How to Write a Novel
There is no single, right way to go about writing a novel. You could start on a whim with sudden story inspiration, or with very meticulous storyboarding and planning. But deciding to write a novel definitely comes with having to be prepared to set time and energy aside to conceive your story idea fully, devise the plot, go through multiple revisions, rewrite, compile and format, and get through the processes of publishing it.
There is undoubtedly many iterations of revisions that go into writing, no matter the genre of your novel. Working on a novel can be equally intimidating as it is exciting. And while it may feel like a gargantuan task, pacing and planning will ease the pressures of the writing process.
Although novels come in multiple varying formats, structures, and story types, they mostly follow a generic flow and structure. What are the elements of a compelling and engaging story, and how do you go about piecing the puzzle together?
Elements of a Novel
Novels contain the following elements :
- Central Plot - The plot is a roadmap that guides you from point A to Point B in your novel. This roadmap may not be linear, and can pass through multiple points in an intersecting manner. The central plot can also manifest as a result of major shifts in characters, their circumstances, or rising or falling stakes.
- Story-setting or world-building - The world that your story is being realized in provides the backdrop for your writers' imagination. The setting that you create feeds not only into their reading experience, but also their physical, emotional, mental, and historical imagination of your story. Apart from building the reading atmosphere for your readers, the setting can also put across important information about various key plot points or your characters.
- Style - The style of your writing, or the type of language that you choose to use, plays a part in determining your readers' experience. This style depends on your genre, story type, time period, the nature of your plot and conflict, and the setting that you construct. Referring to the technicalities of your writing, such as sentence structure, grammar, vocabulary, style is the nuts and bolts of the writing that addresses your readers.
- Tone- Tone is a little less technical compared to style. While style is the building blocks of language, tone is the attitude that the writer adopts while maneuvering their novel's subject matter or their audience. The tone of writing can be informal, colloquial, academic, friendly, humorous, ominous, and so on. The tone you adopt has an effect on how your readers receive and perceive your story and it's message. An inappropriate tone can warp or misconstrue your message.
- Themes - Themes are the underpinning ideas that writers explore in and through their stories. A literary theme can be the book's core subject matter or can manifest as an overall message within the novel's overarching story. These themes can be explored, challenged, debunked through through characters, dialogue, conflict unfolding, and how the story culminates.
- Point of View - The chosen narrative POV of a novel is the voice through which the story is told. This POV is dependent upon who exactly is telling the story, and who they are telling it to. Apart from this chosen POV running throughout your story, it is also the lens through which your readers internalize your story. A first-person POV would tell the story as though they are a participant, while a third-person narrative voice would tell the story from an outsider perspective.
- Characters - The characters you create are the fictional personas that your readers follow through your story. Through the story, we are taken on a journey of their changes and challenges. To get readers to grow an attachment for characters, they ought to be multi-dimensional and not built upon stereotypes or clichés. Even with an interesting premise, a flat character can turn a reader off immediately.
- Dialogues - An important vehicle of character development and crucial story development, dialogue refers to the conversation being presented in spoken manner on the page. This can be spoken between two or amongst more characters. Good, convincing, verbal communication draws readers into the world that you have built and maintains their engagement throughout the story.
Structure of a Novel
The general 5-part structure of a novel includes :
- Exposition or introduction
- Rising action
- Climax point
- Falling action
This generic structure may come across as limiting or rigid. But novel structure can diverge from this, and follow a more loose structure, as long as reflects beginning, middle and end.
Steps to writing a Novel
1. Conduct research
Even though your novel is fictional, the elements of your story; be it the characters, their traits, the plot, or your book's central message, can be rooted in or inspired by real events, people that you have met or read about, and places you've been. Reading up and making notes of all that inspires you or may influence the elements of your novel is key to starting this process off well. Your research can take the form of character sketches, having conversations with people, and taking photographs of places or things that spark inspiration.
Make sure to read other books and works that fall within the same genre or similar tone and style. Having a good grasp of what is already out there can help you decide what direction you would like to take your novel, and also help you understand what you don't want to do as well.
2. Decide the genre and larger message
Take time to generate a few different ideas that interest you that you would eventually pick from. Before diving into the more finite details such as central plot or individual character profiles, decide the genre you want to work on and the larger message you would like to out across through your story.
Thinking about your novel and it in a macro-perspective first; the genre, broader themes, and central message, makes sure you're starting off on the right foot and cements your intentions with this story of yours and guides your overall story. Stressing about the finer details in the early stages of your building your novel might cause stress and pressure that can cause unnecessary panic or a writer's block.
