How to Write a Novel

Jack Smith and Sean Glatch  |  January 18, 2024  | 

The novel form is a large, unwieldy, towering project, and if you find yourself wondering how to write a novel, you might already be daunted by the project’s size and complexity. Good. How you’re feeling is how every great novelist has ever felt before approaching the blank page; you have already put yourself in the same annals as James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison. 

Writing a novel is like building a house: no matter how much planning and work you put into it, there is always more work you can do. No novel is perfect, and the effort required to build believable worlds, complex characters, and an entertaining plot that explores nuanced themes is certainly overwhelming. If you’re here, you’re probably wondering how you can fit all of these requirements into 300-odd pages. The novel writing tips in this article have you covered. 

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Whether you find yourself nervous to start writing a novel for the first time, or whether you’re intrigued by the novel form but don’t know where to begin, this article will help ground you in how to write a novel. In truth, there’s no single, one-size-fits-all novel writing roadmap, but use these ideas as a diving board, and you will soon be swimming through the writing process.

This article answers the most important questions in writing a novel, including:

  • What is a novel?
  • How many words are in a novel?
  • What are some different approaches to writing a novel?
  • What are the elements of novel writing?
  • What fiction techniques can I use in my novel?
  • What are some books on how to write a novel?

So, are you ready to learn how to write a novel? Let’s dive into the novel form, the elements that make a novel come to life, and some other novel writing tips to support you on this long and wondrous journey.

How to Write a Novel: Contents

What is a Novel?

Before diving into how to write a novel, let’s first demystify the novel itself. A novel is a book-length work of fiction that tells a complete story (or, as is usually the case, multiple stories). By immersing the reader in a world with complex characters, settings, plot points, and themes, novels emulate real life and inevitably impart wisdom about the human experience.

What is a novel? A novel is book-length work of fiction. By immersing the reader in a world with complex characters, settings, plot points, and themes, novels emulate real life and impart wisdom about the human experience.

Some people might balk at the idea that a novel always emulates real life. After all, there are many genres of fiction that ignore what everyday life looks like. How could a novel set on Mars, or a novel about secret agents, or a novel from the point-of-view of cats, reflect the human experience?

No novel can capture the totality of life, although it might try to. Novels like War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Les Misérable by Victor Hugo each total over 1,000 pages, and each novel examines the complexities and philosophies of simply being human, but none of them can convey the entirety of what it means to be alive.

Rather, novels capture a slice of the human experience. So, even a novel about cats will have its characters make tough decisions, like the ones that human beings make. Even a novel set in a galaxy far, far away might address philosophies of life, love, and conflict.

In fact, these elements—character, setting, plot, etc.—often act as metaphors for human experiences, representing our shared struggles in fictional realms. Such is the magic, the mystery, and the goal of novel writing.

How Many Words Are in a Novel?

Works of fiction can be categorized into different lengths, such as flash fiction, the vignette, the novella, and the novel. Although these categories are arbitrary, it is important to understand how the length of a work of fiction affects the story itself. It is also worth thinking about length, because length impacts the story’s publication opportunities—both literary journals and publishing houses pay a great deal of attention to word count.

How many words are in a novel? Fictional works of this length, as well as others, are summarized in the chart below:

Type of Fiction Word Count Example
Microfiction Generally <300 words Ernest Hemingway’s six word story “for sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Flash fiction Generally <1,500 words With a Bang” by Barbara Henning
Short story 1,500-7,500 words A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway
Novelette 7,500-20,000 words The Spectacle” by Edgar Allan Poe
Novella 20,000-50,000 words Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Novel 50,000+ words One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Epic 110,000+ words Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Some publishers and literary journals may have different definitions for each category of fiction, but these lengths are common definitions. Most publishers claim a novel is 50,000+ words, although you will find some theorists argue that the minimum length is 40,000.

How many words in a novel: 50,000+, though definitions vary.

