The Ultimate Guide To Writing A Novel
Welcome to the ultimate guide on how to write a novel your readers will love!
Maybe you’ve already written part of a novel, based on an idea that sounded so good it kept you up at night — or made it impossible to focus on anything else.
But then you hit a wall and couldn’t find your way forward.
Coming up with story ideas is easy enough, but turning those ideas into books that earn you raving fans is not.
It’s not enough to know how to be a good writer, though that’s an important part of it.
You need to know how to turn a story idea into something your ideal readers want to read — with all the elements they’ve come to expect from your book’s genre, plus something they wanted but didn’t expect.
The best way to do this is to follow a general step-by-step plan for writing a novel, from the first rough sketch of your story’s idea to its basic outline to a complete first draft, one chapter or scene at a time.
Before we begin, let’s be clear about what a novel is and whether you should write one.
Table of Contents
What Is A Novel?
A novel is a creative work of fiction with over 40,000 words. So, writing a novel can be a daunting project for someone who hasn’t written one before.
Think of the novels you’ve enjoyed reading up ‘til now. What made your favorites so memorable? What is it about them that you hope to replicate in a novel of your own making?
- The twists and turns that kept you guessing?
- The emotional resonance of the main character?
- The story’s world that felt so real and made you want to step into it?
You also need to ask yourself why you want to write a novel in the first place.
If you’re writing stories because you love it or because you can’t stop yourself, then write on.
If you’re wanting to write a novel only because this or that famous author is rich, and you think becoming a novelist is your hot ticket out of your 9 to 5 job… think again.
There’s nothing wrong with writing for money. Just don’t let that be your only reason.
And don’t expect the money to start pouring in just because you wrote and published a novel and shared links to it on social media.
The first two of those things are definitely necessary if you want to earn anything with your novel writing. As for what it takes to keep the money flowing in, that’s a subject for another article.
Types Of Novels
Most fiction writing falls into one of the following genres:
- General or Literary Fiction
- Science Fiction or Fantasy
- Young Adult
- Middle Grade
- Crime / Mystery
- Thriller / Horror
Many of the most compelling novels, movies, and TV series combine two or more of these genres in the stories they tell. They do this to appeal to a broader demographic without sacrificing what the fans of a specific genre expect from it.
Many of these genres incorporate elements of others. For example, cozy mysteries usually have an element of romance. And science fiction stories often, if not always, include a mystery to solve.
If you’re not sure which genre to write for, think of the genres you read and enjoy most often. You’ll already have a sense of what readers of those genres expect, because you’re already one of them.
And make sure your title and the way it’s displayed on your cover fits your novel’s genre.
A fantasy novel title is going to look and sound different from a mystery or thriller novel title.
If you need some help with choosing a great title for your novel, check out this article on creating book title ideas.
How Long Is A Novel
If you’ve ever asked, “How many words is a novel?” you might have gotten slightly different answers from different sources. The general consensus among writing associations, though, suggests the following page counts:
- Novels — over 40,000
- Novellas — between 17,500 and 40,000
- Novelettes — between 7,500 and 17,500
- Short Stories — under 7,500
For National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), participants have to write a novel with a minimum of 50,000 words. But for most fiction, the sweet spot is around 80,000 to 90,000 words.
The average word count, though, will vary from one genre to another:
- General or Literary Fiction — 80,000 to 100,000
- Science Fiction and Fantasy — 100,000 to 115,000
- Young Adult (YA) — 55,000 to 70,000
- Middle Grade — 20,000 to 55,000
- Romance — 80,000 to 100,000
- Crime & Mystery — 75,000 to 100,000
- Thriller / Horror — 90,000 to 100,000
- Western — 45,000 to 75,000
Of all the genres, fantasy novels are most likely to boast a six-digit word count, but fantasy novels of 120,000 words or more are classified as “epic novels.”
How long should each chapter be?
While most chapters run between 1,500 and 5,000 words, the majority stay between 2,000 and 4,500.
Considering the average fluent reader can read about 200 words per minute, it would take 10 minutes to read a 2,000-word chapter and 15 minutes to read one 3,000 words long.
For someone reading your novel during a lunch break — without interruptions — this might be ideal.
If they’re reading at home in the evening, it’s not a deal breaker if a chapter takes 20 minutes (4,000 words) or longer to read, as long as you make each one no longer than it has to be and hold onto the reader’s interest.
If you’re drowsing and telling yourself, “I’ll just finish this chapter,” or “I’ll just read one more chapter,” chances are you’re hoping to reach the end of it in ten minutes or less.
Who’s Your Audience — and Why Does That Matter?
