How to Write a Novel: Twelve Essential Components

retro typewriter and text once upon a time

One of my most popular posts last month was ‘How to Write a Novel.’ This was basically a plug for a course of the same name that I teach for the Unthank School of Writing, and although enrolment is buoyant, I’m guessing that a lot of the hits were actually people looking for advice on how to write a novel. In that case, as November is National Novel Writing Month, here are a few free tips to get you started…

The focus of NaNoWriMo, as I understand it, is on motivation and completion, so the challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month. Now I am all for regular writing routines, and I don’t believe in muses, natural talent or writer’s block. That said, you can’t just hit it and hope. You know that line about life being that thing that happens when you’re making other plans? Novels are not like this. Banging stuff out off the top of your head is not writing a novel, and despite that initial rush of enthusiasm trying to free associate your way through a big project is much more likely to lead to the slush pile or the bottom drawer than the New York Times bestseller list. ‘Discovery Writing’ aside, which E.M. Forster rightly described as ‘introducing mysticism at the wrong stage in the process,’ you need some sort of a plan.

Be spontaneous by all means, but try to mediate this with a rough idea of where you’re going, otherwise, and trust me on this, you’ll end up just rambling or never finish. ‘Writer’s block’ is more about not knowing which scene you need to write next than some terrible psychological barrier. Would you set off on a journey with no idea of either route or conveyance and still expect to reach your destination? Did you ever go into an exam with no preparation or study and come out with an ‘A’? Thought not. Me neither. It is vitally important to just keep writing, but this’ll be a deal easier if you have a plan and a basic understanding of narrative structure. The word ‘narrative’ comes from the Latin verb narrare, ‘to tell,’ which is derived from the adjective gnarus, meaning ‘knowing’ or ‘skilled,’ so a ‘narrative’ is a telling by someone that knows what happened, and has the ability to tell it well. In a novel, the narrative can be usefully broken down into the following components. To write a novel, you will need…

  1. A PREMISE

Stephen King calls this the ‘situation,’ the most interesting of which, he says, can usually be expressed as a ‘What if…?’ question, for example: What if someone cloned dinosaurs and then opened a theme park? Once you have this, it’s down to you to create believable characters, place them in some sort of setting and then help them work it all out. You don’t need to know a lot at this stage, and whatever you’re thinking will almost certainly change during the creative process, but you do need a rough idea of what this book is going to be about and, if applicable, the genre. Your goal is now to make this happen.

Don’t get too hung up on ‘originality.’ Read Aristotle, Joseph Campbell or Christopher Booker. There aren’t that many story archetypes when you get down to the bones. Many narratologists argue that there are seven: ‘rags to riches,’ ‘overcoming the monster,’ ‘quest,’ ‘voyage and return,’ ‘rebirth,’ ‘tragedy,’ and ‘comedy.’ It’s what you do with these archetypes in terms of setting, character, action and, of course, style that make them unique and potentially infinite in scope. Remember that there are only seven musical notes as well. Don’t overcomplicate. A strong premise should be pretty straightforward and ‘high concept,’ and you should be able to express it in one or two short sentences. So ask yourself: ‘What’s this novel about?’ Bear in mind that engaging stories are invariably based around crisis and conflict.

Oh, and you’ll need a working title at some point as well, but don’t worry too much about this at this stage unless you find it motivational. It’ll almost certainly change by the time you finish the project. Try to keep it short (one or two words preferred); don’t be too cryptic but try to capture the essence of your novel: its main theme, the big question it asks. You’ll probably find your title hiding somewhere in your text once you’ve written it.

  1. A STORY

Remember that there’s a difference between ‘story’ and ‘plot’ in our game. The ‘story’ is the actual sequence of events as they happen (or would happen) in real time. Once you have your premise, try working out a few characters and scenarios. Write these out, exploring your options and testing ideas until you produce some sort of workable synopsis. Try to build this in your mind like a journalist or a historian, then write out a timeline, blocking out the story in a linear, chronological form. Concentrate on key characters and events. Try to get to the essence of these characters: what drives them, what do they want, what will they do, where will they end up? Try to figure out at least a notional ending – not a specific scene, necessarily, just a resolution. You now have a destination and a rough map.

