Inspiration rarely comes as a mysterious visitation from the muse. Far better to learn the techniques and habits of the craft
Need to know
In his memoir On Writing (2010), Stephen King observes: ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.’ King’s advice is about developing the habit of being a writer: writing every day will turn you into a writer. But in order to be a novelist, you need to know more than this, such as how to create compelling characters and structure your plot.
In my experience, two factors tend to hold back writers from completing their novel. The first is that, as King says, writing isn’t yet a habit: because we all have to write at some point (even if it’s no more than a text or social media post about our day), there is an assumption that knocking out 80,000 words or so is just like our regular writing activities – just more so. It is not. In this guide, I’ll show you some of the extra things you need to take into account when planning your book.
The second factor is confidence. This is usually a lack of confidence, but occasionally an excess of it as well: one phenomenon among would-be writers is that talking about a project can give as much satisfaction as actually doing it. The book is written in their head without the need to commit a single word to the page. More often, however, authors lack confidence, and worry about whether they are doing things ‘right’, which is why I’ll cover the essentials here to get you started.
The most important point to start from is that while there are a number of things you should consider when planning your book – such as characterisation, plotting or the style and voice of your work – there is no single golden rule for how to write a novel. Some authors will sit down in their study – or even hire an office where they go to work every day – and work 9 to 5, while others will grab an hour or two at the end of the day after the children have gone to bed. Some writers like to plot out every event meticulously before they begin the first sentence; others get bored if they know everything in advance, and instead treat fiction as a kind of experiment to see how characters will react. However, while every author will write a novel differently, there are some common themes that occur again and again.
What to do
Even for those who launch straight into a novel, ploughing through a first draft in an attempt to ‘get something down’, these are the four main factors you need to consider for your major project: character, plot, place, and voice or style. While I am distinguishing the four essential elements of a novel that you need to consider when planning, it is important that these are developed together in parallel.
What’s more, you’ll need to find the ways to cultivate your own writing habits – the times and places you work best, whether you’re a morning writer or an evening one, or the kind of person who needs absolute quiet or background activity.
1. Character: The first step to consider is who your characters are going to be. For many people setting out to write for the first time, this might feel counterintuitive. After all, the plot or narrative is what many people talk about when they want to indicate that a book is compelling. Yet we care about a story only when it affects characters that touch us deeply in some way. Readers might have only a vague sense of some of the events that happen in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) but, once read, figures such as Pip, Miss Havisham and Magwitch are rarely forgotten. Likewise, when we follow Lyra through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000), Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), or Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), we are drawn into the storytelling because these are people we care about.
The British novelist Ross Raisin describes characters as ‘the lifeblood of fiction’, and observes that because they are the story, they need to be as unique as the work of fiction they inhabit. We want to believe in such people, no matter how fantastical they appear. To make them compelling, you will need to work out what your main character desires – what they want, how are they frustrated (because without this there is no drama) and how they will change to get what they need, which is not always the same as what they want.
2. Plot: If characters are the essential components of a novel, then the events that happen to them form the plot. As we have already seen, knowing all aspects of the plot is not necessary when you begin to write, but in practice most authors will want to have some sense of the overarching structure of their plot. Indeed, so important can plotting be that I’ll cover this in more detail in the ‘Learn more’ section.
Although it is by no means an absolute requirement, a useful technique for beginning to plan your novel is to distinguish between the story (the series of events that occur in a chronological fashion) and the narrative (how that story is told). In a thriller such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981), the chronological story is the events that lead to the transformation of Francis Dolarhyde into the serial killer ‘The Tooth Fairy’, but the novel’s narrative tells much of this in flashback. A story’s beginning can be quite tedious, so narratives tend to start in the middle of things: launching into a story nearer to the climactic action gives us an impetus to care about the characters.
