How to start writing a novel: a step by step guide for beginners
Do you want to write a novel, but aren’t sure how to get started? We’ve put together our top ten novel writing tips to help you get off to the best possible start.
What is the premise/scenario/idea?
What is the idea that is making you want to write this novel? Can you see a character in a setting? Has something provoked a flash of inspiration about a story that you need to write?
All novels start somewhere, and you can expand your basic premise (‘I want to write about how Millie the millworker became a spy under the cover of being a successful concert pianist’) into a full-length novel. To start with, you need the germ of an idea (Millie’s progress from millworker to spy), or a scenario (Millie sitting at a grand piano in a concert hall with a Mauser strapped to her leg under her gown) or a suggestion of the wider issues the book is going to tackle.
A novel is a long piece of work so be sure the premise is something that you want to expand upon and spend a substantial amount of time working on. If your premise has you, the writer, in its grip then you’re off to a good start. The most important thing at this stage is to keep hold of your basic idea/premise/scenario and use it to fire your imagination as you put together the ideas that will form the basis of your novel.
If you don't yet have a firm idea for your story, why not try one of our inspirational coffee break exercises, or try our digital Creative Bootcamp special.
Who will be the main character in your novel?
Who is the lead character that is going to be the focus of your novel? And what’s their problem? You will need to give them a problem or a ‘want’ at the beginning of the novel that will set them on the narrative journey that you intend to write.
Whether your novel is going to be character-led (ie, the plot arises from issues relating to the character itself) or plot-driven (where the main thrust of the novel is to do with unfolding events), your novel will need a lead character. Readers will ‘see’ the events of the novel unfolding through the experiences of this character, and the success of your novel will depend on you creating a central character that readers want to spend time with. Remember that your character does not always have to be likeable, but they do have to engage a reader’s interest.
As you begin your novel, you won’t know everything about your character – you’ll discover that you learn things about them as you go along that will surprise you. It will help you, at this stage, to have a good idea of who your character is and what it is about them that will be explored in the novel.
At this point, with your lead character in place, jot down notes about the secondary characters and their role in the novel.
Read advice on creating compelling characters from award-winning novelist Ross Raisin here.
What genre is your novel?
The problem that you have given your character, and how you are going to resolve it, will relate to the genre you’ll be writing your novel in. If you’re writing a crime or thriller novel, the problem will involve solving a crime or an investigation with a high level of risk. If you’re writing contemporary fiction, the problem will either be internal, ie something personal to the character that stems from their background and particular circumstances, or it might be about the way they respond to an issue in society. If the problem involves relationships, you might be writing contemporary fiction again, or romance. If your character’s problems happen in the distant past then you’ll be writing historical fiction, and if there’s something terrifying in the cellar then you’re probably writing horror. If, on the other hand, you’ve projected a contemporary issue to its extreme conclusion in the future, you’re writing speculative fiction.
It’s a good idea to know the genre you’ll be writing as you set off, and not only because each genre has its conventions and you will write better in that genre if you are aware of them. Publishers like to have clear ideas of where a book will fit in sales categories, and although that’s a long way off at this stage it’s worth having an idea of what you hope to achieve and which published titles your book might fit in with.
What is your novel's setting or world?
What is the setting for your novel – and what effect does it have on your character and their problem? Just as plot develops as a result of character, characters are influenced by their setting – we are all a product of the particular version of the world we live in, and characters in novels are no exception. Your setting might be a real place in a real time period, or it might be somewhere you have invented, but knowing its landscape will enable you to give your story a sense of time and place. It doesn’t matter if your setting is real or imaginary – knowing the world your characters live in will give it a sense of veracity. Just as you need to know the colour of your character’s hair and eyes and what kind of shoes they are wearing, it will help you to map out their town, street, and the inside of their office/living room/spaceship/castle.
World and setting are especially important in fantasy and sci-fi novels. Author Gareth Powell explains some guidelines for SF worldbuilding here.
What is the theme of the novel?
What is the underlying theme of your novel? Underlying the ‘plot’ or storyline of a book, the titles that have most impact involve at least one underlying idea or theme. It might be ‘the importance of friends’, or ‘love conquers all’ or ‘second chances’ or whatever else is important to you and your characters, but it should be possible for the reader of your novel to identity its theme. The theme isn’t the same as the subject; ie your ‘subject’ in a crime novel about the abduction of a teenager might be ‘internet grooming’, and the ‘theme’ how social media has created an environment where teenagers are increasingly judged on appearance.
Recommended read: What is the difference between plot and story?
