“How do I write my first novel?" is a question you might have asked yourself. A beginner’s guide to writing a novel could certainly be useful and ours will help you to write a book step-by-step.
After all, writing a novel is undoubtedly the most difficult task a writer can undertake. Especially if it’s the first book. But there are many popular writers out there. How do they do it?
With the rise of self-publishing platforms like Smashwords, Amazon KDP and the like, you see writers churning out novels easily, and they publish a new novel every few months (weeks, in some cases). While on the one hand, self-published books lack the credibility of a publishing house, and in most cases, lack the editing and polishing from a professional book editor, one the other hand, these authors have written their books. As in, they began the book, they wrote it, and they finished it.
Which means, if you haven’t yet written a novel, that they have done something you haven’t done yet.
So, put an emphasis on it. Do not get discouraged by that fact, and keep on working and practicing your craft. Our guide is here to help you achieve the milestone of writing your first novel.
Hope you find it helpful and feel free to use the table of contents below to navigate to the main sections of our writing guide!
Part One: Planning Your Novel
Some writers write from the seat of their pants and appear to go on for hours, days, and weeks, without stopping, until they’ve finished their book. And, if you belong in this group, you will find the phase of planning your novel dull and boring and unnecessary.
But, you are still planning your novel – as you write it. The only difference is that you’re not aware of it and since you’re not writing anything down beyond the words that go into your novel, you think that you’re not planning anything.
On the other hand, what happens when you need to research a specific detail? What happens if you need to research a lot of things for your book because you’re writing a medical thriller and you don’t have a medical degree?
Perhaps this is why the most common advice that beginner writers receive is “write what you know." But, if you’re writing from the seat of your pants (more on this approach later), you might have done all the research you need before you put the first word on the page.
And do you know what that is? That’s planning your book.
In conclusion, every writer does some sort of planning before writing the book, be it character development, creating a plot outline, developing the story, or just doing research for science or medical things. In this part of the guide, we have shared some of the most important things that a writer can do in the planning phase of writing a novel. Keep in mind that these are things we have tried and discovered as having worked for us. So, if they do not work for you, feel free to tweak them, replace them, and come up with your own even, until you find what works for you.
Define the Book Genre
Defining the book genre might seem like a redundant thing to do in this phase, especially since genre comes into question during the marketing phase, which comes after you’ve completed (and edited and polished) your novel. However, defining the genre before you’ve started writing your novel (or as soon as you’ve started writing it) can be highly beneficial. It will keep you from exploring new directions which might lead your novel into a different direction than you initially wanted.
Note: often, these different directions can lead to writing a surprise masterpiece. Don’t discard them immediately just because they don’t fall into your desired writing genre. Make them work within the genre instead.
Another reason why defining the genre is important is because you can start marketing your new ‘paranormal romance’ or ‘science-fiction thriller’ novel before it’s finished to create a buzz. This will work best if you have an already established platform of fans and readers through a blog or other social media presence.
The third benefit is that you will know from the start what your plot will be like. Will you have a dual plot of science-fiction and romance? Will you have a single thriller plot interspersed with moments of drama?
Defining the genre (and in most cases) the subgenre of your novel will help you get a clear picture of what your finished novel will read like once it’s been finished. And that can be incredibly helpful for a lot of writers.
Research the Audience
Once you’ve established the genre and subgenre of your novel, you can go to the next step, which is researching your intended audience.
There are many ways that you can do audience research.
First, if you have a blog and social media presence as a writer, you can ask your readers about their favorite books and why they like them. Asking your readers what kind of book they’d like you to write is quite a direct approach and you might not be comfortable doing that for your first book. But, you can do this once you have a few novels under your belt. In that situation, your readers will ask for scenes, snippets, prequel novellas, and short stories that involve characters from your previous books. However, if you haven’t published a novel yet, all you need to do is ask your readers what they’ve liked and disliked previously.
Once they answer, you will know a few things:
- The genre preferred by most of your readers;
- The things they like and dislike in a book;
- Characters they like and dislike;
- What they consider to be a good villain and antagonist;
- What kind of story will satisfy and dissatisfy your readers;
- Whether they like to read standalone novels or series, and a lot more.
The second way to do audience research is to find as many books as possible in your genres. You can do this easily using Google, and Goodreads. Goodreads is a very good resource, because a lot of readers post reviews there. Also, you should check out Amazon. You will see which books are bestsellers in your genre, and can read the reviews of those books as well.
Afterwards, you can analyze all of the books and the reviews. Read both good and bad reviews. Read which ideas are considered unoriginal, which events are considered cliché, and which characters are considered to be Mary Sues, and Gary Stus. (Note: A Mary Sue/Gary Stu is a protagonist that is too perfect, too humble, to good, too kind, too unreal, and who doesn’t make mistakes).
Why is this step important?
First, you will know who would consider reading your book. Second, you will know what not to do when you’re writing it. Third, you can tailor your book so as to please as many readers as possible. Many writers say that pleasing the readers with tailored books takes away the integrity from them, however, many fail to realize that when you are a writer – and want to write for a living – you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for the readers.
Besides, you can always strive for the middle ground.