  1. A PLOT

Now start to think about how you might structure and tell this story. This is the plot – the way you are going to arrange these events and characters in your narrative. The original story is just a bunch of stuff that happens. How you order, select, dramatise, summarise, omit, describe and pace this raw material is the novel: the story plotted and presented as a prose narrative, these choices constituting your own written style. It’s very easy to lose the plot, especially in the long second act, and a good way to stay on track is to know your ‘Through Line.’ This is the main plotline of your novel, as opposed to an interesting sub-plot, the central drama that compels your reader to keep turning the page.

Write this down and keep it somewhere that you can see when you work. This should be a direct and concise statement. In Jaws, for example, the through line would be something along the lines of: ‘A great white shark stakes a claim to a popular seaside resort and doesn’t leave. Local politicians and merchants are in denial about the problem, so the Police Chief takes it upon himself to hunt down and kill the shark.’ If you know Peter Benchley’s original novel, which is a very bleak piece of post-Watergate American fiction, you’ll recall that there are several sub-plots (Brody’s struggle with corrupt local government, his wife’s affair with the oceanographer, Matt Hooper, and the friction between Hooper and the Ahab-like sharker Quint), but the through line remains Brody versus the shark.

Once you have your chronology and through line, you can start planning how you’re going to tell this story, thinking now in units of narrative: scenes, links and chapters; structure, pace and perspective.

  1. A PROTAGONIST

Start by asking yourself: ‘Whose story is this?’ The answer will direct your plot, the ownership of the story determining your ‘through line.’ Your novel will almost certainly have more than one significant character, and ideally your reader should care about what happens to them all. Nonetheless, one character will ultimately demand the most attention, and it will be his or her eventual fate that defines the trajectory of the plot and its purpose, the point of the book. This is your novel’s protagonist, your hero.

  1. POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER(S)

‘Point of view characters’ are the people around whom the narrative is based, whatever the perspective. They are not, however, always necessarily the protagonists. In The Great Gatsby, for example, the protagonist is Jay Gatsby himself but the point of view character is Nick Carraway.

In a short story, it is conventional to restrict the narrative to a single point of view character, through whose eyes the action of the story is witnessed. We therefore see only what this character sees, know what he or she knows, and are present only in scenes in which he or she is present. In a novel you can have more than one point of view character, and your choice is therefore central to how you tell your story because it determines which scenes you can actually include in your narrative and how you organise them. If your novel has a single point of view, then you can’t suddenly include a scene in which a third party does something the viewpoint character has no knowledge of, unless you contrive a way for them to find out. This may sound quite restrictive, and it can be, but it also helps you write the main body of your story. Discovering what you can’t show and credibly circumventing potential point of view paradoxes helps you determine what you need to write.

  1. A POINT OF VIEW

Moving on from the above, you now have to finalise the point of view of the narrative itself. (Bear in mind that if it doesn’t work you can always change it later.) Briefly, these are your options:

The First Person: ‘I’

This is a single viewpoint narration, which limits you to the perception and experience of one character. You cannot know or witness anything he or she does not, and this character always has to be present in the scene. (See also: Framing, Unreliable, Passive, and Self-Conscious Narrators.)

The Second Person: ‘You’

The second person implicates a single addressee, the protagonist his or herself, another character, or the reader, telling them what they’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing, notable examples being Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino.

The Third Person Narrator: ‘She,’ ‘He,’ ‘They’:

This can be open or closed…

A Third Person Unlimited Viewpoint:

This perspective knows all and sees all. It is the ‘God’s eye view,’ the ‘omniscient’ narrative, ranging across the detailed feelings and experiences of a full cast of primary and secondary characters. You don’t have to choose a single point of view character, you can have as many as you like. Although this popular perspective offers the writer the most freedom, there is a lot of organisation involved. You must also have balance. If you favour one character’s perspective then you might want to consider a single viewpoint narration instead.