For a longer breakdown of fiction forms by approximate word count, see our interview with instructor Jack Smith.

Although the minimum length of a novel is 50,000 words, novels of this length are rarely published by conventional publishing houses. Why? The primary reason is that book buyers are less likely to purchase short novels. A 50,000 word novel will rarely satisfy the reader’s desire for a well-developed story, with complex characters and themes. Short novels—as well as novellas—simply don’t appeal to the modern reader.

So, what is the ideal length for a novel? If you are writing a novel, and you haven’t previously published any novels, then a good goal to reach for is 70,000-90,000 words. Novels of this length are long enough to satisfy the reader’s desires without being too drawn out that the story becomes boring. 

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, and there are certainly debut novelists who publish shorter and longer books. But, this Goldilocks zone is sure to please many traditional publishers.

How to Write a Novel: A 6-Phase Approach

One way to think about writing a novel is through a 6 phase approach. The following phases aren’t the only way to write a novel, but many novelists include these 6 things in their process:

  • Generating an Idea
  • Research
  • Writing a Novel Outline
  • Establishing a Writing Schedule
  • The First Draft
  • Edit, Rinse, Repeat

Let’s explore this novel writing process. 

Phase 1: Generating an Idea

The first step to writing a novel is having an idea. Novel ideas can come out of anywhere: you might decide to expand upon a short story you had previously written, or you might decide to build an entirely new fictional world and use the novel to explore it. Your novel idea might try to dissect the psyche of an individual character, or it can try to comment on society as a whole. The novel is infinite, and so are the ideas that jumpstart one.

Generating an idea for your novel is much the same as generating a story idea. A story idea generally answers the following three questions:

  • Who is your main character?
  • What does your main character want?
  • What prevents the main character from getting what they want?

Novel Writing Tips: From Idea to Novel

Novel-length projects are complex. To push your writing past 50,000 words, your novel will likely confront complicated situations and ideas. Let’s compare two stories written by Agatha Christie, both of which share the same premise but are written at vastly different lengths.

The Plymouth Express” (short story): A young naval officer discovers the body of the Honourable – and nearly-divorced – Mrs. Rupert Carrington.

The Mystery of the Blue Train (novel): Detective Hercule Poirot investigates the case of a woman murdered in her train compartment, whose death may have been motivated by death, jealousy, greed, or revenge.

The first premise works perfectly for a short story. We are given the basic event of the story, the central character in question, and enough detail to make the story vaguely interesting.

The second idea, by contrast, shifts the focus of the story onto the motive of the murderer. This allows the story to develop into a novel, as it can muse on the concepts of love and greed, while also giving a narrative framework from the lens of the detective.

So, to write a great novel, start with an idea that offers the basic components of a story, but also offers room to explore the world and its characters. In much the same way as Agatha Christie writes the dark side of the human psyche, your novel can write about people, history, or the world at large.

Novel Writing Tips: How to Start Writing a Novel

Most novels begin at or near the start of the story’s conflict. The reader must become acquainted with the protagonist(s), their motivations and challenges, and the conflict that fuels the story’s plot. Readers must also learn about what everyday life looks like before the conflict begins, and they must be given ways to relate directly with the protagonist(s).

Most novels begin at or near the start of the story’s conflict.

Some stories, of course, begin in the middle or the end of the conflict. If you decide to do this, you must still tell us how the story began, otherwise the reader will get lost in the weeds of a conflict they don’t understand.

If your novel starts at the beginning of the conflict, keep this advice at heart: do not start your novel on a typical day. Start your novel on the day that something changes. 

You might be wondering how to start writing a novel’s first line. This list of 100 first lines in novels might help you find inspiration.

Novel Writing Tips: Know Your Purpose

Once you have an idea, the novel writing process will feel much less daunting if you can identify three things: the genre for your novel, an audience that might enjoy your novel, and your intent for writing the novel.