The fourth benefit is that you can use the information to write a book that is original, instead of writing a story that has actually already been told before. In fact, Carol Riggs, the author of ‘The Body Institute’ has discontinued her series for the moment because she realized that the story she wanted to follow in the second book was very similar to the story in another book of the same genre called ‘Starters’, by Lissa Price (which was published at the time Riggs was working on the second book).
Beginning, Middle and End
Well, now that you’ve discovered how you can please your intended readers, you can move on to defining your story. We’re not talking about creating an outline – although that will come later – we’re talking about figuring out the three act structure of the story: the beginning, the middle and the end.
The beginning: define what happens to whom in the beginning, and what is the thing that starts the chain of events that will follow later.
The middle: the middle is important because it presents the point when the shift happens. In the middle, the protagonist shows the first signs of change, the story reaches a turning point, and – this is the most important thing of all – defining the middle helps you discover what your novel is actually about. The middle is the bridge that ties the beginning and the end, and it is the most important part that you need to define at this stage.
The end: defining how the story ends is not something that a lot of writers like to do, but knowing where you’re going can make the writing process easier and keep writer’s block at bay.
Defining the beginning, the middle, and the end will help you to create a novel that has a good story, a tightly woven plot, and it will help you to create tension, and help you to write the best version of your novel – as a first draft. It will save you a lot of editing later.
Deciding on Your Writing Method
There are many writing methods – because every writer has their own unique method that works only for them. That’s why we urge you to find your writing method, instead of telling you that one method is better than the other.
That’s not true. The best method will be the method that works for you.
Notably, most authors talk about four writing methods.
This refers to writing as you go, without planning, creating an outline, or defining your story. This method is very popular and effective for writers who lose interest in a story when they know how it ends.
This means writing and editing at the same time. The benefit is that at the end, your first draft will need less editing later on, and your story will be more cohesive and clearer. The negative aspect of this method is that you might turn out to be a very strict critic of your own work, and going back to edit what you’ve written most recently can make you hate your work so much that it will induce a writer’s block. In addition, writing and editing at the same time means taking a lot more time to finish writing the first draft, which again, might discourage you from writing the novel until the end.
Creating an Outline Before Writing Your Book
The third method means creating the plot before you begin writing your novel, and sticking to it until you’ve finished. The benefit of this method is that you will never ‘get lost’ when writing your novel. You will use the plot outline as a guide. The negative effect is that your novel might focus so much on plot that the characters will be put aside. On the other hand, if plot is the body of a novel, characters are the heart and soul. Readers follow the plot because they care about the characters. And readers care about characters that are well developed.
The Snowflake Method
Last, but not least, is the snowflake method. This method is a combination of all writing methods. For some writers, it’s the method that works best. The snowflake method means creating an outline, and then tweaking and modifying it as you write. It means combining seat-of-the-pants and editing as you go with the outline method. It is called the snowflake method because it often involves laying out the key points of the outline, and developing these further as you write the novel, resembling the fractals in a snowflake.
No matter which method you choose, make sure to tweak and modify it until it works for you. If you believe you need to have an outline and develop things as you go, then by all means, do not feel that you need to choose one of the four writing methods and put a chain on your creativity in the process.
Creating an Outline for Your Novel
If you’ve decided to create an outline (which is advisable to do so, in anyway, especially if you’re struggling to write your first book), then you need to know what exactly it is that you should create.
The best outline will include the following information:
- Each and every event and thing that happens in your novel – the plot;
- Define most of the characters: protagonist, antagonist, villain, side characters that have an impact, side characters that only show up briefly;
- Explanation as to why event A leads to event B;
- Character development: why character X decides to do this or that;
- Details about the events that lead to the end of the novel.
The outline will be a map to follow as you write. Do not forget to include how your characters develop in your outline, although, you can do this separately (and we have a separate tip for this below).
It doesn’t hurt to keep your outline flexible.
If plot is the body of the novel, and characters are the heart and soul, then the world of your book is the ground the novel stands upon. In other words, if your world is riddled with inconsistencies, the story and the plot will fall apart.
How can you work on your world?
Well, depending on the genre and the story, you can have several types of worlds:
- The real world;
- An imaginary world;
- An imaginary world based on the real world with changes due to science or magic.
The Real World
To avoid inconsistencies in the real world make sure that the location where your novel takes place is as realistically portrayed as possible. Make sure to respect the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and everything else to avoid making the world look like fantasy.
The Imaginary World
Usually found in fantasy novels, here you have free reign. But, this means you need your own laws of physics and science, you need to create your own races of people and communities. You want the fantasy world to appear as real as possible – and you want the story to be consistent within it.
The Imaginary World Based on the Real World with Changes
Commonly found in science-fiction novels, steampunk novels, and even stories that happen on other earth-like planets. In this case, you can choose what to keep from the real world, and what to change, but the same thing remains: keep everything consistent. If people can use magic but pay a dear price for using magic, don’t make your protagonist a special snowflake that’s exempt from this rule.
Defining the Cast of Characters
As we mentioned previously, your characters are not just people who are involved in the plot – they are the reason why the plot happens, and they will be affected by it in turn.
