How to Write a Novel in 5 Steps

Writing a novel requires dedication, organisation, and discipline. Once you have decided on an idea or story, use my guide to help you write your novel.

!. Choose a world in which you are happy to spend a lot of time because your novel will require you as the author, to immerse yourself for weeks, months, and even years in this world while you write your novel and your readers will immerse themselves in that specific world for the hours that they spend reading your book. Pick a setting and a time period that interests you and keeps you engaged. Also, find a story idea within this world you want to tell. Novels are more than just a series of settings and time periods. They must be driven by characters and 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.

2. The characters you create will tell your story. A novel can have the greatest premise in the world, but it won’t hold up unless you create characters your readers are willing to 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.

3. You need to choose the point of view from which you will tell your story. If you choose a first person point of view, the character in the story narrates the action, making frequent use of the pronoun “I.” First person narrators cannot describe scenes where they were not physically present. A first person point of view can considerably raise the emotional stakes of a novel.

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.

If you choose a third person narration, it may be either Third Person Limited which is a semi-omniscient form of narration that avoids the pronoun “I” and describes characters from a distance. However, in third person limited narration, the narrator is not all-knowing and does not share the inner thoughts of characters. Most of this narration is limited to provable objective fact. Alternatively, if you choose the Third Person Omniscient, 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.

4. When you are writing fiction you need to prepare an outline and this requires thorough structure and careful attention to detail. I suggest that you 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 is the first step in what’s known as the snowflake method will keep you accountable to a core story line. A well-composed novel can often be anchored around just one sentence and every other detail is an extension of that sentence.

Once that is done, 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.

When that is complete, look over your story road map and break the narrative into acts. The most common of these is a three-act structure anchored around the story elements you identified previously. Of course, 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 if you subdivide the draft into acts it will help you do this.

Only then will you begin to add 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.

Remember to 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. Always 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. At this point you will want to decide on your ending, although 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. It is so much easier to get to a satisfactory ending if you know what it is!

Good luck and happy writing!

Val Penny

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