Ask a random person on the street what their biggest unfulfilled dream is, and odds are they will say: I want to write a novel.
By some measures, between 81-90% of people aspire to write a book someday!
But why someday?
Why aren’t all of these folks writing a novel right now?
Why Most People Never Start Writing
There’s a lot of reasons why you might not take the plunge and start writing the novel that’s been spinning in your head for months or even years.
You might think you don’t have the time; you might not have been the best student in English class; you might be afraid of what your friends and family will think.
But if you have the passion and drive to write, you should!
Everyone can learn the skills they need to become a better writer, entertain their audience, and write the very best novel they have within them.
And, with the publishing revolution of the past few years, anyone who’s willing to put in some time and effort can find a path to publishing that novel!
It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a writer!
The trick is, you have to actually get started.
With that in mind, we’ve created a guide to writing your novel that can help you get going and remove the barriers to achieving your dream of becoming a professional author and novelist!
Ready? Let’s go!
What Is a Novel?
Let’s start at the very beginning: what is a novel, anyway?
A novel, strictly speaking, is a lengthy work of fiction. Depending on what genre you’re writing in, a novel might range anywhere from 40,000 to 125,000 words—that’s 160 to 500 pages. Obviously, there are novels that are shorter or longer than this, but that’s about the average.
Beyond that, the only real guideline is that a novel is fiction—it’s made up in some way. Nonfiction works have their own unique sets of guidelines and criteria, and are written using different techniques and concepts. Check out this article to learn how to write nonfiction.
You can write in a huge variety of genres—science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, contemporary fiction, romance, thriller, mystery, horror, suspense, paranormal, magical realism, Western, historical fiction, YA, middle grade, gothic, Southern, and so many more—or you can combine genres. You can even create your very own cross-genre or genre-bending category!
That’s the awesome thing about fiction: the only limits are your imagination.
But this can also be a little intimidating. With so many options, how do you figure out what to write about and how to start your novel?
This guide is here to help!
Plotting vs. Pantsing
Before we really get going, a word about writing style and structure.
You may have heard about “plotters” vs. “pantsers”—different styles of writing based on whether you prefer to plan things out or improvise.
And you might think that this guide to writing a novel only applies to “plotters,” writers who prefer to plan everything out in advance. But really, the best “pantsers”—writers who improvise as they go—also use some basic planning techniques to help them write better and faster.
There’s room for improv, creativity, and development in even the most tightly plotted novel. As you write, situations will develop in ways you never expected and you’ll have to adapt. When things are really going well, your characters will come to life and demand to do things in ways you didn’t anticipate when you started the book!
That’s where the fine balance between plotting and pantsing comes in.
The best novelists use a little of each technique, changing that balance based on their own personal style and the needs of the novel they’re writing.
So a plotter will let characters develop and change over the course of their carefully outlined book, while pantsers might use a very broad outline just to map out the main points they need to cover to ensure they have a satisfying climax and conclusion.
No matter what your preferred style—outlining everything down to the last detail in advance or letting the story unfold organically—there are a few key steps every novelist has to take in order to write a great book.
Let’s look at them in more depth.
Elements of a Novel
If you’re thinking about writing a novel, odds are you already know what you want to write about in some way—you have a character nudging at the back of your mind that won’t leave you alone, or you’ve come up with an idea for an amazing imaginary world, or you’ve got this fantastic idea for a thrilling adventure.
That right there is your starting place. You don’t need to have every element of the story established before you begin—it’s enough to have one element that has grabbed you and won’t let you go.
We’ll work out the other elements as you go along!
What are those elements?
- World or Setting
You can boil these down to four main areas:
- Story Arc
We’ll dive into each of these in detail in this guide!
1. Develop a Concept
The underlying idea that your novel is built on is your concept.
This is where everything else comes from.
What do you want to convey to readers through your novel? What themes do you want to tackle? What’s your goal in writing this book?
Your answers to these questions will shape your novel throughout the process, so it’s worth thinking them through at the very beginning.
You probably already have a reasonably solid concept for your novel. Maybe you want to write an inspiring tale of romance that redeems its characters and reaffirms readers’ faith in love. Maybe you want to sweep readers into a thrilling tale of political intrigue that leaves them asking questions about the current state of affairs in the world. Maybe you just want to give them an escape to a magical world where dragons serve tea every day at four.
All of these are great novel concepts!
Take a few minutes to think about what you want to do with your novel—inspire, educate, entertain, provoke, escape—and how you might best be able to do that with your writing. Jot down a few of those themes and goals and use them to help guide you through the writing process.
