How to Write a Novel: A 12-Step Guide
You’ve always wanted to pen a book, but you’ve come to a deadlock. You must have tried before, right? But after some pages, you lost interest. Your tale concept did not hold up. You cannot overcome your hesitation. You were afraid of your writing. You were contemplating your next steps. You might be surprised to learn that I still have the same problems even though I’ve written 200 books in the last 40 years, two-thirds of which were novels and many of which were New York Times bestsellers, like the Left Behind Series. So, how can I go through them and follow success? I follow a regular novel-writing strategy that helps me overcome those barriers. And that is exactly what I will reveal to you in this classic guide.
Consider completing your first draft. Even better, visualize a completed manuscript. Or, simply, your name on the cover of a recently published book—does it satisfy your interest? Imagine receiving emails from readers telling you that your story changed their lives and gave them new hope and a fresh start. Why can’t you enjoy such things when other writers do? At the very least, you should complete a novel manuscript. This course will teach you how to create a novel. I hope that you appreciate it and find it useful, so you can try to implement everything in your personal work!
How to Compose a Novel in Eleven Steps
- Nail down a winning story idea.
- Determine whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.
- Create an unforgettable main character.
- Expand your idea into a plot.
- Research, research, research.
- Choose your Voice and Point of View.
- Start in medias res (in the midst of things).
- Engage the theater of the reader’s mind.
- Intensify your main character’s problems.
- Make the predicament appear hopeless.
- Bring it all to a climax.
- Leave readers wholly satisfied.
Step 1: Nail-down a winning story idea.
Is your novel hypothesis memorable?
- Is it more than enough to clarify 75,000 to 100,000 words?
- Is it strong enough to keep the reader hooked all the way through?
Create a conflict-filled story—the engine that will push your plot.
Margo, my first novel, is based on this concept: a judge indicts a guy for a murder carried out by the judge himself.
Take as much time as you need to emphasize the ideas for your story and choose the one you would happily read—the one that comforts your interest and keeps you worried about returning to the keyboard every day.
It must thoroughly catch you and refuse to leave your mind. Only an idea like that will motivate you to write the novel you’ve always wanted to write.
Step 2: Determine whether you’re an Outliner or a Pantser.
If you’re an outliner, you must like to plan everything out before you initiate writing your work. You want to know what occurs to your characters from the beginning to the climax.
If you’re a pantser, which means you write on the trigger of the moment, you start with the root of an idea and write as a procedure of discovery.
“Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
Stephen King says
One of these techniques will simply feel more realistic to you. But, in reality, many of us are hybrids, requiring both the security of a plan and the freedom to let the story take us wherever it may be. Apply the one that makes the most sense to you, and don’t be concerned if that means combining outlining and pantsing. Regardless, you are required to avoid burning out after working on so many pages.
I’m a pantser with vitality for outlining, but I never start a novel without knowing where I’m going—or where I think I’m going.
Step 3: Create an unforgettable main character.
Your most important character will be your main character, your hero (your protagonist). This primary character must go through something, which means that by the end, there must be a difference. He may be worse and become better, or he may be better and become worse. He or she should have a complete turnover. He should have human flaws so that readers can relate to him. So resist the need to build a flawless lead. Who can identify with perfection?
You’ll also have the villain (an antagonist). This character should be as powerful and exciting as your hero. Try to make sure that the bad guy is not so evil because he’s the bad guy. He must be able to explain why he does what he does, even if only in his own mind, in order to be a respectable, natural, and unforgettable antagonist. Important circular cast members may also be needed. For each character, ask:
- Who are they?
- What is his need?
- Why do they need that?
- What or who is holding them away from it?
- How will they manage that?
Use different names (even separate initializes) for each character, and make them sound different from one another so your reader doesn’t mix them up. Restrict how many you present early on; if your reader needs a schedule to keep track of them, you may not hold him for long.
Naturally, your hero (protagonist) will face an external problem—a mission, a challenge, a journey, or a reason… But, in order to be truly engaged with the reader and arrive active on the page, he must also deal with inner sufferings. Brave, ingenious, ethically good, and physically powerful? Without a doubt. However, your hero (protagonist) must also deal with anxiety, fear, insecurity, and self-doubt. The more hurdles he experiences, the greater his capacity to develop and evolve. Just like in real life, the harder the problems are, the more likely it is that they will change and vary.
Step 4: Expand your idea into a plot.
True pantsers, including some best-selling authors, do not plot. Here is the disadvantage: like me, you may enjoy existing as a pantser and writing as a method of finding, but even we non-outliners require some structure.