How to define your characters better?
First, you make a cast. Who is your protagonist, antagonist, villain? Then, define the other characters: who is the protagonist’s love interest, family, mentor, teacher, friend? Then, define the roles each of these have in the novel. If you’ve found yourself creating a quirky sidekick who doesn’t do anything besides being quirky, either give him or her a role, or make him a side character who’s one defining aspect is quirkiness, although, even this is inadvisable.
All of your characters, even the minor ones, should be well defined. Physical appearance, history, backstory, age, psychological makeup, way of speaking. No, you might not be able to give each character enough screen time to use this information, but you will ensure a few things:
- Each character will talk with his or her own voice;
- Each character will appear more real to the readers;
- It will be easier for you to decide which characters appear in which scene;
- It will be easier for you to write a scene with a lot of characters because defining them beforehand means you will be able to know, at any given moment, a character’s age, physical appearance and voice.
More importantly, you will know which characters will have an impact in the story – and those will be the characters who will undergo some type of change. Also, this is important if you want to write a novel from multiple points of view – once you know which characters will change throughout the novel, you will be able to write the story around all of them, instead of trying out points of view that do not work that well because they are, more or less, only observers of the story.
Define the Characters’ Arcs
A character’s arc is what most writers refer to when they talk about change. The important characters in a book change as a result of the things that happen to them and the things that they have to do throughout the novel.
The characters will change in several ways:
- Psychologically: the character changes his or her way of thinking and viewing the world. Often, they have faced and overcome (or failed to overcome) a fear. The result is either psychological healing or psychological (or literal) death.
- Physically: often, characters face dangers in a novel, which means at the end of the novel they are injured, or physically impaired or not as strong as before. On the other side of the coin, a character might need to get physically stronger (and does become so) in order to achieve his or her goal.
- Location: decide where your novel will take place, and how often and why your character will travel. Also, decide whether the change of location will have an impact on the character (preferably, it will have, and the character will experience restlessness, nostalgia, and other emotions related to the location).
Moreover, decide how you will show the change in your characters. Through their actions and words, the characters need to show that they are slowly changing. Show why the characters have changed in such a way slowly, instead of showing a major change at the climax of the novel – a change that doesn’t make sense because the characters haven’t shown any signs previously.
Part Two: Writing Your Novel
If you’ve decided to just skip planning and go directly to writing your novel, don’t fret – as we previously said, the process of writing a novel is different for every author. In fact, one of the biggest differences between writing for a living and other professions is the fact that no writer will ever work the same way.
For example, some writers are bloggers, some have hectic schedules that go from morning to midnight and beyond, other writers have strict writing schedules that go from 8 to 4 or 9 to 5.
Making a living as a writer, whether as an author of fiction, a blogger or a freelance writer, involves many things. You will have to gain knowledge in marketing, you will have to be able to balance your time and be your own boss (which can be very difficult at times). But, at the core, lies the act of writing.
And that might be the most difficult part – but the act of writing is why writers choose the profession. The love for words, for stories and worlds and relationships, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. And when it comes to writing a full novel, the feeling is, and should be, enhanced even more. So, let’s take a look at tips you can use when you begin writing – and you can use these tips even if you have skipped the planning phase of your novel.
Writing plan – or writing schedule. Many writers talk about the importance of writing every day. We suggest the same thing. The most basic writing plan you can get is to write every day – and this plan is also the most effective one.
Because you will create a writing habit. The side benefit of creating a writing habit is that you will be able to write until inspiration strikes. It’s why the best cure for writer’s block, as many authors say, is to just write. Write anything. That’s the writing plan you need.
Let’s, for example, assume that on Monday, you sat down to write the first chapter of your story, but the words didn’t come out. Don’t fret. Just write. Your writing plan is to write every day – even if the words you write do not make it into the final version of your novel. However, once you begin writing anything, your brain, like an old car, will heat up and at some point, the words and sentences you wanted to put in your novel will come.
However, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make a writing plan. If you think that the best way for you to finish your novel is to set up a daily schedule, then by all means, do it.
For example, you can set up daily tasks or goals:
- Write for two hours, or from 9 to 12, or from 9 to 4 if you want;
- Write a certain number of words in your novel (many writers prefer to hit the 3K mark);
- Write a chapter, write a scene, write ten pages or three.
The choice is yours. However, make sure that you don’t wait to write your novel until inspiration strikes. That can possibly kill the novel. Waiting for inspiration to write is like waiting for rain in the desert. You have to walk for hours to reach an oasis in the desert. Writing will often feel similar to that. Most of the time, you will write with a heavy feeling of doing something extremely difficult. But there is always the oasis, and there will always be times when writing feels easy and glorious. Seek those times and write until you find them.
Decide Where You Will Start
There are many ways that you can write your story, when it comes to actually writing down the storyline.
The Linear Way
The linear way is when you start writing the novel in the way that the readers will read it. No back and forth between chapters and scenes. There are benefits from writing this way. You will always know where you are in the story, and you will always know what happened before, so you can keep the flow of cause and effect that drives a story easily.