You might have a specific, younger age group in mind, or you might be writing to appeal to anyone old enough to read.
If you’re planning on including a romance that would get an R-rating in theaters, though, you’ll have to indicate that when you’re setting your book up for publication on Amazon.
For what age group are you most interested in writing?
- Children — ages 5 to 8, 7 to 10, 8 to 12, etc.
- Middle Grades — ages 9 to 14
- YA — ages 12 to 18
- New Adult — ages 18 to 25
- Adult PG-13 (with adult themes but no explicit scenes)
- Adult R (with explicit sex, violence, or both)
If you’re planning to write a story with explicit sex scenes, you won’t be marketing that to children or YA readers.
Most cozy mysteries keep it light, too, giving the reader the gist of what’s going on between two characters but not going into detail or giving us a play-by-play of their romantic encounters.
This is out of courtesy to younger readers and those reading novels during or after meal times. Plus, cozy and hard core don’t really play well together.
So, if your heroine swears like a marine and describes every conquest in dime-store-novel detail, you’re probably not writing a cozy mystery (or a cozy anything).
How To Write A Novel
Now that you know you want to write a novel, and you have an idea of what kind of novel you want to write, it’s time to tackle the problem of how you get started.
Once you know how to write a novel step by step — using a novel-writing plan that works for any genre — you’ll be well on your way to writing four or more novels a year.
Think of how thrilled your readers will be once they finish your first novel in a series and are eager to pick up the second to find out what happens next.
Or imagine your readers looking for other novels written by you and following you as a new favorite author. Imagine how you’ll feel reading your first glowing review from a new fan.
But how do you get from a story idea to becoming the published author of a new novel?
It starts with at least the kernel of a plan.
How To Outline A Novel (or Be A Pantser)
You’ve no doubt heard about the plotter vs. pantser debate.
And maybe you already know which one you lean toward. Or maybe you’ve given yourself a hybrid name like “plantser,” saying you do some of both.
Because why not?
If you’re not 100% a pantser — creating characters from scraps you pulled together and then throwing them into impossible situations to see what they’ll do — it can’t hurt to start with a basic novel outline template that allows you to flesh it out as much or as little as you like.
You’re not married to this template. And you don’t have to become an outliner to succeed as a novelist. Just ask Stephen King.
But outlining a novel isn’t as daunting as some make it sound.
Depending on your story planning style, you could just be brainstorming your story idea using groups of bullet points instead of paragraphs. Roman numerals are not required, though you’re free to use them if they help.
The important thing is to articulate at least the kernel of your story idea, giving you as much or as little structure and flexibility as you need.
You should be able to express the kernel of your story in one sentence.
To go beyond that and create a rough outline, start by identifying and describing your main character and the main problem he or she faces. Then sketch out the main antagonist, love interest, and any other characters critical to the story.
Describe your story’s setting and time — even if it’s just a generic town in the present time.
Then sketch out the story, point by point and scene by scene, using a numbered or bulleted list. Basically, just tell yourself the highlights of the story.
Here’s an example (from an actual novel):
Title: Before the Wedding
Main Character: Livian (“Liv”) Alder (fka Livian Marley)
Setting: Unnamed town — similar to Salem, Oregon
Best friend: Rachel Monroe
Murder vic: Gavin Blake, fiancé to Rachel Monroe and predatory bottom feeder
Love interest: Officer Declan (“Dex”) McRae, the cop investigating Gavin’s murder
Problem #1: Rachel is suspected of Gavin’s murder, and Liv wants to prove her innocence.
Problem #2: Dex tries to stop her from investigating, to keep her safe. And he turns into a huge distraction.
Problem #3: Liv’s brief time with her deceased husband (Kass Alder) has changed her perception of marriage — and not for the better.
Other Details: Livian isn’t tall and slender like Rachel, though she does a lot of walking. She also enjoys a daily glass of wine or two+. She doesn’t think she’s nearly as likely to attract someone, and she’s okay with that. After Kass, she’s not sure she wants to be a wife, anymore. She’s attracted to Dex but also afraid that a relationship with him would turn into what she had with Kass.
- The murderer is identified and arrested.
- Liv doesn’t get killed identifying the murderer.
- Dex shows up in time to help her, and they take another step forward with their distracting relationship.
So, what happens?
- Liv is talking to her friend, Rachel, in the break room after their lunch lady shift has ended. Rachel is telling her about her fiancé’s comments regarding marriage and their upcoming wedding, and Liv encourages Rachel to talk to him about her concerns.