The Third Person Objective or ‘Detached’ Viewpoint:

The detached viewpoint is similarly everywhere, but only on the outside. It can’t read minds; the voice of the narrative is thus an ostensibly impartial observer (no choice is innocent, after all), recording and reporting events through physical description and dialogue like a conventional movie.

A Third Person Single or ‘Limited’ Viewpoint:

This is a lot like a first person narrative, except that everything is reported not experienced by a single point of view character, now referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she.’

Multiple Points of View:

There are many precedents in popular and literary fiction for multiple points of view in a single text, mixing first, third and even, god help us, second person narrative voices. But if your aim is to write a readable and hopefully commercial novel then as a general rule try to choose the perspective that best suits your narrative and then stick to it, accepting and negotiating whatever limitations it imposes.

There are broadly speaking two reasons for multiple viewpoint narratives: the first is a stylistic choice based on the need to generate some sort of epistemological uncertainty in the mind of the reader. You will therefore often encounter multiple viewpoints in gothic novels and thrillers, and also in self-consciously experimental writing in which the unstable nature of the literary narrative (Modernist, epistemological) or the Self (Postmodermist, ontological) is reflected in the instability of the text. Parallel, framing and nested narratives may also be written in different points of view. The other reason is sloppy writing or a failure to select and commit to a single protagonist or point of view.

  1. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Strong character creation is a synthesis of intuition and detail work – the former provides the initial inspiration and momentum, the latter helps you develop the character, adding authenticity and emotional depth. An over-reliance on intuition alone can lead to stereotypical, two-dimensional characters and obvious self-portraits so be warned. There are primary and secondary characters, the latter being more like extras in a movie, so you can use quite broad brush strokes on them, but your primary cast requires thorough biographical design. Were I to ask you a question about your protagonist, you should have an immediate answer. Remember always that your protagonist is not you, and try to identify what Syd Field and Waldo Salt called a character’s ‘dramatic need’: what or who she or he wants to achieve, win, gain, destroy or escape. This core desire will influence the choices they make, and the obstacles you place in their way create tension and drama.

Don’t worry if this doesn’t all come together when you start writing. Characters usually start out quite featureless, coming more and more to life as you build and write. But when you do have this encyclopaedic character biography compiled, it is equally important not to dump all of it into your narrative. Like icebergs and family secrets, most of the details will ultimately be hidden beneath the surface of your text – you shouldn’t be able to see it, but you need to know it’s there. It’s always important to know which story you want to tell – you can’t cover all of them in one book.

  1. DIALOGUE

Fictional characters really leap off the page when they speak. Reported speech is crucial to plot development, and while strong dialogue has its own musicality, bad dialogue can kill your novel. Every time a character speaks, his or her identity is being expressed and the plot is being advanced; word choice and syntax should make this happen convincingly. If it doesn’t, then do it again. Characters’ speech should suit them, sound realistic and natural, and advance your story without resorting to exposition. You need to steer clear of cliché, redundancy, and incongruity, while each character you write should have a distinct voice.

Dialogue is a function of character. If you know your character well, you will eventually start to hear them talking. Once you have this breakthrough, dialogue will soon begin to flow. When you’re writing something new, however, you’ll find it may take several pages, or even drafts, before you make contact with your characters, and they start talking back. Once this connection between you and the voice of your character has occurred they will, to a certain extent, take over and start telling you what they want to do and say. Weak dialogue, on the other hand, is usually the result of a poorly planned character. In this case, you’ll probably find that all your characters sound the same, probably like you, with little difference in tone from the narrative voice of the text itself. This is known in the trade as ‘sock puppetry.’