The Non-Linear Way
Or, you may go the other way. The non-linear way, where you will write a bit from the beginning, then jump to the middle, then write a scene that comes near the ending – maybe even the ending itself! Whatever works for you, just keep writing without stopping. There are benefits from writing your story this way as well. For example, if you are writing from multiple points of view (see section below about these), in a non-linear way, you will be able to move forward into the story from one point of view. Then, you can go back and fill in the blanks through the eyes of another character. However, even if you’re writing from only one point of view, the benefits remain. Going forward into the story means you know what’s going to happen. When you go back to fill in the blanks, it will be easier for you to insert foreshadowing and forewarning elements (see section below on foreshadowing and forewarning), and other little details as well.
Whichever way you choose, make sure that it works for you. It’s easy to tell a story to a friend – but it’s totally different when you want to write a novel. The story is longer and more elaborate, the plot needs to be tightly woven and make sense, and all the rest that we previously talked about. If you want to finish your novel faster and enjoy the act of writing as much as possible, you need to find the right way (for you) to write your novel.
Points of View and The Differences Between Them
The points of view in a novel are determined by the narration – or the narrator. Let’s take a lot at the most basic forms of narration:
First Person Point of View
This is when the narrator is one character and tells the story via first person. This form of narration is very common lately, in almost every genre, from romance to fantasy. The drawback of this type of narration is that you will tell the story through the eyes of the protagonist, and if something important happens off screen, the readers will not witness it firsthand and the impact of the event will be lessened.
But, there are benefits as well.
The character’s inner thoughts provide a running commentary of what’s happening around them, which can enhance the novel in a great way. On the other hand, if the character whines to himself or herself constantly, it can be annoying for the readers. Also, if you share too many of the character’s’ inner thoughts, the novel will be happening inside of the character’s head, instead of around him.
Second Person Point of View
This is the rarest point of view. With this type of narration, you are asking the reader to imagine himself or herself as living the story. This point of view often finds its home in experimental fiction.
Third Person Point of View
There are three types of third person point of view. The first is third person subjective, then we have third person objective, and then we have third person omnipresent point of view. Let’s take a separate look at the three of them.
Third Person Subjective (Limited) Point of View
This type of limited point of view is subjective – meaning we still see through the eyes of one character, usually the protagonist, but we also get to know his or her thoughts. The story is told through third person point of view, but often, the thoughts of the character are also present, interspersed through the narration. This point of view is almost the same as first person point of view, with the only difference being the narration is done via third person.
Third Person Objective (Limited) Point of View
This point of view is similar to the previous with one difference: the readers are never told about the character’s inner thoughts. In this case, the readers are following one character and only get to see what he or she does and says, but they are not told what the character (protagonist) is thinking. This is the best way to tell a story through the eyes of an unreliable character – although, the unreliable character can also be done via third person subjective point of view as well.
Third Person Omniscient Point of View
Many times, you will hear the joke that to be a writer is to be a God of a universe and control the lives of many people – the characters inside the universe. Third person omniscient point of view is where writers can show this. The narrator is an omniscient being that knows and sees everything. In the story, the narrator will follow and know the inner thoughts of every character, in every scene, and only chooses what to share with the audience. For example, if two characters are quarreling, the omniscient narrator can easily switch between their points of view to show what both characters are thinking and feeling at the same time.
There is no right narration in a story. Whichever you choose will be right as long as it works within your story, and as long as it feels natural to write it that way. Many writers have their own preferred point of view. Some use first person exclusively, some switch between first and third – sometimes even in the same novel – while some use third person omniscient. Some writers say that writing from an omnipresent point of view can take away some of the mystery surrounding the characters, or some of the mystery from the story, but the truth is that a good storyteller will tell a compelling story regardless of the type of narration.
Backstory and How to Integrate It
Backstory is the backbone of your novel. It’s everything that happened to your characters before the story started. You need to have detailed backstories for each character to know what drives their actions and to be able to create a character’s arc for them that will be natural and relatable. But, how do you integrate the backstory in your novel?
This is a very difficult question, and again, there is no right answer. However, we can tell you some ways of integrating backstory. Some are better than others, and you’re about to discover why.
This type of backstory sharing happens quite often in the first chapter. First, we see the character do something, whether it is escaping wild dogs that pursue him or her, or whether they are just getting out of bed, it doesn’t matter. Then, we are immediately told about who he or she is, and how the individual came to be where he or she currently is. This is the usual way many writers decide to introduce a character, and then intersperse the rest of his or her backstory throughout the novel.
A flashback is a scene that the writer shares, which happened in the past, and we are only looking at it right now because it’s important. In fact, we might even see it through the eyes of a different character rather than the protagonist, or it can be a scene from the protagonist’s past that had a great impact, and as such, it deserves its spot in the novel.
However, we need to stop here to tell you something about these two ways of integrating backstory. Both ways share a drawback: they take the reader out of the story, out of the present, and push him or her into the past. This creates a discontinuity of the reading experience, and many readers actually stop reading, put the book down, and go do something else for a while.
Or, they may even skip to get ahead and discover what happens next in the present instead of the past. No matter how big of an impact backstory has, it’s very difficult to integrate it in a way that frankly, does not bore the reader. This effect is even bigger when the readers are plunged into the backstory as soon as the first scene of the novel is done.
