Although I knew writing a novel would be hard, I’m going to be honest and say I didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would really be (stupid right?!). Before I embarked on my writing journey, I assumed that, as long as I planned, outlined, and did a little character development, my novel would just fall into place. I was wrong. Obviously.
Now, a year and one and a half drafts in, I am realising that my character arc is weaker than I would like, my subplots are one-dimensional and my main character is, well, boring. BUT, only through actually writing, growing and learning, have I come to this realisation. Sometimes, you just need to make mistakes, to realise where you are going wrong.
With that said, I thought I would put together a short blog post detailing some of the major things I’ve learned, in the hopes that I and others won’t make these same mistakes (again).
1. Character development in VERY important
Although I knew some character profiling was necessary, I became so excited and bogged down with my storyline, my setting, and my three act structure, that I cast aside arguably the most important aspect of novel writing; character development. Your characters are key to your novel as they are the driving force behind the plot. Likewise, character arc, character relationships and characterisation all deepen and add layers to your story, which, without these elements, will fall flat. Don’t make the same mistake I did! Spend hours, if not days/weeks figuring out your characters. Trust me, you will thank yourself later.
2. Writing the first draft is actually the easy bit
Vomiting up 2000 words a day is actually not too bad, because as long as they hint at your plot, who cares how bad they are. And they can be REALLY BAD.
A first draft is meant to be awful – it’s merely a vessel for you to throw down all of your ideas and thoughts. It may not be as coherent, deep or well crafted as you want it to be, but it will be a very good starting point for you to develop from. The following drafts – the ones where you start to look at your novel critically – are where the hard part begins!
3. That being said, just because you have a first draft doesn’t mean you have a good story.
I repeat. It does not. In all honesty, when I began my second draft, I ended up cutting about 20,000 words, deleting what I thought would be my main scenes and adding in another 20,000 words and several new plot elements. And I am still unhappy with the shape of my story so far. Sometimes, you can get so bogged down with certain scenes and characters, that you want to keep them in, even if they are irrelevant. Don’t. They add nothing to your plot, and although you spent hours writing them, they will only hinder you in the long run. Oh well, onwards and upwards!
4. No amount of planning and research will leave you fully prepared for the task at hand
I’m a list kind of girl. I like to be organised, often to the point that it cripples me. There are so many elements to writing a novel, that it can feel overwhelming and frustrating, so it’s tempting to go into full planning mode and try to micro-manage everything. Which is impossible. As a first time novel writer, you can’t learn absolutely everything by reading articles or books, or writing lists, outlines and templates. Yes it can help, but the only way that you will actually learn is by writing. I have learnt so much this past year, and although I’m feeling disheartened by my novel so far, I know that this is a necessary learning curve that will only make my writing stronger. I’m also super excited to explore all the possible ways that I can make my novel better!
5. Time and patience will lead to objectivity
Don’t worry if you go through days, weeks or months where you lack the motivation to work on your novel. Having a break from it can sometimes be a help rather than a hindrance. It’s easy to get so attached and over-excited about your novel that you overlook major plot holes or problems. Having a break from your novel can help you distance yourself, thus allow you to analyse your novel for possible problems more objectively.
6. The drafting process is not always clean cut
I always thought that I would have a first draft, a second draft, a third draft and so on, but this isn’t how my journey has panned out.
My first draft was 55,000 words, because I stopped short of the ending (I had too many plot holes to write a coherent one, hence wanted to fix these before continuing. I did have a rough idea of how it might pan out though).
The second draft, of which I am now 33,000 words in, has highlighted to me numerous problems that need fixing before continuing with the drafting process. I have therefore decided to stop mid-draft, and return to the outlining and character development stage.
So, In essence, I am, let’s say, only one and a half drafts in, even though I am on my second pass at writing. It’s likely that you will pick up on major errors as you write your drafts. Don’t feel the need to carry on until the end. Sometimes it’s better to iron out the problems, than to carry on just for the sake of finishing a draft. Whatever works!
Of course, I have learnt an awful lot more than the above, but it would be almost impossible to highlight every single one, as I am learning new things every day. I hope that reading this post will encourage you to keep going with your novel, even if you are somewhat disheartened with it. Mistakes, wrong drafts, major plot holes and errors of judgement are all part of the journey. We will get there in the end!
