Have a dream of writing a novel—or several? While you may have ideas for characters, settings, and plot twists swirling around in your head, you might not know how to get those concepts down on paper in an organized manner. In this complete guide to how to write a novel, learn everything you need to know about penning your first piece of literature, from brainstorming story ideas to polishing your final draft.
Generate a Story Idea
If you don’t already have a concept for your novel, your first step is brainstorming story ideas. To get the creative juices flowing, consider these prompts.
Draw From Your Own Experience
According to the adage, “Write what you know.” Sometimes the best story ideas come from your own life. Even if you don’t plan to write a memoir, you can pull from your own personal experiences to create the foundation for a fictional story. Draw inspiration from a favorite vacation, your childhood friends, a beloved family member, or a memory that still sticks with you. Because it’s something you know intimately well, you will likely have an easier time writing about it in detail.
Emulate a Favorite Writer
If you want to write novels, you probably enjoy reading them, too. To generate some story ideas, think of your favorite authors and the types of stories they tell. Don’t directly copy them, of course, but use their stories as inspiration to get your creativity flowing.
Rethink a Fairy Tale
Fairy tales and other common childhood stories have been told hundreds of times. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new ways to interpret them or transform them into something else. For example, in Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire took a novel perspective on the story The Wizard of Oz. With a new point of view or a different angle, you can turn even the most well-known fable into a fresh, new story.
Establish Your Novel Point of View
Before you begin writing, you’ll want to decide the perspective from which you will tell your story. The point of view you choose establishes the relationship between the narrator and the readers. Choose your story point of view strategically—based on how much and what kind of information you want to reveal to your readers—to more effectively tell your story.
With a first person story perspective, the narrator is a character in the novel, telling the story from their point of view. Usually, with this perspective, the narrator uses the pronoun “I” (or “we,” if speaking for a group). Keep in mind that while a first person narrator can be the main character, it doesn’t have to be; you could also choose to tell the story from a peripheral character’s point of view. For example, the first person narrator in The Great Gatsby is Nick Carraway, while the story actually centers around Jay Gatsby.
Much less common, a second person story perspective establishes you, the reader, as a character in the story. Throughout the novel, the narrator describes what you do, as well as your thoughts, feelings, and background. This approach isn’t employed very often, although you may find it in “choose your own adventure” style books, in which the narrator explains what happens to you as you make selections to move through the story.
Third Person Limited
With a third person novel perspective, the story is told by a narrator who is not a character in the story. Rather, the story is told using the characters’ names and pronouns, including he, she, and they.
When using a third person limited perspective, the narrator doesn’t know the internal thoughts and motivations of all the story characters. Rather, the narrator is able to reveal insights into just one character. In the Harry Potter series of books, for example, J.K. Rowling provides perspective into Harry’s thoughts and feelings, but leaves the motivations of other characters—like Severus Snape—a mystery.
Third Person Omniscient
A third person omniscient perspective, on the other hand, is all-knowing. In other words, the narrator knows the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of all of the characters in the story. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, the author tells some of the story from Elizabeth Bennet’s point of view, but occasionally writes from Mr. Darcy’s perspective.
Determine Your Story Driver
The way you tell your story can have a dramatic impact on how the audience receives it and what they take away from it. There are two primary types of story drivers: plot and character.
Plot driven novels focus on the events of the story. In plot driven stories, action and events take priority over character development. They still contain characters, of course, but readers learn more about what the characters do than what they think.
This type of story driver is ideal for genres including mystery, thriller, sci-fi, romance, and action. The hallmark of a plot driven story is that you remember it primarily for what happens in the book rather than who it happens to. Novels including Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline are considered plot driven stories.
Alternatively, character driven stories center on the characters and their development or transformation. Rather than events guiding the story, it’s the characters’ struggles, choices, or internal conflicts that guide the narrative. Typically, by the end of a character driven story, readers feel that they deeply know and understand the main character. Examples of character driven novels include The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
Create Your Story Setting
Determining your novel setting is crucial to establish where (and when) your characters interact. But it’s more than just a backdrop. Your story setting plays a pivotal role in laying the foundation for the mood, tone, and overall theme of the novel.
Generally, story settings can be broken down into a few main elements, including time, place, and social setting. But within those categories, there are even more factors to consider. Take time for example. First, you determine what era your story takes place in. Then, consider the time of year—taking into account holidays and seasons—as well as the time of day.
While establishing a novel setting may seem simple on the surface, carefully think through each layer to create a rich, complex world.
Focus on Character Development
Characters are one of the most powerful forces in a novel that can draw a reader in. However, for readers to relate to your story characters, they must be believable—even protagonists must have flaws in addition to their strengths. Here are a few things to consider when creating your characters.
At first, physical appearance may not seem to have a significant impact on a character, but factors such as age, gender, race, and body type can deeply affect how a character approaches different situations. A young child, for example, may view an event with a narrower perspective than someone older; people of different races and ethnicities often experience certain situations in vastly different ways. Ultimately, the physical appearance you choose for your character can play a big role in developing the plot.