So, avoid using these methods excessively in your novel, and avoid starting your novel this way: scene + backstory of the main character. Find ways to integrate the backstory in smaller chunks throughout the novel through short paragraphs about what happened or short flashbacks. Or, use dialogue.
Dialogue to Introduce Backstory
You’ve probably seen this method used in many first person point of view novels. When the story is told through the eyes (and in this case, the ears) of the protagonist, then the other characters’ backstories have to be told through dialogue – especially the backstories of characters that the protagonist meets for the first time during the novel.
This method is highly effective because it doesn’t take the reader out of the story, and it also means a lot for the relationship between the protagonist and the other character who is sharing their backstory through dialogue. With tight dialogue, movement, and tension, you can create a scene that moves the story forward and tells the backstory at the same time.
There are other ways of integrating backstory, but the above mentioned ways are most common. The best tip we can give you is to read novels in many different genres and see how and when and why the author shows the backstory. Then, analyze them, analyze which work and which don’t, and you will be able to seek the best way to integrate the backstory, and ensure that the backstory does not take the readers out of the present.
Chekhov’s Gun, Foreshadowing, Forewarning and Foretelling
Chekhov’s Gun is a storytelling principle introduced by Chekhov, and is best described with the words:
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” – Chekhov, in many letters and other variations
What the above statement means is not to give false promises to the readers (or in the case of the above, the watchers of the play). But, in modern times, this principle can be used best to introduce cohesion in a novel. If you introduce an item, an element, a possibility, a theme, a thought of a character, at the beginning of the novel, then by the end, something needs to happen that will create a cohesive whole. A very good example of this can be found in Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling.
In the first book in the Harry Potter series, Harry tells his uncle Vernon that he has dreamt of a flying motorbike. Later on, and quite soon in the course of the story, Harry meets Hagrid, and discovers that it was Hagrid who brought him to his uncle’s house on a flying motorbike when he was a baby.
Do not confuse, however, Chekhov’s Gun with foreshadowing and forewarning. Chekhov’s Gun literally acts like a gun – it is shown, it is fired by the end, and that’s it. Chekhov’s Gun only appears twice, and then bows and gets off the stage. If you have a single theme, an element, an item, or anything really, that has a bigger role and appears many times throughout the novel, then you are using foreshadowing, foretelling or forewarning.
Foreshadowing, Forewarning and Foretelling
Foreshadowing and forewarning work in a similar way, but there is one key difference between them. Foreshadowing is hidden, forewarning is obvious. Both are used to create tension. Foreshadowing creates hidden tension, forewarning creates obvious tension, and both enhance the novel, and the story as well.
Foreshadowing needs two things: to be subtle and to pay off. You want to make the readers gasp with surprise – and then have them flabbergasted because they should have seen it coming. You can foreshadow the truth behind hidden secrets, the outcome of a conflict, the death of a character, anything. You can create puzzles that the readers will have to decode to figure out what you’re foreshadowing. The easiest way to foreshadow something is to finish the novel first, and then go back to drop the hints. If you do this, make sure the hints are not obvious. If they are, then you have foretelling.
Foretelling, telegraphing, and foreboding – they all refer to the same method of creating tension and letting the readers know that something major is about to go down. That’s the other difference between foreshadowing and foretelling. You can foreshadow something at the beginning of your novel and have it pay off at the end. Foretelling works differently. You cannot maintain that kind of tension for a very long time before the reader forgets that they should be expecting something bad, or big, or impactful to happen. For example, if the protagonist wakes up to a gray and overcast sky (a bad omen), then by the end of the day, the bad event has happened and passed.
Action and Reaction (Cause and Effect)
Cause and effect move the story in a chain reaction. But, it’s not so simple, because there are actually more than one type of cause and effect in a novel, and you should be aware of them in order to use them when writing your novel.
The normal cause and effect is the direct chain reaction where each effect becomes the cause for the next effect. That’s how you construct your novel, scene by scene, where each scene has two parts: cause (action) and effect (reaction).
However, there are underlying causes that have a prolonged effect. For example, if a character is wronged at the beginning of the novel, he or she may choose to react to that cause near the end of the novel, instead of immediately. A character may discover a secret in the middle of the novel – but not use that secret until book three, for example, if you’re writing a book series. This type of cause and effect actually enables writers to write series. They place causes or actions or problems in the first book, and then leave them as loose threads. The loose threads are then addressed in subsequent novels.
However, there are loose threads in every scene you write. For example, let’s say that the protagonist and another character are engaged in conflict in a scene. If the protagonist “loses" the conflict, this will lead to a direct reaction in the second part of the scene where the protagonist reacts to what happened and makes a decision. But, let’s say that the other character “lost" and then went off screen. The readers follow the protagonist and do not see the reaction of the other character. But, remember, every reaction serves as a cause for a different reaction. Later on in the novel, let’s say that this other character tries to kill the protagonist. It would not be something out of the blue, because the other character has had time to react off screen and decide upon such action. This type of cause has a delayed effect, but it also serves to move the story forward and make the story more cohesive and whole.