What tone do you want to take? Serious, funny, provocative, informative, uplifting…? Find the voice that speaks to you and your goals for this novel and its readers.
With a basic concept, tone, and voice in mind, you can dig into the really fun stuff!
2. Create Your Characters
Who does your story revolve around?
Characters are key to any novel—a series of descriptions of places or events that don’t feature any actual people (or trolls, or talking dogs, or hyper-intelligent plants, or…you get the picture) just won’t engage your readers.
People are social creatures; we like to think about, talk about, and engage with other people.
So the cornerstone of any great novel is great characters.
Great characters, mind you, aren’t perfect people—in fact, the best characters are inherently flawed.
Absolutely perfect characters are often referred to as “Mary Sues” and “Gary Stus”—you know the type, with perfect hair, sparkling eyes (often an unusual color), and they’re very relatable but incredibly popular and beloved by everyone who meets them.
They’re also boring as heck, and usually a beginning author’s attempt to either create a likeable main character or live out some wish fulfillment of their ideal self.
In reality, we all have our faults and flaws, and the most engaging characters also show these traits. Maybe your hero has a bad habit of talking over other people. Maybe your heroine is impatient and easily frustrated. Maybe one character picks his nose, or always leaves the toilet seat up.
Flaws, quirks, bad habits, and foibles all make your characters more believable, and make it easier for your readers to relate.
Avoiding perfection goes for your antagonists and villains, too—no villain is ever perfectly evil. Remember, “We’re all the hero of our own story.” So perhaps your dastardly evildoer, who’s always trying to thwart your hero, also visits her elderly grandmother every week with homemade soup.
The more human and relatable your characters are, with a full store of good and bad qualities that come out in the course of the novel, the more engaged your readers will be, because they’ll see some of themselves or someone they recognize in your characters.
Make Them Individuals
Another key to building great characters is to make them individuals. This goes along with the flaws and quirks—every character should be instantly recognizable as a unique person.
Every person has a motivation—a reason for doing what they do. Some are after power; some want recognition. Others want to be helpful, or fit in with a group, or achieve some particular goal.
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Every character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water.”
What do your characters want? Give them individual motives and desires and allow that to shape who and what they become in the course of your story.
Part of being an individual is also being recognizable. That means your characters shouldn’t all sound the same—they should have slightly different speech patterns or ways of talking in dialogue.
Now, I don’t mean that everyone has to have a specific accent or a catchphrase!
Instead, I mean that you should be able to tell which character is speaking, in a general sense, without having to add “…said Daniel” or “…said Lucy” after every quote.
For instance, one of your characters might have a quirk of speaking in very short, choppy sentences: “So let’s do it. Time is wasting. C’mon!”
That works for him…but if every character uses fragments like this, it’ll quickly get confusing (and possibly boring) for your reader.
So another character might be more soft-spoken and wordy: “Well, okay. I suppose we do need to get going…if the clock runs out, we’ll all be in much bigger trouble than we are now.”
Let Them Grow
Part of being human is learning and growing. Once again, this also applies to your characters.
A character that stays the same through your whole novel is boring—why are they there? If it’s just a background character, that’s fine, but a character that gets significant “screen time” should change in some way over the course of the story, whether for better or worse.
Give your character a purpose within your story—this could be anything from supporting the main character’s adventures to getting in the way to giving them a key push along their path—and see where that takes them. How does fulfilling this role change them? Show snippets of that, and you’ll be well on your way to creating unforgettable characters.
Take a look at your favorite novels and see how other authors have done this, especially with secondary or even less prominent characters.
A great example is in the work of JK Rowling. Think of how many characters are introduced over the course of the series…and how those characters change and develop, adding nuance and really coming to live. There’s a reason so much fanfiction is written in the Harry Potter universe: the characters seem so lifelike and fully realized that people want to explore them more!
Strive for that kind of depth in your own characters.
Tips for Character Creation
With these guidelines in mind, you can start shaping the characters for your novel.
Make Character Profiles
Think about making a spreadsheet or Word document for each character, or, if you’re more visual, create an inspiration board or Pinterest board with imagery and quotes that relates to your mental image of your character.
Try out different names, jot down character traits (handsome but with a squint, loyal, easily frustrated, etc.), and keep tabs on how the characters relate.
You can do this for even minor characters so that you as the author have a really complete sense of how your characters come together. I’ve seen some authors who build complete profiles, almost like covert intelligence dossiers or the dreaded “school permanent record,” for dozens of characters, some of whom only appear for three paragraphs!
That might be a little overkill, but it also means you can ensure that the characters all speak and act consistently—especially important if you plan to write a series, where a minor character from Book 1 might suddenly become an important key player in Book 5!
