Udemy logo

how to write a novelWriting a novel is hard; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Writers work through writer’s block, thousands of discarded pages and endless revisions to finish a novel. There is a reason why it took George R.R. Martin eleven years to write two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and why Cormac McCarthy has written just ten novels in a career spanning nearly fifty years. **If you’re stuck, try this FREE course full of writing exercises**

How you choose to write your novel is a matter of personal preference, time constraints and genre requirements. Professional writers without day jobs can afford to write whenever inspiration strikes; others have to slug it out, one word at a time. Some writers can hammer out novels at a pace that can make NaNoWriMo participants jealous, while others struggle to get out one finished sentence a day. But no matter what kind of writer you are, there are a few tenets of novel writing every aspiring author should follow:

Caveat: In fiction, as in all art, rules are meant to be broken. The ‘rules’ below are only guidelines; feel free to stray down the road less traveled.

1. Characters

From Harry Potter and Hamlet to Elizabeth Bennet and Rhett Butler, the stories that stay with us the longest are also stories with the most striking characters. Creating characters is part art, part science. Some characters – the reluctant but brave child-hero (Harry Potter); the lovable, amoral scoundrel with a heart of gold (Rhett Butler); the intelligent, indomitable, charming heroine (Elizabeth Bennet) and the brooding tragic protagonist (Hamlet) – tend to automatically attract attention.

When writing your novel, start with the characters. Furnish all the relevant details of your protagonist(s) – their names, their motivations, what makes them good, what makes them evil, and so on – before you write a single word. Try to make the hero someone the readers can root for (and it is okay if you make them utterly despicable – see Rhett Butler). And since every strong hero needs a stronger antagonist, make sure that your Harry Potter has his own Voldemort (you can learn some free character writing tricks in this online writing course).

2. Setting

Where is the novel set? How does the setting affect the characters? How do the characters perceive the setting? Does the setting serve any functional purposes? Does it add to the atmosphere? Or does it serve as a social/political/cultural backdrop?

These are some of the questions you must ask before choosing a setting for your novel. A novel set in Victorian England will be drastically different from one set in modern-day San Francisco, even if they both had similar plots and characters. A smart, urban romance must be set in a big city, not rural Montana, and a fantasy epic must be set in a fictional world vibrant enough to hold the readers’ interest.

Choose your setting wisely, for it will dictate how your characters act.

3. Narrative Mode

Novels afford a writer great narrative freedom. The narrative can be first-person limited, first-person omniscient, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, alternating person (switching between first/third person omniscient/limited), second person, and so on. Although there are no rules, certain narrative modes serve certain stories or genres better. What narrative mode you choose will depend on your own comfort level with a particular point-of-view and the requirements of the story.

4. Narrative Voice

‘Voice’ describes how a narrative unfolds. The voice may be that of the character, of the narrator, or of a third party (say, a newspaper report). It can be objective (the narrator does not relate the inner thoughts of the characters), subjective (the narrator has access to the characters’ thoughts), omniscient (the narrator can see everything), unreliable (the narrator purposefully misleads the reader), or stream of conscious (the narrator relates his thoughts as they occur).

The novel form is extremely flexible; it can accommodate multiple narrative modes and voices within the same story. You can switch from third person omniscient to first person stream of conscious within the same chapter. You can follow a character, or you can adopt an epistolary voice. You have unlimited freedom in choosing narrative voice/mode, though beginners should stick to first/third person limited/omniscient narratives as they are easier to write in.

See how to pick the best narrative voice and mode in this Novel Writing Workshop.

5. Plot

‘Plot’ is a broad term that includes all the events and incidents that make up a story. Besides character, plot is the most important component of any novel. Great plots can surmount poor characters and shoddy prose; the opposite though, may not always be true.

Two words characterize great plots: conflict and movement. Every novel must have at least one major conflict that needs to be resolved. This can be seemingly trivial (will Elizabeth Bennett and Will Darcy marry?) or immensely insurmountable (who will triumph – Harry Potter, or Voldemort?). What matters is that the conflict be big enough in the context to hold up reader interest.

Movement refers to not the physical displacement of characters, but whether the characters are willing to grow, learn and move on. Nothing kills a plot faster than static characters. The plot must throw up a conflict and move consistently towards resolution through the characters, who must also demonstrate a willingness to change.

Mystery, suspense, danger, thrill – these are all parts of the plot and grow from the story, conflict, characters and setting. Set your story in an abandoned Victorian-era insane asylum, and you will add horror to the novel. Make the protagonist an investigative journalist, and you will add mystery and suspense to the narrative, and so on.

If you’re struggling to get going, this step-by-step course on writing can help you out.

Final Words

There is no set formula to writing a novel. Some novelists like to create detailed chapter outlines and character sketches, while some feel their way through the story, one word at a time. Some novels are driven by plot, some by character. Some remain with you for their setting, some for the sheer beauty of their prose. The only thing you really require to be a novelist is a willingness to experiment, explore and grow.

When you finally finish writing your novel, check out this course on Kindle publishing to get started on your writing career!

Page Last Updated: February 2020

Writing students also learn

Empower your team. Lead the industry.

Get a subscription to a library of online courses and digital learning tools for your organization with Udemy for Business.

Request a demo