How to Write a Novel
If you aspire to write your own novel, the process can be a bit daunting—particularly if it’s your first time trying. The good news it that while challenging, writing a novel is far from impossible. All sorts of writers—from New York Times bestselling authors like Dan Brown and David Baldacci, to National Book Award-winning novelists like Joyce Carol Oates, to self-publishing hobbyists with a great story idea—must go through a similar process of brainstorming, planning the story structure, outlining, and drafting.
Writing fiction can be hard work (even if you already have a bestseller to your name), but if you’re ready to dive in, here is everything you need to get started on your first novel.
If you’ve decided to write a novel, you’ve probably been inspired by a story idea. But whether you have a whole world planned or just a single sentence that serves as a logline, here are two key tips to keep in mind:
- Choose a world you want to spend a lot of time in. Your novel will require your readers to immerse themselves in a specific world for the hours that they spend reading. More importantly, it will require you, the author, to immerse yourself for weeks, months, and even years in this world. Pick a setting and a time period that interests you and keeps you engaged. Have more than one setting? That’s okay, too, but don’t underestimate the value of simplicity when it comes to storytelling, and don’t overstuff your novel with location changes.
- Find a story idea within this world you want to immerse in. Novels are more than just a series of settings and time periods. They must be driven by a story that remains compelling throughout its beginning, middle, and end. So decide what story you want to tell and be sure it can sustain a whole novel. If you think it may not hold a reader’s interest for several hundred pages, consider adapting your work into a short story instead.
2. Start Developing Characters.
A novel can have the greatest premise in the world, but it won’t hold up unless you create characters your audience can invest in. So once you have a world and a story, figure out who the key figures in this story are. Your main character is obviously the most important among these. A strong main character will have a rich and detailed life that you, as the author, will know about—from personal backstory to character traits to greatest successes and failures. The more you understand your characters, the more you will have to say about them to an audience. Learn more about character development in our complete guide here.
3. Decide on a Point of View.
Once you understand your characters, you’ll be able to figure out what narrative voice you want to use. Will you write in the first person or in the third person? Here are the most common narrative voices used by successful novelists:
- First Person — In this narrative voice, a character in the story narrates the action, making frequent use of the pronoun “I.” Examples of first person narration include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Note that both these novels feature first-person narrators who also describe scenes where they were not physically present. A first person point of view (POV) can considerably raise the emotional stakes of a novel.
- Second Person — Second person narration revolves around the pronoun “you.” Few novels are written in second person voice; it’s very difficult to maintain without interfering with the flow of storytelling. However, some first person narrators shift to second person narration for specific points of emphasis.
- Third Person Limited — A semi-omniscient form of narration that eschews the pronoun “I” and describes characters from a distance. However, in third person limited narration, the narrator is not all-knowing and does not necessarily share the inner monologues of characters. Most of this narration is limited to provable objective fact. Some third person limited narration can track the thoughts of a protagonist but not of other characters. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole demonstrates this narrative technique.
- Third Person Omniscient — In this form of narration, the narrator is all-knowing. Inner monologues can be shared, as can information unknown to any characters in the story. Lots of bestsellers use this form of narration, from The Da Vinci Code to It.
Writing fiction requires thorough structure and careful attention to detail. Here are six writing tips to help you inject that structure and detail into your outline, and hopefully create a good story in the process.
- Start by condensing your narrative into one single sentence. Let that sentence serve as a very coarse outline template for every draft you create. This technique—which is also the first step in what’s known as the snowflake method—keeps you accountable to a core storyline at all points. A well-composed novel can often be anchored around just one sentence and every other detail is an extension of that sentence.
- Next, create a first draft of your outline with only the broadest story road map. This draft should only focus on the big picture: the inciting incident, the climax, the resolution. It’s likely to only be one page long. You’ll fill in the rest of the story later, but first you’ll want to see this broad sequence of events on the page to make sure you have enough for a compelling piece of short fiction.
- Look over your story roadmap and break the narrative into acts. The most common of these is a three-act structure anchored around the story elements you identified in the previous step: the inciting incident, the climax, and the resolution. Four-act and five-act novels are also common. Ultimately your reader won’t be looking for act breaks when reading a novel. But they will be expecting a well-paced story, and subdividing into acts helps you do this.
- Begin adding detail to individual scenes. As you outline individual scenes, continually ask yourself what your main character wants in each scene. The best novelists are skilled at crafting brief scenes that accomplish a great deal with very little real estate. There is nothing more important than your protagonist’s persona, needs, and character arc; making sure every scene services those will naturally make the storytelling efficient.
- Inject moments of conflict throughout the outline in order to keep things interesting. Readers respond to conflict. Just like music, good fiction writing cycles through tension and release. Use new and unexpected conflict to keep the tension coming. This works across genres from mysteries to thrillers to science fiction to romance to whatever is topping the New York Times bestseller list right now.
- Feel free to jot down scene ideas in your plot outline, even if you don’t yet know where those scenes will occur. Sometimes just seeing all your story ideas laid out in front of you can help you in the organization process that must occur before your write your first chapter.
5. Decide on Your Ending.
This step can happen even earlier in the process, but if you haven’t picked a compelling ending by this point, now is the time to do so. Think ahead to a reader’s experience as they consume your final draft. The part of your novel that will linger with them most will likely be the ending. Make sure you’re giving them a fantastic one, whether you’re trying to write a bestselling thriller or a brooding, character-driven work of literary fiction. From your standpoint as a writer, having a clear ending in place may help you build a story and set of characters that all drive toward that ending—how are you going to get to this ending you’ve planned?
6. Start Writing Your First Draft.
Planning is fantastic—essential even—but don’t let overly meticulous planning keep you from the task at hand, which is actually writing your novel. The first draft of your first chapter may be terrible, and it may end up being totally rewritten once you’re done, but it’s important to dive in before you’re paralyzed by second guessing. It’s okay if this draft (sometimes called a rough draft) is overly long and full of typos or plot holes. You’ll have time to revise.
7. Take a Break, and Then Come Back.
Spend some time away from your novel after completing the first draft. This will allow you to approach it with fresh eyes when you read it back. As you review your first draft, pay attention to the following aspects of your book:
- Clarity of story
- Character development (particularly involving the main character)
- Sufficient depth to your world-building (including backstory and pertinent descriptions of setting and time period)
- Proper pacing of the action
8. Write Your Second Draft.
Depending on your assessment of your first draft, you may opt for surgical edits to specific scenes or you may diagnose that your novel needs drastic changes. If the storytelling is seriously deficient, you may choose to embark on what’s known as a “page one rewrite,” where you literally start from a blank page and recraft the novel.
9. Seek Outside Input.
Most writers will commemorate the completion of a second draft by sending their novel to trusted readers for their input. These readers could be friends, fellow novelists, or a professional editor. When fielding outside notes, pay careful heed to similar notes that come from different sources. If two or more people point out the same issue, it’s probably worth careful consideration. Also note the difference between diagnosing a problem and pitching a solution. Some readers might identify a flaw in a storyline or character arc, but then they pitch a fix that doesn’t resonate with you. Take their advice to whatever degree helps you execute your vision for the story. Ultimately it’s your novel.
10. Write Additional Drafts.
The truth is there’s no fixed number of drafts that will ensure a novel’s success. Some novels can reach the publication stage with only three drafts plus a light round of editing known as a “polish.” Others might go through a half-dozen drafts or more. Some drafts have more to do with cosmetic changes, like unifying your language or cutting down on word count. Others involve wholesale changes to the story itself. No two novels are alike, so prepare to encounter both challenges and triumphs that are unique to the specific novel you are working on.
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