Borrow from Life
Art imitates life, and you should feel free to borrow character traits, speaking patterns, foibles and flaws, and more from people you know or interact with in real life.
It’s probably not a great idea to drop your boss right smack into your horror novel as Murder Victim #1, complete with the same name, personality, and job title, but you can borrow elements of people you know to help create more realistic characters.
This tip also applies when writing dialogue: you want your characters to speak like real people do, not sound stiff or forced, and so borrowing speech patterns from conversations you hear around you every day (complete with contractions, slang, and other “improper” language elements) can help make your novel even more engaging.
For more on picking up great dialogue from everyday life, check out this article on the art of eavesdropping!
Keep Your Reader in Mind
At every part of the writing process, it’s best to keep your reader in mind. This is even true of developing characters for fiction.
Think back to your concept and goals for the novel, and make sure your characters line up with what your readers will expect.
If you’re writing an uplifting clean romance, for instance, you probably won’t want to have a foul-mouthed character that’s always swearing and engaging in illicit behavior. You could, instead, have a secondary character who sometimes does some of these things to act as a counterpoint to the good behavior of your main character—but you don’t want to turn your readers off by adding a character that goes completely counter to the values you’ve established.
Similarly, you’ll want to keep in mind your reader’s comfort. In fantasy and sci-fi, in particular, writers have a tendency to spend so much time thinking about how to make things seem different from our mundane world that they forget their readers’ comfort levels.
That’s where we end up getting completely unpronounceable (and unspellable) names that readers can barely remember. Sure, it might seem like a good idea to name the protagonist of your sci-fi novel Tahsi’Qxksbiargh and your antagonist Psdl’asBsld’nk, with trusty sidekick Pekd-andaikcb along for the ride, but will your readers be able to remember those names, or will they confuse the antagonist and the sidekick? Or even just give up because the names are so distracting?
Avoid Excess Description
Once you’ve profiled your characters, figured out how they’ll appear, and made sure that they’ll engage your readers, you’re all set, right?
Because you have such a vivid picture of your characters in mind, it’s tempting to share all that information in your novel right away.
Jacob dangled his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame out the window, reaching his tanned arm down to make a grab for Susan’s slender wrist. His sandy brown hair flopped into his green-flecked eyes and over his freckled, slightly crooked nose just above full lips. He grunted with the effort, his baritone voice echoing into the alleyway.
While this isn’t explicitly bad writing, it’s also not great—it describes, in varying amounts of detail, exactly what the character looks like in one fell swoop. Do we really need to know his exact height and weight, or can that come out later with descriptions like “tall” or “muscular”?
Paint a picture of your characters for your readers, but allow them to fill in some of the details for themselves. By doing so, you’re enabling your readers to connect with the characters on a deeper level, forming an intimate picture in their mind that they helped to create. This is much more powerful than simply telling your reader what to picture.
3. Build Your Setting
While characters are the key for creating a truly engaging, memorable novel, the setting isn’t far behind.
Our environments shape how we act, what we think, what we focus on, and what we value. In the case of speculative fiction, in particular, the environment or setting can almost become a character in its own right—strange science-fiction or fantasy worlds are full of intricate detail and unusual elements that make them incredibly challenging (and rewarding) to create.
Historical settings, too, can become virtual characters of their own, loaded with details and nuances that astute readers will appreciate.
Worldbuilding, as the creation of a setting is known, can be one of the most fun parts of writing a novel. But it can also be a little overwhelming—sometimes, in fact, authors get stuck on building the world and never move on to actually writing the story!
Here’s a few ways to get started with creating the setting for your novel.
Engage the Senses
Most of us use five senses to experience the world; your writing should allow readers to use all of their senses to imagine the world you’re creating.
A truly vivid setting will hook into every part of a reader’s imaginative power. You can start by describing what the world looks like, but branch out from there. Tell us what it smells like, what a character hears as they’re strolling along, what the air feels like on their skin, whether a surface is rough or smooth or slimy.
Challenge yourself to slip in vivid imagery that evokes all the senses whenever you write a scene. Not every scene needs to use all five senses, but you can create a much more immersive experience for your readers if you pull in descriptions of touch, scent, sound, and even taste in addition to simply sight.
Use Experiences to Reveal the World
The old principle “show, don’t tell” is key here. Much like with creating characters, building a world is all about finding a balance between giving too much description and too little.
When in doubt, don’t tell the reader everything about the setting—drop in little hints as you go, such as what a character sees out of the corner of her eye or what another smells as he rounds a corner. Let us experience the world through your characters rather than explicitly telling us what to imagine.
