How to write your first novel

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I know writing a novel may seem like a gigantic undertaking, but don’t worry: I’m here to help!

In this article, I’ll walk you through a series of basic steps that will help you turn your ideas into a well-structured, compelling book. We talk about all things writing, in a friendly and conversational tone, just like we’re chatting over a cup of coffee.

From the initial creative spark to writing the first chapter, I’ll give you a detailed overview of the various stages of the writing process. We’ll tackle how to develop an intriguing premise, create realistic and engaging characters, and how to introduce moral choices and surprising revelations that keep readers glued to the pages.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or if you already have some experience in the world of writing: this article is designed for all those who dream of seeing their name on the cover of a book. I’ll give you practical advice and tried-and-true tricks to confidently tackle the challenge of writing a novel and to bring your creative visions to life.

We’ll also explore the importance of writing an effective synopsis and how to use it as a guide when writing your manuscript. And don’t worry, I know the word “synopsis” can be creepy, but rest assured it will become your ally as you write.

The elements that make up a novel

Our journey into the fascinating world of literary creation starts here, that is, from all the elements that make up a novel:

  • Initial Idea: Start with an idea that answers a question or problem;
  • The premise: a sentence or two summarizing the plot and main characters;
  • Wants and needs: the character must fight for what he wants, but he will eventually discover what he really needs;
  • Characters: develop complex and interesting characters;
  • Moral choice: confront the character with difficult choices that add tension and depth to the story;
  • Moral blind spot: the character is unaware of something wrong they are doing and that they have to deal with throughout the story;
  • Revelations and Reversals: New and unexpected information that increases the tension and challenges facing the character;
  • What the character learns and the cost: The character must learn an important lesson, but at a price;
  • Synopsis: write a detailed synopsis that summarizes the plot and key elements;
  • First Chapter: Make sure the first chapter contains the building blocks of the story and asks the central question;
  • Structure and cause and effect: The story must have a structure based on cause and effect, with events following each other logically.

By following these steps, you can create a solid and engaging structure for your novel, ensuring that readers stay interested and engaged in the plot and fate of the characters.

Well then let’s get started!

Why is structure so important to a writer?

There’s this thing people say to keep people away from the structure, which is “if there are no surprises for the writer, there will be no surprises for the reader”. I’m here to tell you this is false. It is not true.

One of my favorite writers, John Irving, wrote this delightful quote that I love — I tell everyone about it because it’s about the writing process. And he basically says:

“If you don’t feel like you’re about to put yourself down — if you don’t feel like you have no idea what you’re doing — then you’re not writing hard enough.”

And I thought, “Evidently, he doesn’t use the structure.”

Well, I was wrong: John Irving doesn’t start a novel until he knows its first sentence, last sentence, and everything in between.

I’ve come to believe that novels are like people, and structure is like a skeleton. So I started studying structure and now I will tell you everything I learned and how I start a novel using structure.

What’s the question?

First things first: find a question that the novel is asking and a question that I don’t know the answer to and that the novel will answer. Don’t think about your audience right now. You need to think about what is most meaningful to you personally.

What questions do you want to ask and, consequently, what answers do you want to know? This is what will make your work truly universal.

You don’t have to know the answer right now — just the question.

Then, as you write the novel, your structure will help guide the character through a series of trials and conflicts that will gradually lead him to the answer to your initial question. Remember, structure doesn’t limit your creativity, but it does provide you with a solid foundation on which to build your story. You can still add surprises and changes along the way, but having structure helps keep the story cohesive and focused.

So, to sum up, here’s how to structure a novel before you write it:

  1. Find the question your novel is asking that you don’t yet know the answer to;
  2. Create interesting and charming characters who are directly involved in the question;
  3. Think of a triggering incident that will put your main character on edge and force him to face the question;
  4. Use the structure to guide your character through a series of conflicts and trials that will eventually lead him to find the answer to the initial question.

By following these steps, you’ll be able to create a solid, well-structured story that will hold readers’ interest and help you write with greater efficiency and clarity.

The introduction

The next step is to write the dramatic premise. The premise is simply a sentence or two about what the book is about. That’s basically what I just told you. The premise lets you know:

  • The character who is already in trouble and will be in a worse situation;
  • The theme;
  • The world of history;
  • And perhaps the answer to the question, if you know it.

Desires and Needs

A character cannot get what he desperately wants. But with much struggle and much failure and loss, he may realize that what he wanted is not really what he needs.