Give your story a suitable ending
Have you decided how to wrap up this storyline? All stories need beginnings and endings. It’s easy to begin a novel: you take your initial surge of inspiration to your laptop and bash out 3,000 words – usually the beginning. But can you think of the way the key problem in your novel, the one that is central to the plot, is going to be resolved? Even though the end of your manuscript is approximately 90,000 words away, having an end destination in sight will help you plot your journey. If you have the beginning and end of your novel, you will be in a good position to plan the dramatic arc that your story will need. You might not yet know how you are going to get your characters to the end point, but you will be on your way.
Learn the basics of story structure: how to get your story from beginning, through middle, to end.
Sketch our your plot points/outline
Now you have a premise, a theme, characters and a beginning and an end, you’re in a good place to start sketching in a plot and creating a novel outline. You don’t need to know everything at this point, but making a note of key plot points will help you to create a dramatic arc. Depending on how plot-heavy you want your novel to be (and if you like to work this way), it might be worth creating a timeline/flow chart/spreadsheet so you can keep track of what needs to happen and the scenes you need to write. If you prefer a less-organised approach, it’s still a good idea to make notes of the key incidents that need to occur. You can shuffle them around and change the order in which they appear, but bear in mind that novels are complex, and having even a simple outline or structure will help you to chart your way through the long, complicated slog of writing one. Make notes about the landing stages as your plot progresses, and remember that you will need to work out how to bridge them.
Do you want to include a plot twist? Here's how to keep readers guessing!
Establish your key scenes
Scenes are not quite the same as plot points, though they can overlap. Your plot point might be the discovery of a dead body; the scene might be the description of the wet, wintry day when a couple in the middle of a relationship crisis stumble across a corpse while they’re out walking and arguing. The inciting incident in your novel will definitely be a key scene, and there will be other set pieces that you will want to get your teeth into. Make a note of them, and by all means write them too – it’s not essential to write your book in chapter order, and if you have created yourself a plan or structure you will be able to see how they will fit into the rest of the text.
One genre we can all learn from in creating impactful scenes is horror. Find out how to scare your readers!
Establish your point of view/narrative perspective
Just as it’s important to know who is in your novel and what is going to happen to them, you need to know how you are going to tell it. Whose eyes are readers going to see this novel through? Who is telling this story? Will you have a first-person narrator, or a third person? Will you be writing it in present tense, which gives a sense of immediacy, or in past tense, which is the more traditional way of telling a story? Will your story have a single narrative viewpoint or will there be more than one, and if so, how are readers going to be able to tell who is who? It’s worth spending some time working this out before you really get stuck in – it’s might save you writing 20,000 words in first person, present tense only to decide that your story would work better in third person, past tense. It’s not, by the way, the end of the world if this happens. It’s always worth experimenting and trying things out, and it might strengthen your manuscript if you become aware that taking a different approach would let you tell your story in a better way.
Exploring narrative perspective can be used to powerful effect, especially with unreliable narrators, as in this prizewinning short story.
What is the voice/tone/mood
Another thing that you will need to be aware of at the beginning is that your novel will require a voice, tone and a mood. The voice will be unique to you, and will relate to the language that you use, the vocabulary you deploy, the way you construct your sentences and the overall effect of your writing. Each writer has a voice, and more than anything else it’s what makes a novel unique. The best advice on finding your writing voice is to write as you, rather than trying to copy any other writer. But it’s trial and error, and sometimes a writer will only find their true voice when they discover the story or subject that really inspires them to write. Tone and mood are easier to pin down: tone will relate to the way you tell your story – will it be it dry, deadpan, funny, lyrical, poetic, chatty, journalistic, allusive? It will be related to genre, so decide what the overall effect of this book will be – if it’s a thriller you’re more likely to use a reportage style of writing than if it’s a romcom, where the tone will be lighter and the language fizzier. Think about mood, too – not just the overall atmosphere of the book, but for various scenes and narrative shifts – and how you are going to achieve this. Might there be certain motifs that appear throughout the book, signalling mood to the reader, ie. gloomy 1980s pop songs that coincidentally turn up on playlists when bad things are about to happen?
A strong voice is one of our essential skills for writers
Bonus question – are you writing the book you really want to read?
Before you launch yourself into a new document inspired by all the novel writing tips, ask yourself the most important question of all: is this the book you really want to write? The book that is missing from your bookshelves; the book that you need to write because it’s the book you would most like to read and it doesn’t exist? Because that it is the book you ought to be writing!
We really hope these tips on how to write a novel will help you get started, and keep going. Good luck!
If you would benefit from more individual guidance, why not take a look at our creative writing courses or, if you manage to get a novel completed, get expert feedback with our manuscript critique service.