When you first begin your initial research on how to plan and write a book, there are countless useful blogs (listed at the bottom of this post) and articles on the elements that make a good story, in particular:
- The three act structure
- The use of three disasters
- Conflict (of which there are many types)
- Character arc and premise
- Goals (story goals, life goals and scene goals)
In isolation, the theories relating to the above are pretty digestible, however, they do not work on their own. Each theory interweaves with the intention of coming together and creating a well thought out story with a clear purpose. The complexity of this is overwhelming and personally made me want to tear my hair out.
Being a designer, I like to visualize things, so one morning when my head felt like it was going to explode, I whacked out a pen and began to scribble. I was on a mission to work out how each of the following theories slotted together to create the bigger picture, and to find a way to convey this in the simplest way possible. This is what I came up with. (Please note, this is based on the three act structure).
And this is it jazzed up and redesigned a little for you guys…
This graphic aims to give an overall picture and act as reference for those of you who need a friendly reminder of how all your planning fits together. Further planning tools and printables will be provided for each of the sections to further assist your planning process at a later date.
To those of you who are new to the writing world, I will dissect and explain the graphic in more detail below to aid understanding. Those of you who are already familiar with what it all means, feel free to take it and use it whenever you need a little reminder or clarity.
Acts, disasters and scenes
The three act structure is generally the main structure that your novel will follow. It is a well known and respected structure, used often in novels and play writing. Each act has a specific ‘purpose’ which will be discussed in further detail below. Each act is also made up of smaller scenes. Each scene takes the protagonist one step closer to the story goal. Within the three act structure there are the three disasters. The disasters again have a specific purposes.
Act 1 and first disaster– Act one is roughly one quarter of your story and should set up the story and introduce the reader to the characters and the world in which they live in. It should also introduce us to the problems that the protagonist needs to solve.
At the end of act one comes the first disaster. This disaster acts to commit the protagonist to the story (he knows what he wants, his goal and he goes after it) and bring him to the point of no return.
Act 2 and the second and third disaster – Act two takes up approx. 2 quarters of your novel. The first half of act two (the second quarter of your novel) should see your protagonist’s reaction to the first disaster and begin his quest to the goal. The second disaster strikes at the end of the second quarter (half way through the second act). This disaster is bigger than the first one and acts as a major set back to the protagonist reaching his goal. The third and final disaster comes at the end of act two. This forces a decision/ a change of mind-set that will set up the third and final act.
Act 3 – Act three presents the climax, resolution and presents whether the protagonist reaches his story goal. It is not always a bad thing if he doesn’t, as throughout the process he could realise that what he thought he wanted, is not what he needed. Act three ties up lose ends.
There are three kinds of goals; story goals life goals and scene goals.
The story goal is what the protagonist wants the most and the problem that he needs to solve. This could be an external physical achievement such as graduating, or internal such as a change of mind-set or attitude.
The story goal does not only affect the protagonist. it is likely to affect the rest of the characters too. For example, if the protagonists goal is to save the life of his wife, but he fails, her family, friends and children will also suffer the consequences. When the stakes are high, the readers care more about whether he achieves it.
The life goals of the characters can be totally separate to the story goal. For example, the protagonists story goal is to save the life of his wife but his life goal is to become a professional trapeze artist. He has ambitions and goals that make him a memorable and realistic character. He is living in a multi-dimensional world with hopes and dreams of his own before the first disaster strikes.
Each scene within a story must have a purpose. This is where scene goals come in. In each scene your character must want something, which is then met with conflict (see below). Each scene acts as a step towards the story goal.
The role of conflict
As the graphic suggests conflict comes not only as the three major disasters, but is also present at scene level. Scene level conflict is directly related to scene goals, because it acts as the opposing force.
Conflict could be one of two things: internal or external. Internal conflict may mean your character is battling internal emotions or feelings. External means he is up against something physical such as another person, the weather, time etc.
Also bear in mind that conflict does not have to be anything huge. It could be as minor as your protagonist missing the bus – even such a seemingly insignificant event will produce a setback, pulling the character further away from his story goal.
Be sure that your character does not lose or win all battles. There needs to be a mix of both highs and lows to ensure tension and avoid predictability.
Put simply, your characters arc is the journey and changes your character makes between the beginning of the story and the end of the story. Your characters begins at point A, and ends at point B. ‘Stuff’ must happen between these points that incite and create this change. If there is no journey, you will find it hard/impossible to progress your story.