High modernist and postmodernist fiction often eschews conventional narrative structure, but the majority of writers tend to use a variant of what’s known as the three-act or five-act structure. In the simplest of these, the story breaks down into the setup, the confrontation and resolution. This is extremely popular with blockbuster formats such as Star Wars or Die Hard, where the protagonist is introduced, faces potentially disastrous complications, but comes through at the end. The five-act structure – beloved by William Shakespeare and many writers since – complicates the simpler version by following the initial exposition with rising action or conflict, the climax, a period of falling action and the dénouement which resolves the action at the end. This is now the standard format for many plots. For additional help on narrative structures, see the blog by the British writer John Yorke, who focuses in particular on how inciting incidents lead to a journey, during which the hero experiences a crisis and climax before the story is resolved.
3. Place: The events of your novel need to take place in a particular location. When it comes to worldbuilding, as this part of the process gets called, the assumption is often that writing about what you know will be easier than creating something entirely from scratch. In fact, over many years working with creative writers, I’ve discovered that they can find it more difficult to see familiar locations with fresh eyes in order to make them vivid.
Worldbuilding often comes into its own – indeed, overtakes all other aspects of fiction writing – with science fiction and fantasy. J R R Tolkien invented complete languages and complex histories for the races of Middle Earth, and much of this wasn’t intended for publication but instead to ground his own vision of this alternative reality. Likewise, any form of historical fiction can involve considerable amounts of research to flesh out the place for a reader.
A sense of place can be immensely important to the development of a character, and two simple tricks will help you establish this. First, describe a location where your protagonist spends a great deal of time. List 10 things in the room where they sleep, for example, and one thing that the character wishes to keep hidden (such as a photograph or childhood toy) – this can help to describe their motivation. Second, sketch out the furthest location that they will travel to in the story: this might be a far-flung planet or it could be the next village across a valley, but in both cases it will help to establish the scale of the world in which these fictional characters live.
4. Voice and style: A writer’s style is very often the component that brings a novel to life, and provides it with its unique DNA. The cerebral voice of David Foster Wallace, for example, is a world apart from the tough-talking erudition of Raymond Chandler’s characters or the gleeful spikiness of Angela Carter. Sometimes, a particular voice gives rise to an entire work of fiction: Gail Honeyman began writing her bestselling novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (2017) to capture the voice of an isolated woman who began speaking to her after reading an article.
The factors that go into creating a writer’s style are manifold, but I’ll highlight a few of them here. First, is the voice of the narrator distinctive – a separate character in the novel, such as Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or the three women who recount the events of The Girl on the Train (2016)? This decision often leads to the second immediate choice for a novelist, concerning whether the narrator is unreliable – such as the split protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996).
Third, authors must choose the point of view from which the story will be told. First-person point of view limits the text to the thoughts and experiences of the narrator, typically a distinct character in the novel. Third-person is more flexible, and can be omniscient – knowing everything in the story – or close, as though following around one person with a camera to view everything through their perspective. Omniscient third-person was very popular in 19th-century novels, whereby the narrator had access to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. During the 20th century, however, close third-person has become much more popular, limiting the perspective to one person at a time, allowing information to be hidden and revealed more slowly to the reader.
Although you need to make some decisions early on, such as the point of view and who the narrator will be, be prepared for many elements of your own style to emerge through the actual process of writing. As you progress with your novel, make sure the voice and style are consistent and coherent throughout.
- Work out your writing schedule and try to stick to it: this can’t remain the same every day or every week, but if you know that you work better at certain times or in certain places, you’re more likely to complete a project.
- More than anything, a successful novel is about characterisation: try making some notes about who your main characters are, what motivates them, and what challenges lie ahead of them.
- Sometimes, advice on plotting can become very complex, but bear in mind these five points and you are more likely to stay on track: what is the inciting incident that starts the action? What journey does the protagonist go on? What crisis do they experience? What is the climax of the story? Finally, how is everything resolved?
- Believable characters require a world in which readers can immerse themselves. Whether it’s far-flung fantasy or contemporary drama, you need a sense of place that will bring the action to life.
- There is no such thing as the correct style or voice, but consistency (including such things as point of view or a coherent use of language) will make your novel easier both to write and to read. Experiment with different tenses or points of view to see what makes your writing more vivid.