Define Your Genre

Knowing the genre of your work will help you structure the story you want to write. You might know your novel will be fantasy, mystery, or literary fiction, but go one step further: is it urban fantasy or magical realism? Is it noir mystery, a medical thriller, or both?

Delving into the genre of your novel requires some time, and it can bring up questions to motivate the plot and details of your fiction. This list of fiction genres is a great place to start unpacking your novel’s genre, though you might end up writing something even more niche.

Genres are just conventions for writing a novel, and while those rules can help guide your work, rules are made to be broken.

Now, “genre” is not a roadmap. Genres are just conventions for writing a novel, and while those rules can help guide your work, rules are made to be broken. Combine genres, avoid genres, or create a new one entirely; either way, know the conventions for your story, and plan accordingly.

Define Your Audience

Knowing your audience will help you plan out your story and develop a writing style for the novel. Of course, write your novel for yourself, not for your audience. But, if you know that a certain readership will gravitate towards your work, there’s no harm in considering what that readership will like.

For example, you might realize that a young adult audience will love your fantasy novel, so you decide to draw inspiration from The Hunger Games or from the Percy Jackson series. Or, you might write a mystery novel that appeals to women readers, so you consider making your main character a female detective. These considerations won’t define your work, but they will certainly guide it.

Define Your Intent

Answer this question: why do you want to write this novel?

Examining your own intent is one of the best tips for writing a novel. Because there is no set procedure on how to write a novel, many of the answers will come from inside yourself. You found yourself attracted to your novel idea for a certain reason, so whether you want to explore the human psyche, examine society, or build a lush and beautiful fantasy world, defining your intent will help you figure out where to start—and where to keep returning.

Phase 2: Research and Planning

All novels require research. Whether you’re writing romance, historical fiction, or autobiographical fiction, you will end up researching relevant details to make your novel more convincing. Having a plan for finding and organizing this research will make writing a novel much easier.

Research can help jumpstart ideas that you will work into your story outline; more on that below. It will also make the act of writing go by much quicker, as your notes and knowledge base will be much easier to reference. Keep your research organized in a word processing software, like Bear, Scrivener, or Microsoft OneNote.

Here are some free resources to help you with your research:

Most importantly, your local library or university may be able to provide free access to certain research databases. When in doubt, ask a local librarian!

Starting with research will help jumpstart the creative process and make the writing experience much smoother. Your preliminary novel research won’t be comprehensive, and you will likely have to do more research once you start the actual writing process. However, getting it out of the way now will help jumpstart the creative process and make the writing experience much smoother. It will also help you outline your novel, or even spark ideas for what happens in the story. 

Phase 3: Writing A Novel Outline

The story outline scaffolds your novel idea into a working plot. Outlining your novel is a long process, and some writers will take months to outline their ideas before they put the first word down. There are many different ways to write a story outline, but your outline should match your intent for writing the story.

For example, if you want to write a character-focused novel, then writing a novel outline that’s focused on character development might work best. Or, if your novel relies on heavy world-building and setting, then a scene-based outline will do the trick. Let your novel’s purpose guide the outline, then let the outline guide the novel itself.

Let your novel’s purpose guide the outline, then let the outline guide the novel itself.

Note: this method is called the “plotter” method, where you map out key details of the story before you start writing it. The opposite method is called the “pantser” method. If you write without outlining, you “write by the seat of your pants.” Both methods have their benefits: while plotting helps you work out the kinks in your story, pantsing allows you to surprise yourself with where the story might take you. If you’re daring enough, you can even do what our instructor Sarah Aronson does: write a “discovery draft,” where she pantses the first draft of the novel, then delete it (yes, delete it entirely), and write a new draft from scratch. 

If you’re uncertain which method to take, try writing some short stories using both plotting and pantsing methods.

For help getting started with this phase of writing your novel, see our practical guide to writing a story outline.