And then he can go ahead and get what he needs in the end.

Let’s try an example with The Great Gatsby. It’s a book that most people know, and let’s do it with Nick Carraway, the narrator.

The desire. So let’s start with Nick Carraway. He is obsessed with growing up poor. He wasn’t well placed in society, he wants money. He wants to be part of Gatsby’s world of money and society because he believes he’ll be happy if he has that. It’s what he wants.

The misunderstanding. This is the next step. It means that what the character wants isn’t really based on the truth, and the character doesn’t even realize it. Nick Carraway believes that if he alone has money and enters the world of Gatsby, he will be happy. This is the misunderstanding of him. It is not true.

Action. The next thing you need, for the novel to move, is action. What will he do? Well, what Nick does is try to meet Gatsby, try to enter his world. He finds a rich girl. He gets what he thinks he wants, which is to be a part of this world but curiously, he’s not happy.

The “we’re all doomed” moment. Nick’s plan to be happy backfired, leading up to something I call the “we’re all doomed” moment. This means that all is lost. This is the moment in The Great Gatsby where his friend Gatsby is murdered. It’s also when her girlfriend turns out to be so shallow that he can’t stand being in the same room with her for another second. At that moment he has a kind of revelation…

The making. This is where Nick realizes, “Maybe I don’t want this anymore. Maybe I don’t need it anymore.” This leads to the last step of wants and needs…

Now we can start over. This is when Nick decides to get away from it all. He will go back to his childhood of him. He’ll try something different, and that’s the end of the story.

Then you have the whole novel mapped out. What’s interesting is that when you think about your end, you have an answer to that first question. Nick’s question was: “How can I have money to be happy?”

It’s a little open. We close that book and ask ourselves, “ Well, what’s Nick going to do now? “ We really don’t know. We just know that he discovered something that made him much happier.

A moral choice

This is one of the new concepts I learned about the structure of history, what is called “moral choice”. As soon as I say ‘moral’, I know some are probably rolling their eyes thinking, ‘Are we going to talk about Gandhi or will it all be feel-good?’ But this is not the point of a moral choice.

Entering a moral choice is to present your character with a huge choice, where both options are terrible. And the reason you want to do this is because it adds tension to your novel. It amplifies the question, develops the characters and advances the plot.

Take William Styron’s book, Sophie’s Choice. I think most of you know it. Sophie has two moral choices. The first is when she and her children stand in line during the Nazi selection.

Sophie’s first choice is to be very silent and hope that no one sees her with her children and maybe she will survive. She or she can call the Nazi and tell him that she is a Christian and she shouldn’t be in that selection. She chooses to call a Nazi and tells him: “Look, we are Christians, good Christians. We don’t belong here.” And as in all good novels, things reverse themselves, which means that if they can go backwards, things will get worse.

Later, another Nazi gives her another choice: “Either you give up one of your sons for the gas chamber and you and your other son can live, or you will all die.” Two moral choices, both terrible. How can she let her whole family die? He can’t, but how can he let one son die and the other live? It’s an impossible choice, but she has to take it and she chooses one where only one child dies and it destroys her for the rest of her life.

Choices like that are really important because they add depth to your character.

The moral blind spot

There’s also one other thing you can do with characters before you start writing, which is find the “moral blind spot.” This means that the character is doing something wrong and doesn’t even realize it. It’s kind of like starting with a character who’s an alcoholic. In this case you need to ask yourself:

  • Why is he an alcoholic?
  • Why does a drunkard become a drunkard?
  • What happened to him to make him an alcoholic?
  • What is the deeper reason? It has to be more than, “Well, he likes to drink, he feels good when he drinks.”

Usually, the deeper reason lies in a traumatic childhood.

Next, let’s get the drunk. Suppose that as a child he was beaten by his parents and that at 16 he managed to get his hands on his father’s alcohol. He drinks and drinks and the pain stops. He starts with this misconception by believing “the more I drink, the more I’ll work things out”. More will ease the pain. He just wants to feel better.

What happens with this moral blind spot is that you then have to throw your character into situations that show him that he’s not doing the right thing. Suppose this alcoholic has to visit his son. This is a custody battle. He’s nervous, he’s anxious, he thinks he’s going to get a drink to make himself feel better.

He takes one drink, takes two, then takes six. So when he picks up his son, he’s so drunk they won’t even let him see him, let alone get custody.