Veronica Sicoe offers a detailed explanation of different types of character arcs here
James R Hull offers an interesting insight into the difference between growth and change here
K.M. Weiland. explains in great detail how to write different types of character arcs here
What is a premise? There are diverging opinions on premise, what it is and how useful it can be. The following explanation is my own interpretation of it and what I see it to be. The premise as I understand it and as I refer to it in the graphic, is what the protagonist learns throughout the book – the end result of his character arc. Examples such as ‘Lifes too short to worry’ ‘If you love her let her go’ or ‘I am good enough’ to name a few.
It is important that you don’t get too bogged down with trying to find a premise that is moral and deep, or forcing your story to fit around a premise from the start. You may start with the premise and go from there, but equally you may not even know exactly what your character learns until you finish the book. What is certain and important is that your character will go through changes throughout the course of the book, and this change is a vital element to consider in the greater context of your novel’s overall structure.
I hope you find the graphic useful, and it would be great to hear your comments!
Everything I know I learnt from a variety of valuable sources (listed below). Undoubtedly, I will be returning to many of these sources time and time again for further guidance. Check them out!.
Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
After you’ve figured out the rough plot of your novel (I used the first 4 steps of Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method), it may help you to outline it.
An outline can be viewed as a basic ‘wire-frame’ of your plot which you can refer to throughout the first draft stage. Although it isn’t for everyone (some may find it too prescriptive), it can be helpful in ensuring that you don’t forget any of the major plot points or stages of character development. Your outline can also help you to figure out when to incorporate subplots and to identify elements of your novel which don’t fit in with the overall storyline.
This method assumes that you have plotted your novel using the three act structure, and that you have a rough idea of your storyline. You can read more about planning your novel and using the three act structure here.
This method gets you to think carefully about the beginning, middle and end of:
- Your novel as a whole
- Each of your three acts
- The chapters and scenes within the acts
By doing this, you will (hopefully) end up with a detailed plan which summarises your novel in three varying degrees of detail.
You should end up with something that follows the below structure. (Click the image to enlarge). Please note that the image is just an example. Your plan might omit the romantic subplot and you may choose to plan your novel using scenes instead of chapters.
I have also included this second image (my actual, much uglier outline), to further illustrate this.
You can create your own outline by following the following steps.
- Start off by writing a summary for each of your three acts. What happens in each?
- Plot the beginning, middle and end of each of your three acts.
What needs to logically happen in each act so that the protagonist can get from the beginning of the act to the end? As you plan each act, you will begin to see scenes and chapters forming.
- Once you start breaking the acts up into smaller chunks (either scenes or chapters), ensure that each of these also have meaningful beginnings, middles and ends. Each scene/chapter should be relevant to the plot and should propel the protagonist towards the chosen story goal. I chose to plan my novel using chapters, but this is just a personal preference.
- Continue to plan out each scene or chapter this way until you have reached the conclusion of your novel. Don’t worry if you have yet to decide on a specific ending to your novel – you can always leave this blank for now and write the ending after you know more about your characters and plot. You should, however, have a rough idea as to whether or not your protagonist achieves their goal.
- Once you have outlined the main plot, you can begin to think about subplots such as inner character conflict and romance story-lines. Separate these out into main ‘signposts’ and ‘turning points’ and intersperse them within your overall plot where you see necessary. You can have as many signposts as you see fit, but ensure that the events are reflective of, and add to, the main plot. The subplot points can appear wherever you wish and needn’t follow the below plan. As each novel will vary considerably, it is impossible to suggest where each of these points should be, hence you should use your own judgement when deciding where to include these.
Once you have figured out all of the above, grab a large piece of paper (bigger than A4 would be best!) and use the above to create a visual plot outline that follows the above plan. You can do this on Word (using the table feature) if you prefer. I created my plan in Adobe InDesign.
And VOILA! You now have a plot outline, which I hope will help you tackle the mountain that is the first draft! I know I found it incredibly helpful, and hopefully you will too!
There are several things you may want to do once you have finished your outline:
- You can use it as a point of referral as you begin the drafting stage of your novel.
- You can use it to analyse your plot structure in great detail before you move onto the next stage of the novel writing process.
- You can use it to help you write a chapter by chapter synopsis. After I had completed my plot outline, I had planned to use it as such as I felt that a synopsis would help me write the first draft. This might be a helpful thing for you to do, if you like to plan in even greater detail before you begin the drafting stage. Personally though, I got to chapter three before I decided to stop writing the synopsis and just get on with writing the dreaded first draft!
Any questions, feel free to comment below!