- Rachel confronts Gavin about his use of her savings, and they argue in the school hallway, breaking up and causing a scene.
- The next day, Rachel heads to the teacher’s lounge to confront Gavin about the partial repayment of the money he owes her, and Liv hears her scream from the break room. She catches up and sees Gavin slumped over one of the tables with a knife in his back, his head resting in a puddle of strawberry smoothie…
You can include as much or as little information as you want for this outline. It doesn’t have to be long and detailed.
If you’d rather, go ahead and make the outline equivalent of a stick figure and don’t worry about adding flesh until you’re throwing words on the page for your first draft.
For a more structured but still flexible plan for your novel, create a skeleton outline with the following elements and add information to each:
- Opening (Ex: A pivotal conversation and a very public break-up)
- Inciting Incident / Turning Point (Ex: A murder and suspicion cast on the fiancée – and the introduction of Officer Declan McRae)
- Crises or Rising Action (Ex: Conflicts, arguments, unmistakable but inconvenient attraction, unnecessary risks…)
- Climax (Ex: A surprise encounter with someone willing to kill her to avoid discovery)
- Resolution (Ex: A captured killer – after a very close call – and discussions about the future.)
- Closing (Ex: An implied decision, with hints about future plans)
You can also break the story points and scenes up into chapters. This will help you keep track of what should happen in each chapter when you start writing your first draft.
Of course, just because your outline says it should happen doesn’t mean that’s what will happen. Keep in mind that your outline should serve you and your characters — not the other way around. So, if your characters hijack the story and take it in a different direction, don’t fight it. Just try and keep up.
Chances are when you come to the keyboard to write a story, you have at least the idea for one. You know where you want to begin. And if you’re a pantser like Stephen King, that might be all you need.
If you’re an outliner, though — a “plotter” — and you’d like to make a more detailed outline for your story, check out one of these helpful books:
- Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland
- Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker
- Fool Proof Outline: A No-Nonsense System for Productive Brainstorming, Outlining, and Drafting Novels by Christopher Downing
- How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson
How To Develop A Character
What is character development, and how do you create characters your readers will fall in love with?
When writing characters, ask each one of them the following questions:
- What do you want?
- What or who is stopping you from getting it?
- What will you do about it?
- What is your role in this story?
- Would the story still work without you? (Harsh but necessary)
Don’t just throw a character in there to please a friend or family member who wants to be in your next book. Make sure every character needs to be in the story.
And don’t forget to give each character a distinct and fitting name. Check out this name generator for help in generating ideas for characters of different ethnic backgrounds or for specific genres or time periods.
Once you’ve named your characters, get to know them better in one or more of the following ways:
- Voice journaling — Journal from the perspective of one of your characters, writing about what you want, what frustrates you, what makes you angry, what you live for, what you’re willing to do, etc.
- Character interviews — Mentally sit down with your character and have a friendly interview over a coffee or other favorite beverage. Make sure he or she answers all the questions. You’re the writer, so you do have some leverage.
- Rough Sketches or “Dating Profiles” — Imagine you’re filling out a dating profile for one of your characters, even the married ones. Then, for your most important characters, go deeper. Get to the heart of what they want, what they look for in a love interest, and what they love to do in their free time.
Choosing Your Point Of View (POV)
Here are your choices:
- First Person — A narrator speaks from the POV of the main character (speaking as “I” or “we”) with limited knowledge of other characters.
- Second Person — A narrator speaks directly to the reader from the POV of one perspective character.
- Third Person Limited — (Most common) A narrator speaks from the POV of one perspective character (using he/she/it) with limited knowledge of other characters.
- Third Person Omniscient — A narrator speaks from the POV of an all-knowing observer.
Most novels are written with either the first person point of view or the third person limited.
The character speaking in the first person is typically the main character, whereas the speaker in a third person narrative is usually a narrator speaking particularly from the view of the perspective character.
The general rule is to limit your perspective characters to one per scene or per chapter — if not for the entire novel. Hopping from one character’s head to another within the same scene will only confuse your readers and most likely lose their interest.
The second person point of view is rarely used for fiction. With this POV, the main perspective character speaks to the reader rather than to anyone else.
With the third person point of view, the speaker has limited knowledge of what’s going on in the heads of other characters and is generally limited to observing and making inferences.
With the third person omniscient POV, the narrator knows everything about the story and all the players in it. But since the POV doesn’t single out any one character’s perspective, the reader is less likely to identify with any of them.
The omniscient narrator might know everything going on in all the characters’ heads, but it doesn’t really get personal with any of them.