There are two types of reported speech, the direct and the indirect:

Direct and tagged speech: ‘You mean he’s chasing us?’ said Brody.

Quint nodded. ‘Yeah. He means to make a fight of it,’ he said.

Direct and untagged: ‘You mean he’s chasing us?’
‘Yeah. He means to make a fight of it.’

Direct and selectively tagged: ‘You mean he’s chasing us?’ said Brody.
‘Yeah. He means to make a fight of it.’

Tagged indirect speech (Passive voice): He asked if the shark was chasing them, and Quint told him that it was, because it wanted to make a fight of it.

‘Tagged’ simply refers to whether or not the speaker or speakers are identified, while in a ‘passive’ sentence the subject of the verb undergoes the action rather than doing it. If you find yourself reporting speech passively, think carefully about whether or not you need to summarise in this manner, or if you should be writing a dialogue scene.

As far as tagging is concerned, there are about a thousand verbs in English that mean ‘said,’ but this is one situation in which it’s OK to repeat a word. ‘Said’ is so accepted by readers to indicate that someone is saying something that they don’t even notice it, whereas varied and unconventional verbs draw attention to themselves and make the dialogue sound artificial. ‘Asked,’ ‘shouted’ and ‘whispered’ are acceptable, but I’d let it go at that. Remember to start a new paragraph for each change of speaker, and punctuate correctly. You’d be amazed how many people get this wrong.

  1. A SETTING

It is the task of the novelist to capture the essence of people, places and era as well as conveying contextual information and physical appearance in a fresh and stylish way. Good descriptive writing provides the fine detail that brings the story to life, and without this you’re just writing a script. Approach the world of your novel in a similar way to character development and do your homework. This is particularly important in historical writing, fantasy and science fiction: readers love vanished worlds and elaborate, speculative cultures.

Following on from world building, the real secret of original and authentic description is concise observation. A novelist notices the hidden; defamiliarise: as a writer, your job is to view and interpret the world around you with insight and originality. Avoid purple prose, and remember to show and not tell. In descriptive writing you need to do just enough to trigger recognition in the mind of your reader, and nothing more. There was a time, in the era of Dickens and Hardy, when the authorial voice of the novel would routinely halt the drama in order to describe places and their histories at great length. This era is has now passed.

As with dialogue, avoid the expository. Aim always to be subtle, oblique and deep – don’t just summarise. Readers should be aware of information, but not of how they receive it. Try to see things through the eyes of your characters. This will make description integral to the plot, not something stuck on afterwards. If you look closely at traditionally published novels, you’ll notice that tight, seamless description is most frequently used to link and change scenes or to break up dialogue, providing a gentle break between events and conversations, while also setting the next scene and revealing character.

  1. STRUCTURE: A BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END

From classical tragedy to Hollywood, any fiction narrative can usefully be divided into the following sections:

Act One/The Introduction:

Make the first scene a good one: establish your primary character, set the scene, state the dramatic premise, and start the story. You ideally need a tight opening scene that locates your protagonist just before a moment of crisis or change. The opening line of your book should be crafted to gain your reader’s undivided attention, and the closing line of the first scene should evoke this change in circumstance and/or be significant in some way. After that you can coast for a bit, but try to keep your first act relatively short, concluding with an event – or ‘plot point’ – that drives the main character from his or her normal life toward an unfamiliar and often crisis situation, sending the narrative off in a different and unexpected direction and setting up the main story.

Act Two/The Main Body of the Text:

The story develops through a series of complications and obstructions, as forces are marshalled against each other and tension rises and falls through a sequence of dramatic scenes. These forces must collide at the climax to this story. This is often referred to by novelists as the storyteller’s ‘promise.’ The second act should end with a plot point that sets up this collision.

Act Three/The Climax and Denouement:

The Climax is the money shot, the decisive confrontation towards which your narrative has been inextricably moving. This is the chapter in which the villain plays his final hand, the lovers are re-united, simmering family tensions finally boil over, and the quest reaches its goal. If Hollywood options your novel, this is the scene the producers are after: ‘Smile, you son of a bitch!’