Phase 4: Establishing a Writing Schedule

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. —Stephen King

Wouldn’t it be great if we could dream up a novel one day, write it the next, and publish it the day after? Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, so if you want to get to the finish line you’ll need patience, diligence, and discipline.

Stephen King put it best when he said “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Of course, King has the resources to devote his entire life to writing, which is why he can churn out a first draft in three months. On the other hand, you might be writing your first novel while also working, caring for family, and living day-to-day life.

So, the next step for your novel is to build a working schedule. You might decide you have room to write 500 words a day, or time to write for 30-60 minutes a day. What matters is consistency: setting and keeping a defined schedule for you to sit down and focus your mind on your novel.

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint.

Give yourself a working timeline with weekly or monthly goals, and try to write every day. A consistent writing practice will carry you to the finish line.

Phase 5: The First Draft

Armed with an outline, a schedule, and a passion for your idea, it’s time to start writing. Your writing doesn’t have to come out quickly, and it doesn’t even need to be good writing. The first draft simply needs to exist: if it’s written, then it’s already successful.

The previous phases are intended to give you the structure to write your novel. When it comes to the writing process itself, everyone’s novel writing experience is different. However, remember to stay diligent, join a writing community, and remember that a first draft is allowed to be bad—that’s why we edit!

Phase 6: Edit, Rinse, Repeat

The editing process is often what takes the longest for a novel. You could write a novel in three months and edit it for three years or longer. Like the writing process, there’s no strict timeline for editing your novel, but don’t expect the editing to be quick and easy.

When you finish your first draft and get to the editing stages, give yourself a small brain break and reward yourself—because woohoo, you wrote it! Then when you get back to the drawing board, examine your writing with a critical eye, figure out what the novel needs, and set up an editing schedule like you set up a writing schedule.

A [story] is never finished, only abandoned. —Paul Valery

Follow this process for as many novel drafts until you’re satisfied—and remember, no novel will ever feel perfect. Paul Valery once said “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s the same with the novel.

Once you feel like you’ve worked on your novel for long enough, and you don’t know how to improve it further, find beta readers. Beta readers are people who read your novel and give useful feedback on how they experienced it, what’s working and what isn’t, and what you might want to do in your next revision. Typically, beta readers will swap ready novel drafts, so you’ll read theirs while they read yours. Do this with writers you trust and whose opinions you respect, and you’ll have feedback that can take your novel draft to the next level.

What comes after that? When you’ve finished writing a novel, check out our guides on publishing:

How to Write a Novel: 8 Additional Approaches

How are novels written? What does the process look like for writing a novel? Different novelists have different approaches to the form, and indeed, different novels might require their own unique approaches. 

The following methodologies are tried and true, as they’ve been utilized by countless storytellers. Use these plans as structures to guide your own writing process, and go with what feels comfortable for both you and your work.

Here are 8 different approaches on how to write a novel:

1. How to Write a Novel: The Pantser Method

The “pantser” method gets its name from the phrase “writing by the seat of your pants.” This is the least structured of any particular novel writing approach. To be a pantser, you only need to do one thing: make things up as you go. 

Pantsers do not do much planning in advance. They will likely have a story premise and a sense of who the characters are, but after they’ve written the inciting incident, everything gets made up on the spot. Pantsers simply follow their characters around as they make decisions, mess things up, and follow the plot to its logical conclusion.

Some novel writers are scared of the pantser method, as the innate formlessness of this approach makes it hard to guarantee the first draft is even readable. But, others find this approach to be delightfully freeing. Novel writing is a long process, and if you can have fun with it by letting your imagination run wild, why not give it free rein on the page? 

2. How to Write a Novel: The Plotter Method

Plotting is the opposite of pantsing. If you’re a plotter, then you have all the important details written down before you pen the first word of your manuscript. 