This leads up to the “we’re all doomed” moment where she realizes she’s lost custody of her child, life just isn’t worth living at that moment. There is huge room for new possibilities. She may realize, “You know what? Maybe I should stop drinking. Maybe I can be a completely different character.” And it’s a powerful thing.

Revelations and Reversals

Most people who teach fiction writing talk about three acts. When I hear about three acts, my head explodes because I don’t believe novels are in three acts.

I think a novel has a beginning and then builds to a crescendo to the end. This is partly done with the desires and needs that we have been talking about and also with something else: revelations and reversals.

A revelation is when the character or reader discovers something new that changes how the situation is viewed. A reversal is when the situation itself is reversed, and what seemed to be one thing turns out to be another. The revelations and twists keep the reader interested and push the plot forward.

When writing a novel, try to include revelations and twists strategically throughout the story. This will help maintain the reader’s interest and ensure that the story continues to progress in an exciting and engaging way.

In conclusion, as you prepare to write a novel, keep these important elements of plot and structure in mind: the question, the desire and the need, the moral choices, the moral blind spot, and the revelations and upheavals. Using these tools, you’ll be able to create a compelling and engaging story that your readers won’t want to stop reading.

With revelations and reversals the stakes increase, so the character has to act more.

For example, let’s say you have to get married and you need to get married for money, because you are very poor and your life will be a mess if you don’t. But… your partner leaves you at the altar. Well, that’s a revelation because it’s new information. It’s also a reversal because it overturns your expectations. This ruins everything, but… what could be worse than this? If your partner abandons you at the altar and runs off with your mother.

And what could be worse than this?

Well, for example it could be worse… if your partner leaves you at the altar, so you have no money, runs off with your mother and then they have a car accident and only your mother survives, and you have to take care of her. See how it stacks up? Raise the stakes. Make things worse.

Another thing a lot of people talk about about stories is, what is the character going to learn? Yes, I agree, but with one caveat: what will the character learn and what is the cost?

There must always be a cost. Nick Carraway discovers that money and Gatsby’s world aren’t the fairy kingdom he thought they were. And the cost is that Nick loses his friend Gatsby to get this information. He has to suffer to learn this. But it is what will give resonance to your novel.


So once you understand all of this, write a synopsis. I know many people, hearing the word synopsis, would prefer a tooth extraction without anesthesia because it is so difficult and terrible.

But trust me, a synopsis is your friend. A synopsis is what will help you while writing.

A story has cause and effect. A story is always “why did this happen, this other terrible thing had to happen. And because this other dramatic thing had to happen, this next thing had to happen.” It’s all cause and effect.

The best thing to do, then, is to show the synopsis to a group of people and ask if they find these elements:

  • Are there moral choices?
  • Are there revelations and reversals?
  • Have I contrasted wants and needs?
  • Do I have the answer to the story?

Writing the synopsis will help give you a solid foundation as you write the manuscript. What you’re going to do, as you write, is focus on one scene each week and work only on that. This way, you will break your novel into smaller parts and also give you a sense of accomplishment.

The last step before you really start working on your novel is the first chapter. Your first chapter is the question, your last chapter is the answer to that question.

When writing your first chapter, be sure to engage the reader right away and introduce the main characters and their challenges. Provide an idea of ​​the novel’s theme and setting, but avoid overloading the reader with too much information at the outset. Remember, your goal is to grab the reader’s attention and intrigue them, urging them to keep reading.

Once you’ve completed the first chapter, you’ll have a solid foundation to build the rest of your novel on . Now you can go back to the synopsis you wrote earlier and use it as a guide as you go along with writing your manuscript. Continue working through one scene at a time, following the structure of your synopsis and making sure each element is connected in a coherent and logical way.

As you write, you may discover new ideas or directions for your story. Don’t be afraid to make changes to your initial synopsis or plan, but be sure to maintain a consistent structure and stick to the key elements you identified early in the process.

Finally, remember that writing a novel takes time, patience, and commitment. You may encounter obstacles along the way, but try to keep motivation and confidence in your work. Read and revise your manuscript several times, listen to the advice of other readers or editors, and don’t be afraid to make changes when necessary.

Bottom line, creating a successful novel requires careful planning, an understanding of characters and their motivations, and the ability to construct a compelling storyline with surprising twists and revelations. By following these tips and working hard, you can write a novel that will capture readers’ attention and leave a lasting impression on their memory.

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