The Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Novel

How does one eat an elephant? 

One bite at a time, said someone wise. He could very well have been talking of writing a novel – a huge project of several dimensions, best tackled methodically, each part at a time.

INTRODUCTION

So, are you a beginner writer who likes a structure that you can use while writing your novel? Or are you a writer who feels restricted by a planned plot and prefers to have a free-form idea of how to proceed? 

A  beginner attempting to write a novel should know that there is no one right way to go about it. Some writers gain confidence when they plot their magnum opus to the minutest detail. Others prefer to go where their imagination takes them, and not hold back until they edit their work later. Either method has its strengths and weaknesses.

Whichever way you choose to write your novel, the first draft is only a very rough image of your end product. It will need further work. This includes, for example, filling plot holes, cutting out extra characters or merging a few characters into one. You will also have to check that each scene serves its purpose. Even delete entire portions or add some. It’s a long list which is never the same for each author or even for each project, all in the novel’s best interest.


KNOWING YOUR GENRE

Before preparing to write, be aware of your genre because this has a bearing on the number of words in your book. Self-publishing School says the word count can vary from 45,000 to 90,000. That depends on the age-group and genre – memoir, self-help, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, mystery, horror, dystopian or contemporary. The word count is lower for young adult (60,000 to 90,000) and school grade (20,000-50,000) readers. It is best for a beginner novelist to keep within these general genre word counts. Why give the publisher a ready-made reason to reject the manuscript?

You might have read much lengthier books by veteran authors. Many of their works overstep this word limit, since their publishers have confidence in their readership and marketability. Ken Follett has been writing best-sellers since 1978. His Knightsbridge Trilogy has an average of 1045 pages, about 350 words per page. That’s 3,65,750 words per book. How’s that for a perspective?

WRITERS HAVE DIFFERENT APPROACHES TO STORY

Characters decide the story and it is the story that decides the appropriate story structure. It is not common for comedy or romance to be structured like a thriller, or horror like fantasy. There may be stories that blur the lines but as a beginner writer it is best to start out by keeping within the genre. Experiments will work better as you gain experience. At that stage your publisher also has more confidence that the book will sell.

Most writers are either Plotters or Pantsers depending on their writing method. The difference lies in that the writer

prefers to plot his novel before beginning 

OR

writes with only a general idea of the story. 

Neither method is wholly right or wrong – it’s a call the writer makes about which system to adopt.

Plotters approach the story with a plan on a chart. The chart traces the events of the story from beginning to end. It divides the story into scenes,  shows all the twists and turns in each scene, the actions and reactions of the characters. This chart is then the plot, the overall view of the story. Once the plot is in place, it is then simple to check if the story is progressing well or where the pace slackens. 

E.g. J.K. Rowling’s plot for some chapters of The Order of the Phoenix, available online. 

Despite how detailed a plotting exercise seems to be at first, it in fact , only gives a general roadmap. Neither is it restrictive in any way, nor does it have to be followed exactly. The irony is that a plot is actually quite liberating since it offers signposts to move the story along. The characters, as they often do, may take the story onto a different track. But knowing the scene ending helps the writer to return to the plot despite changes. This is a win-win situation. The writer can be creative in the details, and yet can keep a check that he has not deviated from the basic plot. 

Pantsers are writers who prefer to ‘fly by the seat of their pants’. They begin with a general idea of the various parts of the plot. Then they plan next steps as they go along with their writing. As Stephen King says in his book ‘On Writing’, [excerpt] “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

He continues, “…stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.”…

I rely more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. …I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safely – those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot – but to watch what happens and then write it down.

The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfeatured, to begin with – come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.


PLANNING FOR WRITING A NOVEL

The process of planning a novel begins long before writing the story scene by scene. The initial exercises are to develop the following –  

 

  • The Premise

  • The Story Structure

  • The Characters

The Basic Logline, the Premise and the Theme

The practice of writing a logline began in Hollywood.  Scriptwriters used them to pitch their movies scripts to producers. Loglines were then adopted by writers for their pitch to publishers.

A logline is a summary of one or two lines of what the story is about. It includes 

  • all important elements of the story 

  • the main characters

  • the conflict. 

E.g. -The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory – “Henry VIII of England has had his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled and he is in urgent need of a male heir. Mary Boleyn belongs to two esteemed families of the land. She is cynically pushed by them to catch the king’s attention so that they can prosper with his largesse. She begets the king’s illegitimate child. But now, her own sister Anne is her competitor for the king’s affections, again encouraged by the families.”

