A writing cliché is an idea that has been repeated so often it has a novelty deficit – not only offering no entertainment value, but also being actively tiresome. While most storytellers are taught to avoid clichés, we receive less instruction on cultivating novelty. So how do we do that?
Technically, any part of a story can be crafted to feel novel, whether it’s creative description, witty dialogue, or an unexpected plot twist. However, different genres have different conventions for producing novelty. I specialize in speculative fiction genres such as fantasy and science fiction, which create novelty primarily through worldbuilding. We love fairies, zombies, and Mars colonies precisely because they don’t exist. The real is familiar and, therefore, less novel.
Many other genres put more emphasis on unique and complex characters as a way to generate novelty. If you look at a cross section of fictional crime shows, you’ll see a pattern of giving detectives wildly different backgrounds and traits. This sleuth is a human lie detector, that one is a bone analyst, the next is the devil himself. In the currently running series iZombie, the main character is a zombie who solves crimes by eating the brains of murder victims. By doing this, she gains memories she can use to solve crimes and acquires personality traits from her last meal. So not only is the detective and her method of solving crimes fresh, but the premise also provides more variety from episode to episode.
Since it comes in so many forms, adding novelty is often as simple as making your story stand out from the pack. However, your fresh ideas must have more than a superficial presence in your story. Imagine that you were excited by the idea of a zombie detective, but once you started watching the show, you found that the main character was like any other person. While technically a zombie, she solves crimes the standard way and she’s never tempted to eat anyone’s brain. That would be disappointing. Instead, novelty must be brought to life with a wealth of relevant detail. Viewers of a zombie detective story will want to see how being a zombie changes everything from her personal relationships to her morning routine. This is where all those lessons on showing vs telling will come in handy.
Unfortunately, novelty only lasts for as long as you work at it. A fascinating premise may provide entertainment for the length of a short story, but it’s unlikely to last for a whole novel. To keep it going, you must continually introduce fresh elements. For instance, each book in the Harry Potter series describes new creatures, spells, and other unexpected aspects of the world. However, in many works, including the Harry Potter series, novelty also becomes less important as the story continues. As novelty fades, attachment and tension rise, keeping readers engaged.
While novelty is an essential means of entertaining readers, it can be equally helpful for writers to understand how novelty affects their work habits. Many writers get caught in a cycle of moving from one new idea to the next, never finishing anything. A common cause of this pattern is relying too much on novelty for motivation. Cool ideas may get us started on a new story, but sticking with it over months or years often requires an emotional connection to our work. While novelty is fun, it’s not usually meaningful.