Writing a novel is not like any other form of writing. It is a very long work of prose, usually between 75,000 and 100,000 words, and is expected to follow enough ‘rules’ (some unspoken) to choke a horse.
When I set out to write my Great American Novel, I had no clue about the rules of engagement. I figured that since I had made bunches of A’s in high school and college English classes that I could just put a slew of characters on the page, throw in a quirky storyline, and wham I’ve got a novel. A novel is just good grammar and dialogue, right? Not so. No more than a ditty makes a symphony.
A Few Basic (Though Not-so-simple) Novel “Rules”
- Start your story with a hook, with action
Most stories start with action but not with the right kind of action. Good stories hook the reader with the first paragraph (sometimes with the very first sentence). In that hook, the writer must create an incident or “story question”, which takes over 75,000 words to answer. That’s got to be a mighty good question, I’m sure you would agree.
- Create believable, three-dimensional characters.
I remember the day that a friend gave me some sobering news about my first fiction manuscript. She, a seasoned university short story professor, told me that my characters were flat and predictable. The manuscript would eventually become my my first novel, The Making of Isaac Hunt, but not until I invested many hours and dollars into learning about good character development and character arc. I look to create characters and I’ve taught classes on characterization.
- Plan your novel
Let me introduce you to two writers. One writer just sits down and write her novel by the ‘seat of her pants’. The other writer creates complex diagrams, scribbles copious notes on sticky notes and index cards, or designs complicated spreadsheets before writing a single word of the novel. Which writer has planned her novel? I contend that both have. Each is using a different level of planning but planning nonetheless. Each writer knows where they want to story to go; in other words, they have the beginning and ending in mind. They just have different organization styles.
- Learn about plotting
Your plot is your agenda for the story. Plotting involves building in varying levels of conflict, tension, setbacks, triumphs, and complications. There are a number of schools of thought on how to plot a novel-length work. One of the best I’ve seen (and used) is Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I also like what James Scott Bell has to say about plotting. He’s written some good stuff on plot and story structure for Writer’s Digest Books.
- Be consistent with point of view
Point of view, POV, is a tricky thing for new writers. At the risk of over simplifying POV, I think it’s best for new writers to write their first few manuscripts in first person. First person is written using “I” versus he/she (second person). Too often I see first-time authors trying to use third person or omniscient POV; when you as the writer know all. It results in classically confusing ‘head hopping’–dramatic shifts from one POV character to another. Pick a POV character and stick with it throughout the scene. Read more about it on Author’s Den.
- Show, don’t tell
This is one of the classic rules of creating fiction. Simply put, it means show me what the character is experiencing, don’t tell me. For instance, don’t tell me that Johnny is mad. Show me the extent of his anger through his actions and reactions. Does he cuss a blue streak, cry like a baby, or bust up furniture. Following this rule also adds more texture to the story and aids the writer in characterization (which is a fancy word for building depth into your fictional characters).
- Avoid cliches
This rule goes hand in hand with the show, don’t tell rule. When we avoid cliches we create (hopefully) fresher more appealing metaphors and similes, and more vibrant characters too.