Tips for Worldbuilding
Treat Settings Like Characters
Remember all those tips for how to build great characters?
They apply to your setting, too!
You may want to consider making a spreadsheet, Word doc profile, or visual inspiration board for your setting. This is especially helpful when creating a sf/f setting or working in a historical context—having a way to organize your research and setting development can ensure that you keep everything straight and have it ready to access when you need to refer to it during the writing process.
It’s also important to make sure that your settings are unique enough that your reader can identify them—it’s confusing and a bit boring if everything is set in the same generic courtyard or sterile room (unless, of course, that’s part of the plot!).
And keep in mind your reader’s comfort—are the names of your places relatively easy to pronounce and remember? Are they too similar in terms of spelling or sound? Do they echo a real place unintentionally? For instance, naming a fantasy kingdom Perth might irritate someone from Australia or Scotland, where there are real cities called Perth.
Smooth over Your Research
While it’s admirable to do great background work in creating your setting, putting so much care and attention into the details of your world can also backfire when you start writing.
Many authors have a tendency to “show their work,” especially in sf/f and historical novels. They’ve worked hard to create a vivid setting and they want to show that off!
This creeps into their writing in the form of lengthy paragraphs of detailed background research in historical novels, noting the exact style of the plasterwork or the date a certain light fixture was first introduced.
In sf/f novels, you see it in the form of long asides on the epic history of the world, details on a specific plant or animal that appeared in the background, or extended descriptions of cultural practices.
For the most part, these long descriptions don’t add to the story—they explain background elements that the author has worked hard to learn or create, but they don’t advance the plot, help a character’s growth, or otherwise add to the reading experience.
Smooth over your research and background wherever you can. Ask yourself every time you’re tempted to put in background information: Is this really necessary? How does it move the plot forward?
4. Shape the Story Arc
You’ll often hear about the “three-act structure” or the “narrative arc” when discussing how to write fiction.
But what do these really mean?
A story arc is the overall shape of your novel. It refers to the rising and falling of tension or emotion, and to the development and successful conclusion of your plot.
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that “A whole should have a beginning, middle and an end.” This is definitely true of your novel!
That said, the beginning of your novel doesn’t have to be the beginning of the story. It can be very effective to pick up the action in the middle of things, a technique called in medias res.
Basically, you jump straight into the action, immediately making your readers want to know what happened to get to this point, and where things are going from here.
That brings us into the overall structure of a good novel. These elements are often called different things by different people, but engaging stories always contain each of these elements to some degree:
Some common story arcs leave out one or more of these elements, and some common arcs handle them in slightly different ways—for instance, the resolution doesn’t always have to be happy (a satisfying end to a novel might be a sad one), and so you might not have the “overcoming” phase in that sad story.
The exact pattern of your story arc will depend on your novel concept, your plot, and what you want to accomplish with your story. But at the very least, you should include:
- Conflict and Tension
Let’s look at each element.
The hook is the first thing your reader will see. It’s the opening of your novel, the “can’t put it down” intro that makes them just have to keep reading.
This may be the most important bit of the book, because it will determine whether your readers keep reading.
This is why the in medias res technique is so powerful. When you start in the middle of the action, a reader’s instinct is to want to know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and where it’s going to go from here.
You don’t have to open every novel with a slam-bang action scene, though. Your hook can be more character-driven, too—you can drop us into a moment in the daily life of your main character that gives us a glimpse into who they are as a person, thus hooking us to want to know more about them.
Conflict and Tension
A story that doesn’t go anywhere isn’t very satisfying, and it’s certainly not a lot of fun to read.
A great story, in contrast, is one where stuff happens. Characters go off on an adventure—or go on a spiritual or personal journey within themselves while seemingly staying put in their lives. The key is that there’s movement of some sort, whether that’s character growth or actual journeys.
There are tons of different ways to approach conflict and tension in your novel.
You might be penning a more literary work where the conflict is internal: the main character is struggling with some great question and has to find her way to clarity and growth.
Or you might be writing an epic space adventure where the conflict is between two sprawling intergalactic empires, both seeking interstellar dominance.
Maybe it’s something in between, where the conflict is between two people, perhaps a gruff rancher and the beautiful real estate developer who wants to put condos next door.
Clearly, there’s room for conflict and tension at every level, and every scope.
Raising the Stakes
The trick here is that your conflict and tension should ratchet up over the course of your story arc.
Start off with a hint of that conflict right at the beginning, so we know something interesting is going to happen.
Add a little more tension, then a little more, raising the stakes as you go.
Wind things tighter until you stick your characters in a really hard spot that they have to figure their way out of.
