When your ambition is to write a novel, one can sometimes feel rather daunted by the process. It isn’t like writing non-fiction, where the information all exists and your job is to organise it and put your perspective on it.
No – you have to make stuff up.
Let’s be clear here, unless you are a very exceptional person, when you start to write, you won’t have all the answers. In fact, one of the writing communities I’ve been a part of has authors in it who have none of the answers when they start to write. They call it ‘pantsing’ – writing by the seat of the pants (as opposed to planning) – so they start from a single idea and see where is takes them.
That’s not me – I like to have a bit of a plan and I start my planning process by considering four simple elements. These can come in any order. In fact, you’ll probably shuttle back and forth between them as you develop your outline.
Setting – where and when?
I always start by thinking about the general setting of my books. Which country is it set in and during what period in time? This does not need to be real, of course. In most of my own fiction, I use an invented land in a medieval time period.
Knowing your setting gives you a basic framework to start from.
Characters – who and why?
To date, I have not come across a novel with no characters, although there are a few where there is only one (although personally I find them pretty hard to read). The majority, however, have a range of characters.
It is worth spending a bit of time getting to know the main characters in your novel. Likes and dislikes, physical appearance, personality and so on. Note it down – so you can be consistent with them throughout your writing.
You don’t need a comprehensive list of everyone – as you write you will realize you need extra characters to advance the plot – but the principle characters should generally be worked out.
Plot – what?
Once you have people in a place, they need to do something! So this is where plot comes in.
Everyone is different, but I start from a high-level plot (8 key steps, usually) and then add in detail. Others I know start by writing out a whole series of different plot points (hundreds of them, sometimes) and then organise them to make up the whole story.
If you are struggling to get your plot to work for you, do what George Lucas did. He was working on a script for his science fiction adventure but he simply couldn’t make it hang together. So he used the framework developed by Joseph Campbell in 1949 (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and from it, Star Wars was born.
The internet has a whole range of different frameworks for plotlines. Find the one that works for you.
Style – how?
It can take a while for you to develop your own personal style – one of the reasons part one of this series advises you to write every day. Part of it comes from thinking about the style of a particular book.
For example – do you want to write in the first person (“I went to the shops”) or the third person (“He went to the shops”). Daphne Du Maurier once wrote a book in the fourth person (“We went to the shops”) though it was rather odd…
How much dialogue do you want? Do you want it to be funny? Or gritty? Romantic? Graphic?
So think about how you want to organise your setting, characters and plot and how you want to tell your story. This is where reading lots of other fiction can give you ideas. Take a look at the style of other writers – it will tell you a lot about what you like and want to attempt.
Once you have these four elements – setting, character, plot and style – worked out, you are well on your way to being a writer!
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