The logline, no matter how long, must answer these questions –

  • Who is the protagonist?

  • What is at stake?

  • What is their goal?

  • How will they achieve their goal?

  • What disasters will throw them off-track?

  • What is the opposition?

  • What is the basic conflict? Internal and external

  • What is the resolution?

The logline, by its very structure, is dry. It is the foundation for the premise, the subject, of the story. The components of the story premise are –

  • The setting, the world of the story
  • Character profiles to get to know the characters
  • Constructing your plot using the logline
  • Writing your scenes
  • Listing the moral grey areas
  • Central conflicts in the plot

When the premise is elaborated,  the theme, the meaning, of the story gets clarified in the author’s mind. E.g. The premise of the story is the dominance of the traditional man of the family. First, over his ostensibly compliant wife and later, over his children who don’t accept his patriarchy and resist, perhaps with humor. The theme here is the changing dynamics in a modern family.


THE NARRATIVE ARC

A narrative arc is a term used to describe the full story’s progression, referring to the shape and structure of the story. It is the backbone of a story as it adds layers to the plot and brings out the complexity of the scenes.

Visually, it invokes the picture of a story where the beginning is basically used to setup the scene, introduce the characters and the background. The middle is where the tension begins to develop, there is character conflict and the momentum of the narrative eventually leads to a peak. This is followed by an end which concludes all the conflicts and gives the story a closure. The ending needs to be satisfactory even when it is open ended.


STORY STRUCTURE

Once the premise is complete, next comes story structure. Story structure will allow for good pacing while adding beats to move the plot forward. For good storytelling, the plot is usually not a straight exposition of events. It sometimes moves forward, sometimes retreats, sometimes goes in a tangent towards a sub-plot, but always returns to the main thread of the story structure. (Some of the various types of storylines are discussed in the next section.)

The 3-acts Structure

This is amongst the oldest story structures in history. Aristotle is believed to have created it, and it is still in use for writing novels. 

The story line comprises three parts: 

  • The Set Up, 
  • The Confrontation and
  • The Resolution.

Within the Set Up is The Exposition, The Inciting Incident and Plot Point 1. 

The story is introduced in Exposition with the main characters in play. The reader gets a glimpse of their personalities, the location of the story and the background. 

Then comes the Inciting Incident, the one incident that gets the story moving. The character’s journey towards his goals begins here. It pushes him out of his current situation and kick starts a change in his life. Without this inciting incident there would be no story, so this phase is crucial to the novel. 

Plot Point 1 – This is the point in the story where the character is in the midst of the action that she thinks will help her achieve her goal. It sets the ball rolling, the story picks up pace. 

Yet, there are no rigid boundaries between the stages. Sometimes the Inciting Incident and the Plot Point 1 could be a seamless whole.

Confrontation is when the protagonist faces roadblocks and things begin to go wrong. The protagonist is suddenly thrown off-track, just when she thought her goal was in sight.

Plot Point 2 is where she resolves, after self-reflection, to push through to reach her goal in spite of obstacles. She now plans on ways to overcome hurdles. It is a moment of summoning grit, and resolving to not give up in the face of all odds.

Resolution pitches the protagonist and the antagonist against each other. Both have now gathered strength at various stages up to this point. They are worthy adversaries and the point of conflict is resolved in the climax.

The concept of the basic story structure, as detailed above, clarifies what goes into the makings of a story. However, the age-old storyline is not always a curve with a predictable trajectory. It has been reworked and modified in all sorts of ways down the ages by writers to inject pace, tension and satisfying endings.

Some of these modified structures are –  

The Fictean Curve

Image Source: Reedsy

In the 18th century the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (also one of the founders of the Berlin University) examined contemporary drama diagrammatically.  His theory on story structure is the basis for The Fictean Curve. The story starts with rising action from the very start. The action in related events rises and falls and rises again in quick succession. The tension about the quest increases with progressive complex plot twists. It reaches a climax at about the three-fourths stage of the novel. This is a popular structure for thrillers.

E.g. John Grisham’s ‘The Pelican Brief’

The Freytag Pyramid

Considered to be one of the oldest dramatic structures, this structure was developed by Gustav Fretag, a German author , in the 19th century. According to his theory, effective stories could be broken down into two parts called the play and the counter play with the climax forming the middle segment of the novel. The story reveals the climax half way through the novel. In simpler words, it is more of an after and before the ‘incident’ style of narrative. As Freytag puts it, “This middle, the climax of the play, is the most important place of the structure; the action rises to this; the action falls away from this.” This is a popular structure for tragedies.