Novel writing requires a lot of attention to detail. Later in this article, we discuss the elements of fiction writing that plotters must consider as they plan things out, including:

  • Characters and conflicts
  • Settings 
  • Point of View 
  • The plot itself

Plotters may also want to consider what kinds of themes they want to target, and the styles they want to employ in their writing. Of course, these things also develop organically, and it may be better to allow those elements to emerge naturally. 

Plotting in advance gives novelists a structure to follow. But, some writers feel constricted by having a strict roadmap to follow—they want to steer off course, to consider different ideas, but should they?

While some novelists are strict plotters or strict pantsers, some fall in the middle: the plotser.

3. How to Write a Novel: The Plotser Method

“Plotser” is a portmanteau of “pantser” and “plotter.” It’s an ugly word, but it’ll do. 

Plotsers use a mix of planning and pantsing in novel writing. They might sketch out the details of their characters and form a working plot, but also allow themselves to follow new ideas as they emerge. The plotser doesn’t view their plan as the final roadmap for the novel, but rather as a living document, much like the novel itself, that changes and adapts over time. 

So, which are you? A plotter, a pantser, or a plotser? Again, go with what feels natural to you, and what makes sense given your own traits as a creative writer. 

The following approaches to novel writing can be used by plotters, pantsers, and plotsers alike—they are simply other means for developing ideas and turning them into fully fledged first drafts. 

4. How to Write a Novel: Write a Discovery Draft (and Throw it Away!) 

A “discovery draft” is most closely aligned with the pantser method. It’s a first draft that you use simply to explore what your novel could be. Any idea is fair game, as you simply want to learn about who your characters are and what situations they’ll get themselves in as you’re writing your novel

This method, which our talented instructor Sarah Aronson uses, is simple. Write a discovery draft. Then, when you’ve written the last word, throw it away. 

What? Yes! Throw it away. Delete the copy. Kill your darlings. Goodbye, nice to see ya, I’ll never hear from you again. 

What’s the point of this? By deleting your discovery draft, you empower yourself to write a completely new draft with everything you learned by writing the first one. Instead of going back, copying and pasting, and fiddling with words you’ve already written, you write an entirely new draft based on what you remember.

This method might seem crazy. But it works. The second draft you write will be significantly improved than the first, because now you know your characters and plot much better than you did before. You have a better sense of what works for your novel, and what not to include. And, simply by the act of writing a first draft, you have improved your skills as a writer. 

If you’re not comfortable deleting your discovery draft, you don’t have to. One alternative is to reread your discovery draft, plot it out, and then consider how you might want to change the plot before starting a second draft—something more in line with a plotser method. In any case, no matter how counterproductive this method seems, it works, and it will certainly result in a much stronger final draft. 

5. How to Write a Novel: The Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method is a tried-and-true approach to novel writing. In a series of 10 steps, the novelist writes their novel from idea to finished draft, starting with the most basic details and fine-tuning them into something complete.

Here’s how to write a novel using the snowflake method: 

Step 1: Write a one-sentence summary of your novel. This is a big picture summary, hopefully under 15 words long, detailing the most basic details: what happens, why, and maybe where and when. For most, this summary is connected to the inciting incident. 

Step 2: Expand your sentence to a paragraph. In that paragraph, include broad plot details: the “disasters” or complications that arise from your protagonist trying to achieve something, and an idea of how the story ends. 

Step 3: Develop a list of your novel’s major characters. Write a 1-page summary for each character that includes their names, backgrounds, motivations, conflicts, and how they change (or don’t change) by the end of the novel. Also write a paragraph summary of each character’s storyline. 

Step 4: Take your summary paragraph from Step 2. Now, expand each sentence into its own unique paragraph, providing more detail about the plot points and complications arising for the characters. 

Step 5: Write a 1-page description of each major character. These descriptions should tell the complete story of the novel from each character’s perspective. For non-major (but still important) characters, your description can be a half page. 