How to Write Dialogue in a Story
Dialogue can make or break your novel, in the best and worst possible ways. The most natural dialogue that writers, especially beginner writers, are predisposed to write are realistic dialogue where the characters, for example, will always say hi to each other upon greeting. It’s normal right?
Let’s say that two best friends meet about 15 times in the course of one novel. Will you write 15 versions of the following:
“Hello, Anne," I said.
“Oh, hi," she said. “How are you?"
And so on. The above example is extreme, but it conveys the point really well: avoid useless dialogue.
Here are some examples of useless dialogue:
- Characters planning ahead what they are going to do and then go and attempt to do it (even if they are prevented, keep the planning a secret, because you will be writing about it anyway later);
- Saying hello;
- Winding explanations;
- A character saying something that goes on for paragraphs.
A good exercise to improve upon writing dialogue is to listen to how people talk. Try to transcribe what you listen, and then sit down and edit the piece of dialogue until the unnecessary parts of the dialogue are gone.
Moreover, always remember to interrupt the dialogue with action. Characters don’t just sit and talk, or stand and talk. They walk, they pace, they wave their hands or arms, they grimace at what they hear, they shake their head, and do other things because they are alive. They are not lifeless statues that stop moving just because they are talking.
Also, avoid using substitutes for the word ‘said.’ There is nothing wrong with the word said. In some situations, it’s necessary to keep quiet, so your characters may whisper, or when they need to be loud, they yell or cry out. But, a character doesn’t sigh out the words, nor do they simper or sneer. A sneer is a facial expression, not a way of saying something. They may say something as they smirk, but they don’t smirk the words themselves. Also, the readers gloss over the word said as if it doesn’t exist in the dialogue. The word said is invisible. All that matters is who said, so the reader’s eyes are drawn to that and the words that are spoken, not towards the words said. But if you use the word simper, the reader tries to imagine the simper, instead of focusing on what the character said. All they will remember of the dialogue will be a smirk or a simper, not what was said.
Creating a Balance between Show and Tell
What is show, and what is tell, and why is every writer in the world talking about it?
Show is when you give hints to the reader as to what’s happening, what a character is feeling, and when you engage the senses to pull the reader inside the story. You make the reader feel what is happening, not only read about it.
Tell is the complete opposite, and is when you tell the reader everything that is happening and what the character is feeling.
Here is an example of tell:
“I felt pain as I never had before."
And here is the same example using show:
“The ends of my bones were breaking apart. I was shaking all over, struggling to inhale. I heard a wheezing sound, then I realized it was me."
Another example of tell is when you tell the readers the inner thoughts of the protagonist:
“I walked down the road. Stupid rocks will leave my bare feet bleeding, I thought."
And let’s attempt to write the same example using show:
“The trees went past me, the green branches shadowing everything, even the rocks on the ground. But I knew they were there. Every time I raised my bare foot off the ground, small and big rocks embedded on my sole. Soon, I knew, I would smell the blood."
Now think about it. Which way was more effective?
The first example put us straight into the character’s head. We were able to see the pain the character must be going through via their thoughts. The thought was angry and indignant, and a little funny too. The second example was elaborate, and maybe the reader will feel rocks embedded in the sole of their foot as they read it, but the character appears calm.
The above example is the exact reason why tell is also necessary in a novel.
Sometimes, you don’t have to show things. You can just tell them, and their impact will be just as big. Moreover, too much show in a novel can tire the reader. So, a balance is necessary. Maybe your novel requires more show than tell, but it still has some things which should be told for a bigger impact.
There are many other tips for writing a novel that you can use. You can read books, do writing workshops and exercises, attend conferences. Most of all, make sure to always work on your craft, and to always read everything that you can, because writers learn best when they do two things: read and write.
Part Three: Editing and Polishing Your Novel
Once you’re done with the first draft of your novel, you need to edit, proofread and polish it until it shines.
If you’re going to submit it to a publisher (and good luck if you are), then your first draft will need a lot of work to be the best version of itself.
If you’re going to self-publish your book, hire a professional editor and get a beta reader. A professional editor will be able to give you a good overview on how much work there is left to do, while the beta reader will spot grammar and proofing errors, will tell you if there are inconsistencies, and whether your book is enjoyable or needs a lot of work.
One thing is for sure. It’s very difficult to edit your own novel. In fact, it’s difficult to resist the urge to rewrite when you read parts of your novel.
The urge to rewrite everything will always be there. We all have our inner critic, and that inner critic hates us and our writings. That’s just the way it is. You would need to be able to overcome the inner critic in order to edit your novel completely, or forget what you’ve written and forget that you wrote the novel and think someone else did it.
And since none of us get sudden cases of selective amnesia when we finish a novel, the best thing to do once you’re done is to just leave it. Leave the first draft in a drawer, for a week, a month, however long you need. Go live a little, or write something else, work on something else. And when you come back, you will have rested: from the story, the characters, the world, and everything else, and will be able to look at it with refreshed eyes and mind.
Even if you are hiring a professional editor and a beta reader, you should do the edits we have presented in this section. Yes, there are eight in total, which will be very useful if you are not hiring a professional editor, because they will enable you to give the novel directly to a beta reader.