You could free-write and make rough brainstorming notes to organize your thoughts a little better during this stage. But they need not be cohesive or fully ironed out.
Once you've decided upon the larger picture of your novel and gathered your thoughts about the direction, you can dive into ironing out more finer details that will guide your writing.
You can plan your novel in multiple ways. Some ways you can go about it include :
- Bullet-point notes - You can start off with bullet-point notes and expand upon them as you move along your planning process.
- Mind-maps - Feed your bullet-points into a larger mind-map. A mind-map allows you to see where your story points can intersect and where they are connected.
- Plotting a timeline - Having a brief timeline and plotting the series of events that unfold in your novel will allow you to zoom into different points at different parts of your writing process easily. Keep this timeline as a reference throughout your writing process that you can go back to anytime.
- Treatment - A truncated version of your novel that has some detail about your plot, touching on important plot points.
- Index cards to arrange scenes - You can use index cards to develop individual scenes and lay them out. This gives you a more clearer picture of the sequence of events in your novel and details of each scene.
In the midst of or after planning, you can also consider coming up with a one-sentence summary of your book. You can come back to this to fine-tune it after completing your novel, but this would be a good stage to think about this sentence and crafting it as a prominent selling feature of your novel when taking it to agents or publishers.
4. Develop your characters
You can now pay attention to arguably a very important aspect of your novel; the characters. For both your primary and secondary characters, work on a character profile that could include the following details :
- Their name, age, gender
- Background details that will feed into their character type : Occupation, background, living conditions, familial ties etc.
- Where and when they fit into your storyline
- Their end-goal and their motivations for this goal
- What facilitates them achieving this goal
- The obstacles in their way from achieving this goal
- Their role in a possible central conflict
- Their moments of epiphany or realization in your story
- A general character arc
Each character profile can come up to a page. Revising and revisiting remains a common aspect of the novel-writing process. So as you move along your planning process, more details about this character's personality traits or physical attributes can be added.
5. Develop your conflict point
Conflicts usually start unfolding after the main characters of your novel have been introduced and established. Conflicts can also be introduced either significantly before or past the half-way mark of your story, depending on what you want guiding your story's direction. No matter where, fleshing out details about a clear, poignant conflict will serve as a formidable anchor for your novel's plot.
Depending on what your story and it's genre needs, you can explore character vs character, character vs nature, or internal or mental struggle conflicts. Tension and conflict also rises greatly when there are obstacles in the way of your characters or main protagonist getting what they want or reaching their end goal.
6. Choose a structure
As mentioned, there is no one fixed structure that novels should follow. Structure can vary depending on the genre and the major plot points of a novel. There are multiple models you can adopt to develop and structure your narrative. Some writers follow a 3-part structure (exposition, mid-point, pre-climax and climax), while others follow a 5-part structure (Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution).
Choosing a structure heavily depends on your main characters' arcs, your narrative point-of-view (3rd person POV allows for more flexibility, while 1st person POV requires more linearity and chronology). There are pros and cons to choosing a more linear, pre-determined structure or choosing a more fluid, circuitous structure. Writing tools such as using flashbacks or dialogues can also help you break whatever structure you are writing with momentarily.
If you are unable to decide a structure, you could use creative writing techniques such as the snowflake method to develop a more organic and curated structure for your novel. Developed by author Randy Ingermanson, the snowflake method starts off with you building a single sentence that encompasses your premise, then expanding upon that into longer paragraphs that outlines your premise even further and your conflict point, developing individual summaries and then profiles, and finally merging your paragraphs and character summaries into a the synopsis of your novel. Through this, a more organic and individualized structure will surface.
7. Write your first draft
With all the necessary details and feeding information needed, dive into your first draft.
Keep in mind that you will be going back in into your writing for multiple revisions. Avoid dwelling on the nitty-gritty details of your first draft. If you set you set your expectations high for your very first draft, this pressure may cause you to struggle getting past this stage. It need not be a polished manuscript. Your first draft will look and feel drastically different from first version of the novel that everyone will get to see.
Treat your first draft as a skeleton; a version of your story that you can build upon and layer in the following stages of writing, polishing and revising.
Working on a novel can be equally intimidating as it is exciting. Initially, it may feel like a gargantuan task, but pacing and planning will ease the pressures of the writing process. Plan, pace, plot and pen your story in accordance to your own timeline and the rest will fall in place.