That hard spot, the key turning point where your characters’ decisions and actions will make the difference in how the story goes from there, is the climax of your novel, and it’s what everything you’ve been doing is building towards.
Once you hit that tipping point, you’re heading on your way to the resolution.
But it doesn’t need to be a smooth journey from hook to climax to resolution!
Creating a Bumpy Ride
Your novel can have a bumpy story arc instead of a smooth one. In fact, this often makes for the most engaging novels!
Consider having several small mini-climaxes before your main climax—put your characters in a few sticky situations and have them deal with them before getting to the key turning point.
This is where “escalation” and “setbacks” come in. As you raise the tension, you can have your characters seem to progress towards their goals and a successful resolution, then throw obstacles in their path that they must overcome.
Each time, the tension becomes greater and your readers get more invested in your characters’ ultimate success (or failure).
Running in Parallel
You can also keep your readers engaged by running multiple story arcs at the same time. You can have one big overall arc, with one or two sub-plots moving alongside it and within it.
This can be very complicated to do, and hard to keep track of all the moving parts, but when it works, it’s dynamite!
Whenever the action slows with one set of characters or one aspect of the plot, you can keep things chugging along by having a sub-plot ready to go and switching to that mini-arc to repeat the process of creating a hook, raising the tension, hitting the climax, and creating resolution.
When we finish a story, we want to feel satisfied—we want to know that something happened and that it’s wrapped up.
Otherwise, something just feels undone or incomplete.
Be sure that your story has a logical resolution: everything that the rising tension has led to comes to a head, ultimately concluding with a scenario that makes sense given everything that’s come before.
This isn’t always a happy ending; all the conflict and drama could turn out such that the main character meets his downfall in some way.
The key is that readers will feel satisfied if things are wrapped up in a way that makes sense given everything that’s happened in the story.
Wrapping It Up: A Warning
This is an area of caution for fiction authors who are creating series: it’s often tempting to leave certain elements unresolved—to not tie up all the loose ends so that you have a ready-made hook for the next book in the series.
But failing to provide a solid resolution won’t entice your readers to pick up the next book; it’ll annoy them, because they feel they’ve been cheated out of an ending.
Think about how you can leave some loose ends dangling to make your reader want to know more, to dive deeper, without leaving them on a cliffhanger at the end of the book.
You might, for instance, resolve your main story arc, but leave one or two sub-plots unresolved, hinting that you’ll pick them up in the next book.
Maybe the main characters defeated the villain, but he got away to fight another day. Perhaps the romantic leads fell in love and got married, but there’s a hint of conflict yet to come because they never did work out the drama with her sister.
Resolve your main source of conflict in a logical and satisfying way, but leave a few threads ready to pick up in the next book. Readers who love what you did in this novel will be eager to follow to the next, knowing that you can craft a satisfying story from start to finish.
Tips for Shaping a Story Arc
One of the best ways to figure out the pacing and shape of your story arc is to draw it.
Kurt Vonnegut once diagrammed the arc and flow of the classic fairy tale Cinderella to show why it’s had such a lasting impact on literature.
We can map out the initial setup, the tension and conflict of being forbidden to go to the ball, the escalation of preparing for the event, the turning point of dancing with the prince, the setback of fleeing and losing her slipper, and the overcoming phase of being identified by the prince and living happily ever after in a solid resolution.
Those ups and downs are what make for a gripping plot and story arc.
Consider diagramming out your own plot to see where you can add some setbacks, overcome obstacles, or otherwise turn a boringly smooth arc into something jaggedly exciting.
5. Fill It Out
Now that you’ve created characters, built a setting, and mapped out your story arc, it’s time to buckle down to the heady business of writing!
To help you do so, you may want to do one last exercise before you really start putting words down.
Consider the good ol’ 5 Ws (and an H):
We’ve already covered several of these in our prep work for the novel.
You know who is involved—your characters. You know when and where things are happening—your setting. You have the basics of what is going to happen—your story arc. And you know why it’s all taking place—your concept.
Fill out the how and you’ve got yourself a novel!
For more on how to write fiction, read on!
- List of 100+ Author Tools: The Best Tools for Writing, Publishing and Marketing Your Book
- How to Write Better Fiction and Become a Great Novelist
- How To Earn a Full-Time Income Writing Fiction Books
Latest posts by Kate Sullivan (see all)
- Sustainable Reading and Publishing: How You Can Do Your Part to Help the Environment - February 13, 2018
- Use This 9-Word Email Hack to Get More Leads and Sales - January 22, 2018
- Freelance Business Tips: How To Start Your Year Right - January 3, 2018