Ah, rules. Fiction writers tend to cringe at the very idea. I mean, this is a creative endeavor, no? Creative license comes with the territory, right?
Who wants to think about stinking rules when your imagination is running free and you’re chasing characters across the page?
There is all of that.
So let’s think of this in terms of tips for writing a novel. In terms of not what you have to do, but what will help you with how to write a novel.
That’s easier to swallow, no?
Because the thing is, these tips will actually make penning fiction easier for you, and provide the structure so that your imagination can soar.
And it doesn’t matter in which genre you’re writing—these rules apply to all fiction.
- Whose Story Is this?
That seems straightforward enough, doesn’t it. But identifying—and staying with—a protagonist trips up so many writers. And while yes, it’s fine to have an ‘ensemble’ cast, someone still has to take the lead.
Simply put, the Protagonist, the hero, the main character is the person with whom your reader settles in to travel through the story. Once you identify him, a few rules will help you stay focused and not fall into holes where you have to dig out before you can start again.
֎ First off, we meet him early. Page 1 is best, but he can begin the first chapter if you have a prologue.
֎ Second, we spend most of our time with him. About 75% in his viewpoint. So, we’re not away from him for long periods. Because again, he’s our guy—the person we’ve signed on with to go through the novel.
֎ Third, she’s the one who has the biggest effect on the story. She’s who finds the Holy Grail, whatever that Grail may be. Rights the wrong. Wins the day.
֎ And finally, she’s the one who grows and changes the most. She’s not the same girl we met to open. She hasn’t entirely changed, but is wiser, stronger, something-er, in a positive way.
- Who Are the Secondary Characters?
This cannot be a cast of thousands.
Your book itself can have a large cast, but the secondary characters are few, as they all have to have their own arcs of the storyline, which then fit into the whole. This can be somewhat daunting. So choose them with care.
And remember: each secondary character believes the book is about him.
- Which Characters Get Viewpoints?
Viewpoint is such an enormous issue, and it’s really a stumbling point for most writers, especially when trying to find their sea legs.
Simply put, viewpoint is whose eyes, ears, feelings, etc., through which a scene is being created.
A few sub-rules are helpful here as well:
֎ Use only 1 viewpoint character per scene. I.e., you cannot switch viewpoints in a scene. Doing so causes the scene to lose focus, and your reader to become confused as to what the scene is about, and to whom it’s most important.
֎ Strictly limit this. Only 2 major (which includes the hero) and 2 minor viewpoints. Again, all these folks have to have their own character/story arcs, and more than that causes the book to sprawl and ramble. Plus, having more makes it danged easy to start just telling about things . . .
- What Is the Main Theme of the Novel?
This is the overriding idea of what the novel is about. It’s kinda like your elevator pitch when you’re talking about it to an agent or editor. This isn’t the details of plot, but: How a man comes to understand the value of existence and his place in family life. Hamlet-like.
- What Is the Basic Plot?
Now, a lot of writers write from discovery—which is absolutely fine. But at some point, even if that point is in major revision, the plot itself has to be defined and hold up.
The plot is more than that ‘value of existence’ sentence above. It’s what happens in the storyline, to get you from point A to point Z. It’s specific, well defined, and leads into:
- What Are the Plot Points?
We have 2 sets of these.
Major Plot Points are vitally important, imperative, and come in at very specific times. They form the major movements in the story.
֎ The first one takes your character from normal life into committing to the journey of this story.
֎ The second brings your character into the depths of himself, as he gears up to fight the foe.
֎ The third one brings the events to a climax.
Minor Plot Points lead up to each of the major ones in a steady, believable progression. Even if you have a lot of twists and turns (good!), you still want your reader to believe these things can occur, so he’ll believe the next plot point, which will move the story in a new direction.
These are about character building, alliances, foes, learning new tasks, facing unforeseen events, etc.
Although called ‘minor,’ these are deceptively important! Craft them with care. They’re what truly keeps your story moving along, so you don’t get caught up in sagging middles.
NOTE: Plot points form the arc of your storyline—what the character goes through to achieve his goal. This is how plot changes characters, and characters drive the plot.
- What Is the Story Question?
Every book has one. That’s the point of the book, no?
The story question incorporates both theme and plot, and meshes them together.
There’s something the main character has to do in order to get from the beginning to the end.
֎ This needs to open the book. Or at least come in very, very early.
֎ And each and every scene needs to have some piece of this question. It has to do primarily with the point of the book, and why we’re reading it.
Craft this with extreme care.
- Does the Climax Cause the Character’s Internal and External Worlds to Mesh?
Because that’s the thing—the climax of the book requires that the hero has marshalled all of his forces, both his internal growth and his outward mastery, in order to save the day.
Which also means this internal/external dynamic has been mirrored throughout the story.
- Show Don’t Tell.
I know—writers are really sick of hearing this. And I’ve watched with a bit of amusement in writers’ online forums these days saying that’s ‘old news,’ and you don’t need to do it.
Well, you pretty much do.
Because our point here is to create a world, to create characters, and give the reader the experience of being there, rather than have a story told to her.
Now, that doesn’t mean you ‘show’ everything, or your book would be 500K words long!
It’s a balance. A beam you learn to walk. But rule of thumb:
Create the important parts. For that which the reader just needs to know, use bridges across which you tell those things.
This isn’t about minimalistic prose (although it can be).
The point of tightening is to dig through all the superfluous stuff, whether prose-wise, or character history, to leave only that which is truly important to your reader. Not to you, the author, but to the story and the read.
Because you want your reader focused on what matters, no?
There’s an old adage in this business: Be careful of taking your reader down an ancillary road that doesn’t matter much. He may just take that road and not come back (in other words, put the book down and not pick it back up).
- Polish, Polish, Polish.
How easy it would be to turn over your masterpiece to some editor, and say, “Fix the grammar, syntax, etc., etc., etc.”
But you know what happens when you do? Your voice gets changed.
I cannot begin to convey how many writers come to me in horror after having worked with an editor who “changed my voice.”
That’s not an editor’s job. An editor’s job is to help you uncover that shining voice. Which means that you, as the writer, need to roll up those sleeves and toil and toil until you can’t get the work any better.
To make your prose and your story shine.
So the ‘how to write a novel’ is a pretty simple thing in the end. Sadly, nobody ever said simple was easy!