E.g. ‘A & P’ by John Updike

The Hero’s Journey

Mythologist Joseph Campbell explained story design by using the age-old construct of the protagonist on a quest. The hero faces huge odds on his journey and yet overcomes all obstacles with great difficulty to triumph in the end, being transformed for the better in the process. This is another classic structure that has been used from the earliest stories told. 

E.g. The unnamed narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’.

In Medias Res

This method has been used in classical works such as the Mahabharata and the Iliad. In this structure, the story begins in the middle of the action and the reader is immediately in the thick of things. Character details and exposition of events appear later organically through dialogue or an explanation of the past, a flashback. It is an effective way to catch the reader’s attention and immerse her in the story from the very start.

E.g. The first line in Ken Follett’s novel ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ – “The small boys came early to the hanging.”


SCENE  

The building block of the story structure is the scene. In fact, a novel is nothing but a series of scenes driving the plot forward. The scene is a unit which contains within it the rising action, event and falling action. Each scene has a different structure depending on where it is placed  in the novel.

  • A scene can serve to introduce the plot via setting or a character or a new element in the story.
  • It can elaborate on plot points, lengthen tension or bring in a new element.
  • It can end the plot or serve to resolve differences between characters towards a happy ending or end the story with  suspense. 

Each scene has

  • scene goals (what must the scene achieve),
  • plot elements (introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution)  and
  • plot points (significant event).

Scene goals need not conclude within one scene although they are usually short-term. Scene goals can stretch over several scenes, with plot elements woven in, all adding to the fullness of the story. For example, take the girl on the boat overrun by pirates in the Straits of Malacca. She may have a short-term goal to attract the attention of patrol boats and have the pirates caught. But the plot could continue, with other events interspersed. Such as, one, a severe mid-sea storm and two, the pirate leader taking a fancy for our heroine, much to her disgust. Yet there are two concurrent plot points. One, the girl despairing that she would never be rescued and two, her disappointment when a big ocean liner passes a few kilometers from them, unaware of help needed. This keeps all aspects of the story on the boil, much like a real-life scenario. There need not be tidy timelines for one scene to end before another begins.

The purpose of a scene

The scene must do any one of the following. All these scenarios below move the story forward.  

  • Build Suspense
  • Introduce Characters
  • Develop Characters
  • Establish Mood
  • Establish Setting
  • Intensify Conflict
  • Move The Story Forward
  • Show Clues or Red Herrings

Tracking scene goals in the story arc will ensure that each story element within it.  is in sync with the purpose. The result is a tighter story which flows well, and one that does not confuse the reader by going in different directions.


CHARACTERS

Knowing the major characters and the important minor characters is essential for good storytelling. This is because the story progresses through their actions and reactions. ‘Knowing’ the characters means mapping out 

  • their personalities,

  • their back stories,

  • their strengths and weaknesses,

  • likes and dislikes,

  • mannerisms,

  • behaviourtics etc.

Writers need to dig deep for detailed information on major characters, tailored to the requirements of the story. There are many benefits of taking the time to create a character map. All the information in the character map may not (and should not) be used in the story. Once the character map is made, the writer will now know his character inside out. This intimate knowledge of the character will reflect in the writing and will go a long way in creating a complete character the reader will be invested in, until the end of the book. Such well drawn-out characters will act true to their personalities as the story unfolds. The writer then never needs to second-guess if the character is behaving integral to his character. The better the writer knows a character, the more authentic the story. Both the protagonist and the antagonist become believable and three-dimensional. Their strengths and flaws come into play very naturally as the story progresses.

(Sacha Black’s 10 Steps to Hero and 13 Steps to Evil are good resources.)

Characters in a well-plotted story do not remain static from the start to the end. They change, mostly for the better, as the story progresses just as people actually do in the course of their lives. The Character Arc is a fundamental tool to track changes in the personality and behaviour of characters. It keeps pace with the story arc, leading to believable characters. 

In her book ‘Getting into Character’, Brandilyn Collins gives importance to ‘getting to know the core values that drive the character’s actions and desires’. When the story highlights two opposing personalities, it contrasts their behaviours only by showing, and not by telling. Showing two characters with opposite or differing values increases tension, making for a good story.

Once Premise, Story Structure and Characters are mapped, it is time to write the outline.


