The novel is a development that springs from the invention of printing. (Ong 149) Print enabled tellers of stories to freeze their stories in time, to reconsider every word's relevance to the story. The structures and characteristics of an oral story were no longer absolute. A novel is usually defined as a long prose story that is largely imaginary. It is also probably the least defined literary form. It is related to the short story and the play. A novel differs from a short story because it usually has more characters and a more complicated plot. It differs from a play because a play must have a tight focus and it does not spend time explaining the action. (Cowie 442, 445)
Novels have roots in the romance and picaresque stories of the Middle Ages. Romances are tales of chivalry, of knights and ladies. Picaresque stories are the opposites of the romances. In them, a scoundrel is the hero instead of a knight. Many of these stories were merely episodes strung together, lacking character and plot development to create a true novel. ("Novel" CD-ROM)
One problem with trying to characterize a novel is the fact that a novel covers many different styles, movements, and genres. About the only thing consistent in the literary form is its inconsistency. But if one looks hard enough, one can find the characteristics that make the novel a unique literary form.
The linear plot was very important to early novels. Eventually, the rising action-climax-denouement plot was perfected. This plot structure became the backbone of fiction writing for years. The technique builds suspense until the climax. After the climax, the action rapidly falls and the story only lasts until all questions have been explained.
But just as the novel was an innovation on telling stories, tellers began to
innovate with the novel. Tight plots started falling out of favor. Authors began
experimenting with stream-of-conscious narratives, nonlinear plots, character
development. Some authors started experimenting with hypertext.