To tell a compelling story, your character must have some sort of goal or motivation that propels him or her through the journey. Character motivation provides the reasoning behind the individual’s behavior, whether it’s a physical need (like the boys’ need to survive on an uninhabited island in Lord of the Flies) or a psychological need (like Harry Potter’s desire to avenge his murdered parents by defeating Lord Voldemort).
Developing a backstory for your novel characters can provide insight into how they became the people they are today. While you don’t have to develop every aspect of a character’s past, you should think through some defining memories or moments that inform the character’s actions or motivations. For example, did his parents get divorced at a young age? Did she attend private school? Did they experience some sort of childhood trauma?
In general, conflict is a struggle between two opposing forces. Conflict is an essential element of writing a novel, as it is the main force that drives the story forward. There are two main types of conflict: internal and external.
Internal conflict takes place within a character; it’s sometimes referred to as “man vs. self.” This type of conflict stems from the character’s fears, emotions, desires, morals, or belief system. For example, a child may struggle with the desire to live up to his parents’ expectations.
External conflict, on the other hand, refers to obstacles that a character encounters in the real world. Broken down a bit further, external conflict can include:
- Man vs. man: One character faces a conflict with another character
- Man vs. society: One character is pitted against a community or society as a whole
- Man vs. nature: A character is threatened by a force of nature—e.g., a storm, disease, or animal
- Man vs. technology: A character struggles against a robot or machine
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Determine Your Story Structure
When it comes to story structure, think creatively! The story doesn’t have to follow a chronological path. Instead, you can use unique story structures for dramatic effect, to create suspense, or simply to keep a reader engaged.
In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things.” This refers to a story that skips any sort of introduction or exposition and instead, jumps right into the action. For example, Homer’s The Illiad begins in the middle of an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon.
If you choose to use this type of story structure, you will need to eventually provide more context, so the reader understands what led up to those initial events.
The Fichtean Curve is made up of three main elements: rising action, climax, and falling action. Typically, the first two-thirds of the story make up the rising action, which consists of several crises or pivotal events. The author also uses this portion of the novel to provide context and develop characters. Following these events, the story reaches one significant climax before resolving the story during the falling action.
Seven Point Story Structure
The Seven Point story structure, which was popularized by sci-fi author Dan Wells, includes the following points:
- Hook: Introduction to the novel characters, story, and setting
- Plot turn 1: An exciting event that starts the protagonist on his or her journey
- Pinch 1: An event or conflict that introduces the antagonist
- Midpoint: A major event that causes the protagonist to shift from reaction to action
- Pinch 2: An obstacle that makes the protagonist’s journey take a turn for the worst
- Plot turn 2: The peak of the story, where the protagonist discovers something that helps him or her solve the conflict
- Resolution: The conclusion, where the conflict is resolved
Aristotelian Story Structure or Three Act Story
An Aristotelian story structure dictates that a literary work should have a beginning, middle, and end, and every occurrence should be a direct result of a prior action or event. This is similar to a three act story, in which the first act presents the exposition, the second act contains the rising action or worsening situations, and the third act features the climax and resolution of the story.
Draft an Outline
Once you’ve thought through the elements above, you’ll be ready to outline a novel! For something as long as a novel, writing an outline isn’t a simple task—and every author may approach it slightly differently. Consider the following tools to help you create a robust, helpful outline.
A novel synopsis is, as its name suggests, a short summary of your novel. In one to three pages, it tells a very concise version of the novel’s story sequence or narrative arc. Don’t confuse this with the description that you might find on the back or inside flap of a book jacket; a story synopsis shouldn’t be sales copy. Instead, in a fairly straightforward manner, it should reveal exactly what happens in your story, including the ending.
A beat sheet can help you plan your story sequence. Rather than writing out full sentences, you draft bullet points around pivotal actions and plot points—each bullet is a “beat.” This gives you a map for your entire novel and allows you to see if your story has any obvious holes.
It’s also helpful to develop character profiles for the characters in your novel. Character profiles generally detail everything you know about a character, including physical appearance, backstory, and personality traits. You can refer back to your character profiles throughout the writing process to ensure you portray your character consistently from start to finish.
Another way to outline a novel is to detail each major scene. These will be the focal points of the novel, so once you have the story scenes and sequences established, all you have to do is connect them.
Write to Market
As an author, you have full creative control over your book. However, if you want your book to be widely read, it’s helpful to understand how to write to market—which, essentially, is writing to appeal to your target audience.
And before you say you want everyone to read your book, realize that probably won’t happen. Depending on what you want to write about, certain groups of people will likely find your writing more appealing than others. Aim to find out as much as you can about those groups, and use that insight to shape your story.
Research Audience Demographics
Demographics outline who your readers are—including data points such as their sex, age, race, marital status, and income. When you understand your audience’s basic characteristics, you can more effectively develop storylines and characters that they relate to and want to read about.