OUTLINE

The skeleton of the novel is necessary to write a good first draft. The outline can be a very rudimentary one-page document or it can be the most elaborate mind map, with all sorts of additional information to drive a plot. Again, outlining is a very individual process – as varied as the writers. There is no one ‘correct’ method.

Four popular methods of outlining are 

Synopsis outlining

The writer creates a one or two page synopsis of the plot. It has all the major action with start, middle, end, plot points, twists and resolution. It does not go into details. The writer then has the freedom to write the story within the boundaries of this outline. It offers a good balance between a) having structure and b) the freedom to explore plot and characters. 

In Depth outlining

This is a more detailed outlining method. It tracks timeline, scene, character, main and sub plots, chapter summaries, each scene in each chapter. 

Snowflake method

This method ‘to design a novel’ step by step is by Randy Ingermanson. The story grows with each step, like a snowflake does. The ten-steps method is a process that starts as a single sentence about the book as the first step and ends with a first rough draft at the tenth step. The steps are as below –

  1. A one sentence summary of the novel. 
  2. The sentence is then expanded to a structure of 4 sentences, 1 sentence each about the 3 acts plus the ending. Hence each sentence is the outline of a quarter of the book. Together this is the summary.
  3. A similar exercise is done for each of the important characters. It results in a one page summary detailing their storyline, motivation, goal, conflict and learning.
  4. Each sentence of the summary is expanded to a page length plot and revised continuously. 
  5. Next is a one page description of each major character and a smaller one for the minor ones.
  6. Next is to expand the one page plot to a four page synopsis. 
  7. Next come full fledged character descriptions, a very important step, since good fiction is driven by characters.
  8. Use the four page synopsis to make a list of scenes in a spreadsheet. 
  9. Make a narrative summary of each scene. Include dialogue and conflict. If there is no conflict, the scene is redundant and must be removed. The result is what Ingermanson calls a Design Document. It is open to change as the writing of the novel progresses.
  10. Write the first rough draft of your novel.

Bookend method

This tracks the growth of the character over the course of the story. It is a powerful method and brings the character up-close-and-personal to the reader. 

The start of an anecdote, which is left open-ended, is the opening to a longer narration. Once this longer narration has ended, the first anecdote is now resolved. This brings the piece to a close. Thus, the reader is reminded of the first episode as well as the subsequent growth of the characters. The first anecdote serves as the bookends of the larger narration, hence the name of this method. It works best with writers who are sure of the exposition and resolution of their story.


LANGUAGE  

This is the nuts and bolts of your writing. It is a means to

  • narrate your story,

  • convey the mood you wish to evoke,

  • make your descriptions vivid and

  • have your characters come alive on the page with narration, speech style, choice of words, mannerisms and inflections.

Language also indicates the education of a character, the place he comes from along with his personality. (Does he swear in every sentence? Is his grammar terrible, or is it textbookish and very formal? Does he stammer or hem and haw? Does he use verbal tics such as ‘Know what I mean?’, ‘Like I always say’?).

E.g. Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot in The Big Four. When asked how he arrives at the solution to murders, he says, “Hercule Poirot’s methods are his own. Order and method, and ‘the little gray cells’.” 

The character Poirot usually speaks of himself in the third person. His speech has many French phrases, showing his foreign origins. His identity shows in his speech with his extravagant politeness and polish. This matches his persona of neatness,  precision and tremendous attention to detail. All befitting a good detective.

Language and pace of the narration communicate the tone of the story. Is it the suspense in a thriller? A sense of the vastness of time in historical fiction? Fear and morbidity in a murder mystery? Awe and a thrill for the unknown, a sense of adventure in a space adventure? 

Author PG Wodehouse is considered a master of the English language and the comic turn of phrase. One of his well-known themes is the English upper-class and their foibles at the turn of the twentieth century. Here is a sample from ‘Right ho, Jeeves’ – 

“It isn’t often that Aunt Dahlia lets her angry passions rise, but when she does, strong men climb trees and pull them up after them.”

The narrator is Aunt Dahlia’s good-natured but incompetent nephew Bertie Wooster. He sounds erudite because he is wealthy enough to go to the best universities to study. This sentence shows so much with no telling. In spite of Wooster’s light-heartedness about his formidable aunt and his amusing choice of words, we now know he would not care to cross her.


PERSON 

Most books are written in the third person. This gives a long perspective of the story.  The actions and thoughts of characters are obvious.

Third person omnipresent and third person limited are two variants of the third person voice. The first one is usually God, time, Universe or something similarly omnipresent narrate the story. This usually highlights everything about every character in every situation. While the latter, could be a friend or a mutual bystander who is narrating a story but has limited information and can be biased towards a particular character because of their close affinity to them. 