Pro tip: always have someone with experience go through your novel before you self-publish. Preferably, have that someone be a writer, a reviewer, or a beta reader with experience. You never know what your eyes might let slip by. But, the readers will definitely know and let the world know in a bad review (which you want to avoid).
So, let us begin with editing.
1. Editing on a Novel Level
Editing on a novel level. Such grand words to describe the first edit you will give your novel. Then again, it is also a grand process. The first edit is when you will be able to:
- Add scenes when necessary;
- Remove scenes that are redundant and unnecessary;
- Tweak sentences and paragraphs and dialogue;
- Fix spelling errors that catch your eye.
And everything else. You will rewrite scenes to read better. You will tweak a character’s name or appearance. You may change the character’s ages. In other words, you will change details, big and small, and if they have an impact on the story, you will change that too. This is the longest editing process. You might encounter plot holes (which we will talk about later) which you will need to fix.
A few tips for this type of editing:
- Do not worry about spelling so much;
- Focus only on the story and the characters;
- Avoid doing too many changes to your novel;
- Avoid major changes – unless they are really necessary;
- Take your time. There is no need to rush the first edit, because it’s the most important.
2. Getting Rid of Plot Holes and Inconsistencies
So, you’re doing the first, grand edit, of your first draft, and BAM! There are major plot holes and inconsistencies, and you don’t really know what to do. After all, the book is written and should not be drastically changed. Or maybe you start thinking it’s never going to be good enough for publication, and that dropping it to move on to something else might be a good idea.
The truth: if it is your first book, you might want to leave it for a while and work on another book for some time. However, that decision is always up to the writer. Some writers work on their first books for ages, trying to achieve perfection, while others leave their first drafts in a drawer to die for good.
There is the option of introducing major changes to fix the plot holes. Some things that you need to pay attention to are:
- Be aware that the major changes will impact the whole novel;
- Characters’ fates and actions might also change as a result;
- Think outside of the box for solutions;
- Make sure the changes are seamlessly integrated;
- You might need to erase a character completely – or add a new one.
Also, you might encounter inconsistencies within your world/universe that you will need to address. For example, if your novel is set in the real world, fixing the inconsistency would be easy, and the inconsistency might just be a place that either doesn’t exist in the real world, or it does exist but in a different geographic location.
But, if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, and have rules and guidelines that need to be the cornerstone of that universe, then you need to treat those inconsistencies with more care because they might affect the plot as a result.
Most of all, make sure that the final solution to the protagonist’s driving goal or problem could not have possibly happened at a previous point in the novel. Make sure that the readers know why it had to happen at the end and not before, because your novel will fall apart at a plot hole like that.
3. Editing on a Chapter and Scene Level
You should consider editing your novel at a chapter level. What you’re looking for when you’re editing your novel at this level, is that the chapters begin and end at the right time. Some writers want to ensure that each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, to make the reader read the next and the next, but, as we previously discussed with show and tell, too many cliffhangers can tire the reader. On the other hand, ending the chapter on a very final note might make the reader stop reading.
However, the chapter should be cohesive. Think of your chapters as series of very short novels that connect on the level of a novel. This is especially useful if you’re writing from multiple points of view.
Then comes editing on the level of a scene. We’ve put these two types of editing together because the scenes are part of the chapter, and are what make the chapter whole. So, when you edit on a scene level, you’re looking for two things:
- That the scene is constructed of two smaller scenes: the action scene and the reflection scene. The action scene is where the protagonist attempts to achieve something, but it doesn’t go as planned. In fact, it’s a disaster. Or, if the protagonist does achieve the goal, then something he or she had not predicted comes to pass as a result, and he or she now needs to reflect and come to a decision.
- That the scenes in the chapter flow: from the first to the last, they are connected. Each reflection scene should be the cause for the next action scene.
4. Editing on Paragraph Level
Editing on a paragraph level means reading through your novel and paying attention to how you’ve constructed your paragraphs. Do your paragraphs make sense, or are they too long? If they are too long, you will need to shorten them, and if you’ve written two paragraphs that can be rewritten as one, then you need to do that too. Editing on this level is not very complicated. You’re looking at the flow of the writing. If you feel that you’re getting tired just by reading the paragraph, then you will know you need to change it and make it shorter, or split it into two.
5. Editing on Sentence Level
This type of editing is also more or less easy enough to do. You will read each sentence separately, and decide whether the sentence is too long. Long and complicated sentences will tire the reader – and make you appear wordy as a writer. Sometimes, simplicity is the key to creating a good novel.
Editing on the levels of paragraph and sentence will also enable you to take a look at your style. Are you a purple prose writer, or a writer who prefers simplicity?
When it comes to writing style, most people imagine that a writing style is something that comes naturally, when that’s not the case at all. For example, if you want to have a snarky, sarcastic character (though, even that character should not be so prominent as to ruin the book with too much sarcasm – cheekiness is good, sarcasm incites negative emotions), do you think you would be able to come up with the right voice on the first try? You would, if being sarcastic is something that comes naturally to you. But in that case, chances are most of your novel would be riddled with sarcasm that you will need to tone down.