Create a Reader Persona
To go one step deeper, create a reader persona—a sketch of your ideal reader. If you have access to actual readers, you can interview them to help you build this profile. If not, compile it using audience demographics and research. Essentially, you want this profile to reveal your perfect reader’s psychographics, including their values, why they read your genre, what they get out of your books, what they do in their free time, and so on. By deeply understanding your audience, you can write a book that represents you and appeals to them.
Set a Writing Routine
Writing a novel is a big commitment. If you’re serious about completing your book, it’s not enough to simply write when you feel like it. Instead, try setting a writing routine that you can consistently stick to.
Start by setting goals. For example, if you want to finish the first draft of your novel within a few months, you may need to dedicate several hours each day to writing. If you’re giving yourself a few years to write it, you may only need to dedicate an hour or two per day. (And if you’re doing it in one month, for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, in November, you’ll really need to buckle down!) Or, try setting goals in terms of a word count. For instance, instead of writing for two hours per day, aim to compose 2,000 words per day.
Then, figure out when you’re most productive and commit to writing during that time. While the mornings work well for some authors, others prefer writing late into the night. Whatever you prefer, make writing at that time of day a habit—and stick to it.
Set Up Your Space
Your writing space should help you do your best work—and that tends to look different for everyone. Some authors may write more effectively at a desk, while others prefer to perch on a couch. Some may enjoy the ambient background noise of a coffee shop, and others write best in total silence.
Also consider your space in terms of technology. For example, most writers prefer to draft a novel on a computer. In addition, you may choose to invest in book writing software, which can help you keep your notes, outlines, and manuscript organized.
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How to Write a Novel Step by Step
Step 1: Write Your First Draft
Equipped with your outline materials—including character profiles and a road map of the plot—your first draft should take shape fairly easily. Keep in mind that your first draft isn’t the time for careful reflection or editing. First, focus on simply getting the story on paper.
Step 2: Edit (at a High Level)
In the first round of editing, make high-level, substantive revisions. Look for big-picture items (like plot lines, story settings, or characters) that don’t make sense or don’t contribute to the story.
Step 3: Write Your Second Draft
Write your second draft with the goal of addressing those big-picture edits. This could involve adding or deleting scenes, rewriting characters, and addressing plot holes.
Step 4: Edit (at a Paragraph Level)
Once you have incorporated the high-level edits, go one level deeper to make paragraph-level edits, like addressing issues with tone or finessing the language.
Step 5: Write Subsequent Drafts
You may go through several rounds of editing and redrafting your novel. That’s normal! The editing process is designed to make your novel as good as it possibly can be—so embrace the process.
Step 6: Edit, Proof, and Polish Your Work
The final step of the drafting and editing process is a thorough copyedit. During this step, you (or a copyeditor) will review the novel to address any grammatical, spelling, or syntax errors.
Tip #1: Avoid Purple Prose
Purple prose is a term for writing that’s too extravagant or elaborate, without serving any real purpose in a novel. This can look like long, winding paragraphs with multisyllabic words and run-on sentences. These types of passages can slow the pace of the story or cause your readers to lose interest. Strive to write in your own voice, rather than trying to emulate another writer or trying to sound “literary.”
Tip #2: Vary Your Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are the short phrases that follow a character’s direct quote, like “Sarah said,” or “Mike explained.” While this may seem straightforward, there are a couple of pitfalls to avoid. For example, using the same tag (e.g., “she said”) repetitively can become redundant. But using too much variety (e.g., “she explained,” “she admitted,” “she barked,” “she retorted”) can make dialogue hard to digest.
Also keep in mind that you don’t need a dialogue tag for every character quote. For a snappy back-and-forth conversation between two people, you can often omit some tags while still making it clear who says each line.
Tip #3: Use Artistic License
Yes, there are established rules for grammar, spelling, and punctuation—but as a writer, you have artistic license to, well, ignore them. Artistic license, also known as poetic license, refers to any deviation from fact or form.
For example, at times, you may feel that the only way to get your point across is to use unconventional spelling, language, or punctuation. Or, if you’re writing a memoir, you may choose to embellish or change certain details to add emphasis or make a stronger point.
Tip #4: Control the Story Pacing
In a novel, story pacing refers to the speed at which a story is told. Story pace doesn’t have to be directly related to the length or speed of an event; instead, it can be used to convey the importance of that moment to the story as a whole. For example, a car crash could happen in a matter of seconds, but you could choose to describe that event over multiple pages. Make deliberate choices about what you want to convey and how to reflect that through your story pace.
Tip #5: Liven Up Your Writing
Feel like your writing is becoming a bit bland? Keep things interesting by incorporating literary devices. These tools can help you convey your message more effectively and add new energy to your writing.
The Last Word
If you have a story to tell, don’t let anything stop you. While the process of writing a novel may seem long and involved, it can also be exhilarating and creatively freeing. And who knows? With enough motivation—and a really great storyline—you might just find your title on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
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