Narratives in the second person are rare but do exist.

The first person narration is a less popular choice than the third person, but there are several examples in popular fiction. 

Multiple first person narratives are also used to narrate a story from different point of views by using various characters of the story and their versions.

The Mission Song by John le Carré is in the first person, present tense. The story is completely from the point-of-view of the narrator, the protagonist. In the first person narration the protagonist can only talk of his version of the past and present events. It completely eliminates the Point Of View of other characters. The reader knows their feelings only via the protagonist’s interpretation of them.

However, the first person narrative gives a close insight into the narrator’s state of mind and personality like none other. His point of view comes with its own baggage which influences the story. In The Mission Song, within the first chapter, le Carré establishes several facets of his characters. He shows the narrator’s opinion of them. His soon-to-be ex wife is posh, is a high-flying journalist, her father is a senior partner in a law firm and her mother is important in a political party. He, on the other hand, is the son of a white missionary and a local village woman in the Congo. With these descriptions the narrator makes obvious the social chasm that separates him and his wife. It needs no further explanation.

Self-created resources the Story Bible and the Character Bible are invaluable aids in writing a novel. 

THE STORY BIBLE is a resource used extensively for writing scripts of TV series. Several major and minor character arcs, and story arcs have to be  tracked over episodes. The Story Bible has since been adapted for novel writing too. There are many moving parts that go into writing a novel. It is impossible to mentally keep track of several important aspects. The Story Bible tracks –

  • the  overall story arc,
  • scenes in each chapter,
  • aims of each character, the plot etc.

It prevents mistakes or inconsistencies from creeping into plot points or character arcs. It is especially helpful in lengthy works.

THE CHARACTER BIBLE keeps track of characters. It lists all characters, both major and minor. It details

  • their physical characteristics,
  • their personalities,
  • their arcs,
  • background information,
  • behaviour tics,
  • everything that goes towards bringing characters alive on the page and not be reduced to stereotypes.


SOCIAL MEDIA AND ITS IMPORTANCE 

A big change in publishing in the past few years is Social Media. The ways in which writers can leverage Social Media to build awareness of their brand and books has boomed. Author websites are an essential part of a writer’s media kit today.

Writers are completely in-charge of building and increasing awareness of their novel among readers. Gone are the days when the writer signed off on the final edits, and sat back. Writers have to do most of the vital work of building anticipation for the book, maintaining reader interest and working on publicity. Social media is invaluable for this. Creating awareness is a continuous effort. 

The writer has to build a relationship with readers who will form a ready initial market for any of the author’s books. Social media campaigns by the author supplement it. Only advertisements for an author’s latest book are generally not perceived to be good value for money. Word-of-mouth publicity in online readers’ forums, a good web presence of the writer, an up-to-date database of readers – these are some of the ways social media is being leveraged for book awareness and sales.  

Today the writer is expected to have a functional web presence, with a website at the bare minimum. An active social media account would also be a huge plus. Publishers take into account the number of followers the writer’s website and social media platforms have when assessing a new writer. This is important for publishers since it means the writer’s name, genre and writing style is already known to target readers and he is not a complete newcomer. The publisher does not then have the uphill battle to publicise an author who has no name or recognition.

However, engagement is the key here for the writer. The number of followers and the likes on any social media profile might look impressive to begin with, but they seldom fetch results. It is the interaction with the readers /audiences that leads to forming a bond with them. That bond, further helps in getting numbers-driven results. In a world where the difference between fake and real is shrinking rapidly, the only way to stand out is to stay engaged with the readers and build a rapport.

Writers use their websites to maximise publicity for their book. They put up tantalizing excerpts of the story, photographs and sketches, some information on location research, elaborate family trees of the characters . They publicize their book tour and signing schedule, offer coaching on writing – sky is the limit. Nora Roberts the mega successful romance writer has been tremendously successful at this.

Social storytelling platform Wattpad enables writers to upload chapters or entire stories, elicit reader response, modify their stories if needed and build up a following due to close interaction with their fan base. Successful authors have had the opportunity of being published because of the popularity of their work and their story being adapted to film. 

So there you have it, some of the tried and tested processes of writing a novel that are popular today. This beginner’s guide gives you an overview to ease you into the process. As you start your writing journey , make a decision and adapt the method that best suits you and your working style. Remember, your way is the right way for you.

Are you ready to eat that elephant yet?


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