The Denouement follows the climax and briefly wraps up the story. Mark Twain famously described this as ‘the marryin’ and the buryin’.’ The denouement should show the consequences of the plot and the fate of any significant characters not dealt with in the climax. A successful denouement should offer some level of concise dramatic closure. Let your reader down gently, but by the same token don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

  1. KEEP WRITING

Don’t stop. This is something you learn by doing, while all novels are put together one word at a time. Write every day, and keep a running tally of words written every week for motivation. If you add 500 new words to your work in progress every day then in six months you’ll have written 90,000 words and that’s the first draft of your novel. And don’t expect too much of your first draft. Never compare and despair. A lot of new writers give up too soon because they convince themselves that a work in progress doesn’t meet the standard of their favourite published novels, forgetting how much work these things took. This is a vicious circle because you can only get better if you keep writing, but you don’t write because you’re not already better at it. At this point you ‘block’ and then the perfectly realisable dream of writing a novel is over. ‘If I waited for perfection,’ Margaret Atwood once said, ‘I would never write a word.’

If this happens then follow the immortal advice of William Stafford: ‘Lower your standards and keep writing.’ Remember that is the redrafting and the editing that counts, but you can’t do that until you’ve got something to redraft and edit. Every good novel starts out as a diamond in the rough, and all this revision is just part of the creative process. ‘The first draft,’ said Terry Pratchett, ‘is just you telling yourself the story,’ while Ernest Hemingway (Nobel Laureate, 1954), probably said it best: ‘First drafts are s**t.’

  1. EDITORIAL REVISION

Only when this first draft is there, in front of you, can purposeful editing commence, because, let’s face it, a lot of it is going to be pretty rough, and it’s probably far too long. In writing, as in all the arts, there is an exuberant and spontaneous phase, but this won’t carry you all the way to the successful completion of a serious professional project. A ‘draft’ is a preliminary version of a document, and to ‘redraft’ is to write this document in a different way. ‘Editing’ is slightly different, as in addition to the implicit draft modifications, it also includes correcting technical errors and preparing a document for publication. So ‘editing’ is about layout, grammar, spelling, and punctuation, while ‘redrafting’ is more concerned with structure, content, style, and word choice. For some tips on editing click here. If you want to craft a novel of a professional standard then accept that you’re going to have to take it through several drafts and then copy-edit and proof the manuscript word by word.

This level of refinement should be as liberating as the initial composition. As the poet Rebecca Luce-Kaplar wrote of revising her work, ‘Through the work of rewriting the writer can discover the beauty of the piece.’ Think of editing as a safety net, a system of constant re-evaluation that goes hand-in-hand with the imagination that inspired you to write in the first place and which enables you to not just tell a story but tell it well.

 IN CONCLUSION

OK, I know there’s a lot more to it than this, but these are the basics and, just like basketball and tattooing, it’s important to know your fundamentals. I’m equally aware of a growing online lobby that basically says you should just get on with it and that people like me should shut the hell up and let people write without the complication of theory. Looking at the sheer volume of creative writing hustlers out there exploiting the e-pub boom I take the point, but speaking as someone in publishing all I can respond honestly is that unpolished novels banged out in haste read exactly how you’d expect, with half-a-million self-published books a year effectively making the slush pile public. In the words of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, ‘Easy writing’s vile hard reading,’ while by the same rationale amateurs would be prosecuting murder cases, performing brain surgery and installing central heating. I’m not sure why knowing what you’re doing in the arts is so contentious, but I am a bit old fashioned. Skills need to be studied, learned and practiced – you’re not just born with them. You might have a natural flair for writing, and your first novel might turn out quite well, or even go viral, but most of the time it won’t, and there are just far too many books in the world for anyone to waste their time reading a bad one.

Like they say in The X Factor: ‘How hard are you prepared to work?’

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