Discovering what successful novelist Dean Koontz refers to as the “classic story structure” (in his book How to Write Best-Selling Fiction) deeply modified my work. When I started following his recommendations, my book sales rocketed.
As quickly as possible, throw your main character into threatening difficulty. Everything your character does to try to get out of trouble only makes matters worse until his situation appears desperate.
Finally, everything your hero learns while trying to get out of that horrible situation teaches him the skills he needs to succeed in the end.
Writing instructors refer to their own suggested story structures by various titles, although the actual sequence is quite uniform. They all involve some form of:
- A Beginning.
- The encouraging experience that transforms everything
- A sequence of problems that create suspense
- A Conclusion.
- A Climax.
In any way you plot your work, your primary goal must be to catch readers by the neck and never let go.
For more on designing your plot, see my blog post The Writer’s Guide to Creating the Plot of a Story.
Additional in-depth plotting help:
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
- The Secrets of Story Structure by K. M. Weiland
- The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
Step 5: Research, research, research
The fiction must be credible in order to grow. Even fantasies require logic. You must conduct a study to prevent making mistakes that make your story ridiculous. What follows must be rational once the reader has accepted your assumption. Effective research helps you provide the particularity required for this to function. When my character utilizes a weapon, I research it well. Readers will complain if I refer to a handgun as a revolver or if my hero fires twelve bullets from a weapon that only stores eight rounds. Details that are accurate give realism and genuineness. If you get the facts wrong, your reader will lose faith and interest in your story.
Consult atlases and the world almanac to confirm geography and cultural standards and to select character names that fit the setting, period, and customs. If your Middle Eastern character gives someone a thumbs up, make sure it means the same thing in his culture as it does in yours.
- If you don’t have a set, you can get one at your local library or online.
- YouTube and online search engines can produce tens of thousands of results. (Just be careful not to get sucked into clickbait videos.)
- Use a thesaurus while writing your story, but do not locate the most exotic term. I usually use a thesaurus to look up a common word that is on the tip of my tongue.
- There is no alternative to in-person interviews with professionals. People enjoy discussing their work, and such discussions frequently result in new story ideas.
Resist the impulse to cut corners on the research process. Readers notice geographical, artistic, and technical errors, and believe me, they will inform you. Even readers of science fiction or fantasy want your story to make sense in the world you’ve created.
One caveat: Don’t overburden your story with mysterious details only to boast about your study. Add specifics in the same manner as you would season food. It adds to the experience, but it isn’t the main course.
Step 6: Choose your point of view.
Because it encompasses so much, the point of view from which you write a novel might be complicated. Your point of view is more than just picking which voice to use: first person (I, me), second person (you, you’re), or third person (you, you’re) (he, she, or it). It also entails determining who will be your POV character, acting as the camera in your story. One perspective character in every scene is the cardinal rule, but I prefer one per chapter, and ideally one per novel. Readers will see everything in your story through the eyes of this character. There will be no peering into the minds of other characters. All you can portray is what you’re POV character sees, hears, touches, smells, tastes, and thinks. Some writers believe this limits them to writing in the first person, although it does not. The majority of novels are written in the limited third person. That indicates only one perspective character at a time, and that character should have the most at stake in each scene.
Writing in first person makes it easier to limit yourself to a single point of view character, while third-person limited is the most popular. I’m frequently asked how additional characters can be revealed or developed without moving to their point of view. Read popular novels to understand how best-selling authors do it. (For instance, the main character hears what another character says, interprets his tone, expression, and body language, and draws a conclusion. Then he discovers that the individual told someone else something completely different, showing that he lied to one of them.)
Step 7: Begin in media res (in the midst of things).
On page one, you must hold the reader by the throat. That doesn’t always imply gunshots or a high-speed chase, but it could be in a thriller. It entails eliminating extreme scene settings and descriptions in order to get to the good stuff—the heart of the story.
Les Edgerton, a gritty writer who writes big-boy novels (don’t say I didn’t warn you), believes that beginner writers are too concerned with explaining everything to the reader first. He’s basically saying, “Get on with it,” and trust your reader to figure out what’s going on. Every line and every word’s objective is to entice the reader to read the one following it.
Step 8: Engage the theatre of the reader’s mind.
Isn’t it common for the audience to remark that they preferred the book to the film? The explanation is self-evident: Hollywood, despite its high-tech computer-generated graphics, cannot compete with the theatre of the reader’s mind. Our minds’ images are far more dazzling and stunning than anything Hollywood can conjure up. Your role as a writer is to torch the theatres of your readers’ imaginations, not to make them picture things as you sense them. Give them just enough to get their mental projectors working. That is where the charm takes place.
Step 9: Intensify your main character’s problems.