In 1928, the Russian folklorist and scholar Vladimir Propp argued that there were only a few underlying narratives that made up the majority of folk tales. Analysing a large number of individual tales, he made note of the different events that occurred, such as a wizard giving a hero a potion to slip past the guards, or an acrobat providing a talking eagle that can carry the protagonist wherever they want to go. Based on this, Propp suggested that there were 31 types of action (‘narrative functions’) that could take place within a story, such as the Departure, when the hero leaves to start his quest, or the Task, where a difficult assignment is given. He also found that there were seven types of character: the hero, the villain, the donor, the helper, the princess (or ‘sought-for person’), the despatcher, and the false hero.
At first glance, Propp’s categorisation – written up in his book Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928) – might seem extremely limiting, but he provided an important insight into the notion of underlying narrative structures. The idea is that there are fundamental patterns to storytelling, or archetypes, that provide us with a deep sense of fulfilment when we hear them repeated. Like cadences in music (which often follow familiar movements from one chord to another), these structures bring with them that often-overused word, closure.
Trying to follow a formula too rigidly is likely to render the plot of your novel stiff and uninspiring, but Yorke provides a basic framework that will work for most stories. First, there is the inciting incident: the ‘What will happen?’ moment. We ask this question, for example, when the corpse appears at the beginning of a crime novel, instigating the search for the killer. After the plot has been initiated, the protagonist will undergo some kind of journey. In many cases, this is a literal quest, as in Frodo’s travels to destroy the Ring but, more importantly, it involves internal change on the part of the main character, who should not be the same at the end of the book as at the beginning. The crisis is the pivotal point where the hero reaches rock bottom, where all hope seems to be lost and the journey is in danger of being abandoned. It is the moment when a character is put most to the test. As observed by the Earl of Salisbury in Shakespeare’s Henry V the night before the battle of Agincourt, it is the moment of the most ‘fearful odds’.
The crisis is followed by the climax, the final moment, which might indeed be a literal fight between protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain. As Yorke observes, if the inciting incident asks, ‘What will happen?’, the climax answers: ‘This.’ Finally, the resolution brings about a sense of closure. Sometimes there are rewards for good behaviour; sometimes, as with tragedies, the tying up of loose ends provides anything but a happy ending.
Yorke describes these elements of a narrative as the ‘building blocks’ that form the ‘primary colours’ of a story. They are not there to be followed as a slavish formula, but by asking yourself what the inciting incident of your narrative is, what journey the protagonist undergoes, how the crisis takes place and how that is different from the climax, and how the story is to be resolved, you will go a long way to satisfying the demands of your readers.
Of course, if you want to write literary fiction, you might deliberately seek to subvert a lot of these building blocks, but knowing how the general rules of narratives work can make such subversion much more effective. Indeed, if you want to be really playful with the rules, as in reverse narratives such as Sarah Waters’s novel The Night Watch (2006) or Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991), then plotting and planning the structure of your narrative becomes more important than ever. This is why engaging in some preparation for a novel becomes so important: rather than just launching into writing and seeing what emerges, knowing something about the direction of the narrative and motivations of your character will make for a more compelling final story.
Links & books
- The John Yorke Story blog is a useful site for advice on the craft of storytelling.
- The National Centre for Writing has free resources for aspiring writers, as well as events and courses.
There are many guides and memoirs by novelists on their craft, and the following are some of the best introductions to the art of writing a novel:
- Margaret Atwood, On Writers and Writing (2015)
- James Frey, How to Write Damn Good Fiction: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling (1994)
- Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)
- Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
- Robert Cohen and Jay Parini (eds), The Writer’s Reader: Vocation, Preparation, Creation (2017). This is an anthology of essays about the art of writing by famous authors, including Zadie Smith, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf and Henry James.
- Ross Raisin, Read This if You Want to Be a Great Writer (2018)
- Karen Stevens, Writing a First Novel: Reflections on the Journey (2014)
- John Yorke, Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (2013)