On the other hand, if you want to create a snarky character, you will have to come up with the right voice. If a sarcastic voice doesn’t come naturally to you, and you attempt to find the right voice during the writing process, you might actually induce writer’s block. However, when you read the words the character says in dialogue in the novel during this level of editing, nothing will stop you from tweaking his words a bit to sound just right.
When you’ve inserted a long description that doesn’t quite catch the image you had in your mind when you were writing it initially, nothing stops you from elaborating upon it, and replacing a few words with better ones to create a better picture.
In addition, you’re also looking for grammar errors.
6. Polishing and Proofreading your Novel
The last editing before the final editing is proofreading and polishing. This type of editing is very long and can be very tedious, and we advise getting another pair of eyes on your manuscript just to make sure you don’t miss anything.
What you’re looking for includes:
- Repetitive words and phrases;
- Spelling errors;
- Wrong words;
- Wrong use of you’re, your, their, they’re, etc.
We advise you to go through your novel several times. In fact, print out your novel if you can, and use markers in different colors to mark the repetitive words. You would be surprised at how many words and phrases you’re constantly using without realizing it. It’s not a bad thing in real life – we often use the same phrases when we speak – but in writing, it can be a bit jarring. On the other hand, if a character has a ‘catchphrase’ or a certain way of speaking, make sure that while it does appear in the novel, it’s not overdone.
7. Software to Use in Editing
Before you do the final edit, you can run your novel through different types of software to help with editing. Here, we are going to talk about Grammarly and the Hemingway Editor, and how to use them.
This tool is very good at catching grammar errors, especially if you have premium. It also offers to make changes to your text, just in case you don’t know how to fix the error. However, Grammarly is still software and not a human being. Grammarly tends to find repetitive words – because those words are often repeated, and appear not just in your text, but in most texts. So don’t put your whole novel in Grammarly. Do it bit by bit, and do not input more than 1000 words. Yes, running your novel through Grammarly will take a long time, but it’s worth it because it will catch the most glaring grammar errors you might have made.
This software can help you work on your style. It highlights long sentences, adverbs, passive voice, and complicated sentences that are not readable. The Hemingway Editor is very useful because it helps you detect these things and decide upon yourself if you’re going to change them or not. Beware, though, sometimes the sentence is clear, but Hemingway marks it due to its word number.
8. Final Edit and Why it’s Necessary
What’s the final edit?
The final edit is when you read your novel, from beginning to end, and look for any of the things we’ve listed previously. If you’ve done a perfect job with the other edits, you might not change a thing during this edit.
But, this edit is necessary because you will also be able to judge if you are enjoying your book or not. It might be difficult to detach and look at your book through objective eyes, but you must make the attempt.
In addition, this is the time when you should get beta readers to go through the novel. Moreover, if you’re self-publishing, this is the time when you would send out advanced reading copies to reviewers for an honest review or opinion.
And as you do that, it is time for you to move on to the next phase: finding a cover and formatting it for uploading on Amazon and other platforms if you’re self-publishing, or, if you wish to submit it to a publishing house, write the synopsis, the blurb, and prepare the first couple of chapters for submission.
Final Advice for Writers: Keep Everything Flexible
As we have discussed many times throughout this guide, it’s highly important that you, as a writer, understand a few things. Writers are, first and foremost, not born but made. So make sure to always work on making yourself a writer.
Moreover, published authors are not the only writers in the world. They’re writers who are published authors. As we said above, some writers are ghostwriters, some writers are freelancers, some writers are bloggers, and more. So never expect anyone to call you a writer. You need to call yourself that. If you write, then you’re a writer. There is no need to be published, or to write for a living to be called a writer.
If you’re working on your novel and holding down a part-time job – you’re still a writer.
And each writer is unique.
Every tip we’ve shared in this writing guide is open to interpretation by you and everyone else. The goal is to send you into a direction where you will be able to find your own way of writing dialogue, your own way of editing a novel, your own way of planning how to write the novel.
Authors often want to tell you that you’re doing something wrong. You’re not battling writer’s block the right way if you don’t sit down and write. You’re not planning your daily writing goal the right way if you’re not writing 3000 words per day, and more.
Yeah, it doesn’t mean that they are exactly right. Find your own method, and keep your own schedule. If it works, it works. If it enables you to write a novel within a relatively short period of time (meaning, it doesn’t take you longer than 5 years to write your first draft), then it’s perfect.
However, our final advice is to take time off. Take a day off every week, and take some time off every day for recreational activities, hobbies, and to live a little.
You will not do yourself a favor if you overwork yourself. Sure, your day off is tomorrow, but today you hit a streak and you’re afraid you might lose it. That might be true, but if you don’t stop at some point, you’ll overwhelm yourself and hit the writer’s block. So, take care of yourself, your body and your mind, as you don’t want to stop writing for a very long period of time because you’ve overworked yourself.
And again, keep each piece of advice and tip you ever read about writing, both here, on the internet and in other books, flexible and modify it until it works for you.
Want to read this guide in German? You can do so here.
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As an art student, she’s moonlighting as a writer and is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her laptop, trying to create her own.