Fictional Story Ideas
Looking for your next great story idea? Try any of the following for inspiration:
- Fiction writing prompts
- Family stories
- Character sketches
- Social media stories
- Favorite fandoms
- Comic strips
- News headlines
- People watching (and overheard conversations)
- Listening to music that fits your chosen genre
- Journal entries (yours or those shared with you)
- Borrowing from (your) real life
Novel writing structure has to do mainly with its basic form and individual parts. It helps to know what elements your story needs in order to grab hold of and keep your reader’s attention.
Like it or not, the best stories have a basic structure to them. This doesn’t limit their power over the imagination — any more than a human’s basic anatomy makes every human in the universe identical.
Your story’s basic structure is what makes it recognizable as a story — rather than a poem, a dissertation, an interview, or something else.
Your story’s structure gives it a coherent form. It also gives you an idea of the order in which each part of the story happens — from the opening to the turning point to the first major problem to the climax to the resolution and closing.
Whether your story is fast-paced or more leisurely and meditative, the basic elements will still be there in the correct order.
A larger story can contain smaller ones, but each has an overall structure that leaves plenty of room for variety.
How to Write a Plot
Whether you’re sketching out your story in outline form or just summarizing the story to articulate the plot, it helps to know the following plot elements (which should look familiar by now):
- Opening — Starting in media res (i.e., in the middle of the action), the opening introduces us to the main character and tells us something about his or her motivation (abstract) and goals (concrete).
- Inciting Event — This is the point at which something happens to the main character to shake things up and present a choice.
- Rising Action / Developments — One thing after another happens to complicate things. It begins to look as though the main character is unlikely to reach his or her goal.
- Crisis or Climax — The whole story has been leading up to this moment, and the stakes are higher than ever. Whatever the mc does at this point will have consequences for every major character.
- Falling Action — The crisis is over, and the consequences start to become clear.
- Resolution — We see the outcome for the main character and supporting characters.
- Closing — The story ends or hints at a new adventure with the same character.
Keeping these plot elements in mind makes it much easier to plot out your story, adding substance to each of the steps in your story’s ladder.
Novel Writing Tips
Fortunately, no matter how new you are at this novel writing thing, the internet is full of helpful tips from authors who’ve been where you are now.
Why not start with some of our favorites?
1. Read more fiction than you write.
This is a variation on Stephen King’s advice, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Build a reading list of genre favorites and do your research.
2. Keep a notebook handy, and jot down stories that interest you.
Get ideas from real life, news stories, random conversations, etc. And write them down before you forget them.
3. Draw inspiration for character details from real people.
Notice their mannerisms, way of talking, favorite things, body language, etc.
4. Find something good in your villain and something dark in your hero.
Realistic characters are more interesting. Let the reader see the motivations behind your characters’ choices.
5. If you’re not sure which POV to use, try more than one.
Write a few pages in first person and a few in third person to see which works better for your story.
6. Infuse your story with universal themes.
Incorporate themes like sacrifice, life and death, redemption, rebirth, etc. to make your story more meaningful to your reader.
7. Give your characters an arc.
An arc gives a character more depth and gets your readers emotionally invested in them.
8. Let your readers use their imaginations with your story’s descriptions.
Give your readers just enough description to run with. Too much detail and they’ll tune out.
9. Make sure your story’s setting is vivid and believable.
Sell your story’s setting, even if you made it all up. Add some details that would endear the place to its residents.
10. Show your character’s personalities through their actions and dialogue.
You can tell the reader things, too, but show more than you tell.
Are you ready to write your novel?
Now that you’re armed with the basics on how to write a novel, you have an advantage over those who are writing just to imitate their favorite successful authors.
It’s not a bad jumping off point to have favorite authors and work to emulate them, but you need more than that to write a novel that will earn you your first raving fans.
And you need those fans to spread the word and help your book float to the top rather than sink to the 7-digit nether regions of Amazon.
Whether you’re a plotter, a pantser, or a hybrid of the two, you need at least an idea for a story before you start writing it.
Most of us need more than a one-sentence idea, though, to avoid getting stuck along the way and jumping onto a new and completely different story idea.
But sometimes it’s while you’re working on a different story that you get a great idea for the one you set aside.
In other words, do what works for you.
If you find that you have several unfinished stories because you start off with just a character and a problem and end up stuck in the middle, give outlining a try and see if it helps you rescue your book babies from quicksand and send them off running again. It’s worth a try.
There’s no shame in not being a pantser or in not being a plotter.
What works for you might not work for your closest writer friend. Enjoy the differences, and, when you get the chance, mix it up a bit. What could happen?
And may your creativity and sense of adventure influence everything you do today.