You’ve made the prologue interesting for the reader and put your hero in dangerous situations. Everything he does to get out of that bad situation must now make it worse. Do not give him a break. Too many trainees make it too easy for their hero. They provide a private investigator with a fine car, an excellent weapon, a lovely girlfriend, a wealthy apartment, a deluxe office, and a rich client. Pull anything that makes his life easier out from under him. Allow his car to break down, his weapon to be robbed, his lover to depart, his landlord to expel him, his office to burn down, and his client to go bankrupt. Now put him in a scary situation.
The motor of fiction is conflict. His problem should logically decline with each successive attempt to address it. You can suggest that he is growing, developing, changing, becoming stronger, and adding to his skill set as a result of his challenges, but his problems should become increasingly unbearable until you…
Step 10: Make his predicament appear hopeless.
This essential plot moment is known by numerous names among writing instructors. This is referred to as “the bleakest moment” by novelist Angela Hunt. This is the point at which you wonder how you’re going to write your way out of this mess. The once-reprobate lover, now a changed man and a devoted fiancé, slips off the wagon the night before the wedding. When he is caught using drugs and drinking with another lady, his true love storms off, swearing never to talk to him again. Consider your protagonist’s nadir, the lowest point in his or her life, the most tragic period. Your ability to manipulate this can make or ruin your career as a novelist. This is not going to be easy, believe me. You’ll be tempted to grant your protagonist a reprieve, devise an escape, or infuse a miracle. Don’t even think about it! The dire situation necessitates your hero acting, using every new muscle and technique he has gained from facing a book full of difficulties to prove that things were only beyond repair while they appeared to be. The more hopeless the scenario, the stronger your climax and ending.
Step 11: Bring it all to a climax.
The ultimate resolution, the emotional high point of your story, is when your hero encounters his most difficult test yet. The stakes must be high, and failure is fatal. The tension that has been developing throughout now reaches a climax, and all of the key book-length setups have paid off.
The rebels are compelled to destroy the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope. That sequence felt flat in the original version of the film. As a result, the filmmakers suggested that the Death Star was about to destroy the rebel outpost. That increased the stress and raised the stakes significantly, providing the payout that has been promised to readers. Reward their loyalty by allowing them to witness the fireworks, but keep in mind that the climax is not the finish. The true conclusion binds everything together and puts everything into perspective.
Step 12: Leave readers wholly satisfied.
A remarkable conclusion:
- Acknowledge the reader’s financial and time investment.
- Always go for the heart, whether it comes to being creative, strange, or inspirational.
- Keep your hero on the scene till the very end.
Because climaxes are so astonishing, endings often just shrink away. Do not allow this to occur. Your ending may not be as exciting as the climax, but it still needs to be interesting and exquisite. Take your time. Rewrite it until it is perfect. I have long stated that all writing is rewriting, and nowhere is this truer than at the end of your novel. When do you realize you have rewritten it enough? When you have progressed from making it better to just different. Write a satisfying ending that brings the curtain down with a smack. Your readers will appreciate it.
Frequently Asked Questions and Novel Writing Tips
How much time does it take to write a novel?
Once in a lifetime. Everything you know will be extracted from you. It takes as long as it takes. I know such answers sound dismissive but remember that speed is not the point. Quality is the main point. Spend as much time as it takes to be completely satisfied with every word before offering your novel to the market. The length of time it takes to write a novel is determined by your objectives and time limitations.
A 100,000-word manuscript, including modifications, should be possible in six to nine months, even for a newcomer. Develop and create good habits, and stick to a regular writing schedule.
How hard is it to write a novel?
If you are someone like me, it will be the most difficult task you’ve ever done. If it was simple, everyone would do it easily. Every published novelist (yes, even any major name) was once where you are now: unpublished and unidentified. They eventually flourished because they did not give up. You will write a novel if you resolve not to give up. I can’t promise it will be a smash hit, but I can promise it won’t be if you don’t finish it.
How do I know if my story idea has potential?
Your story will have legs if it stays in your head, evolving and growing with each thought. The proper idea just feels good. When you land on it, you’ll know. Above all, your concept must push you to write it. Tell someone you trust about your story concept. You should be able to tell by their expression and tone of voice if they like it or are just being nice.
You Can Do This
If you want to write a novel, do not let the injustice of the process overwhelm you. Take it one bite at a time, just like you would eat an elephant. Don’t let fear hold you back. Use it to motivate yourself to produce your best work.
Stay away from thinking. What if…?
Take the risk.
Keep in mind why you launched this way in the first place.
If you follow the steps I have outlined, you might find yourself holding a manuscript that could become a published novel with your name on the cover this time next year. Get help from our book publishing agent.