Step 6: Expand the 1-page synopsis from Step 4 into a 4-page synopsis (essentially: turn each paragraph into a full page). At this point, you are making strategic decisions about how your plot points go together, and developing the guiding logic of the story as a whole. 

Step 7: Expand your character descriptions into fully developed character charts. Write down everything you can possibly know about each character, even if those details won’t end up in the novel (you never know, they might!) Spend plenty of time thinking about each character’s transformation throughout the novel. 

Step 8: Turn your 4 page novel into a list of scenes. Chart out each individual scene that will eventually be strung together into the novel. If you want, you can do this in a spreadsheet, reserving different columns for different details relating to each scene (for example: the characters involved, the conflict, which subplot each scene is related to, etc.).

Step 9: Take each idea for a scene you’ve sketched out above, and write a 1-paragraph description of each scene. Allow yourself to be thinking about scene details, dialogue, and other useful notes as you move towards the actual writing process. 

Step 10: Actually write your novel’s first draft! At this point, all of the notes you’ve written down will (hopefully) make the writing process much easier, and much more rewarding. 

The Snowflake Method was developed by Randy Ingermanson. Learn more about this method at his site Advanced Fiction Writing

6. How to Write a Novel:The 5 Draft Method

The 5 draft method is a different way of developing raw ideas and material into finished, polished work. This method comes courtesy of Jeff Goins

Here’s how to write a novel using the 5 draft method:

Draft 1: The Junk Draft. Also, what we’ve termed, the discovery draft. This is exactly what it sounds like: write what you want, because anything goes. 

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” –Ann Patchett 

Draft 2: The Structure Draft. Now that you have your junk draft, it’s time to start making decisions about your story. Will it work? What’s the plot? What things are and aren’t working in your junk draft? (Don’t worry, necessarily, about writing a completely new draft. You can analyze what you wrote and create a working plot before your next draft starts.)

Draft 3: The Rough Draft. This is the draft you’ve written after you have a working plot. Hopefully, you will have written and feel confident about the story as a whole—the work from here is to start polishing the details and getting things just right. 

Draft 4: The Surgery Draft. Take your rough draft, and start shaping things towards a final draft. Cut superfluous details, unnecessary words, unnecessary scenes. Add whatever is needed to make the story whole. At this point, you will most certainly be relying on feedback from other readers to make revising and editing possible. 

Draft 5: The Last Draft. This is where revision turns to editing. The global details have been finalized, and your concerns are largely at the word, sentence, and paragraph level. This is also the point where you start to think about publication.

7. How to Write a Novel: Starting with Short Stories

Novels and short stories rely on the same fundamentals of fiction, yet they’re two vastly different crafts. There are some novelists who are incapable of writing short stories, and vice versa. But, if you feel comfortable experimenting with short-form fiction, you might want to try writing short stories first. 

Many contemporary novelists will use the short story as a space to explore new ideas. Some of those ideas remain as short stories; others end up being developed into novels. 

The novelist Haruki Murakami, for example, will often switch between novel writing and short story writing. After he’s finished a novel, he will work on short stories to tinker with different ideas, one of which often becomes a novel. Writing and publishing short stories can also make getting your novel published possible. Zadie Smith, for example, published her short story “The Waiter’s Wife” in Granta, which eventually became her debut novel White Teeth. Smith was discovered by her agent because of, among other things, the stories she was publishing in her university’s literary journal The Mays Anthology

Finally, starting with short stories can help you hone your voice and style as an author. Any attempt at writing fiction will naturally make you a stronger fiction writer. 

For more on short story writing, check out our guide:

8. How to Write a Novel: NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo, short for National Novel Writing Month, occurs every year in November. During this month, novelists will write 50,000+ words towards a first draft of a novel. 

NaNoWriMo started as an internet sensation, and has since developed local community chapters and a cult following of avid novel writers. Writing alongside other frantic novelists, even if just over the internet, can help keep you motivated to get that first discovery draft written. That said, you can also try doing your own NaNoWriMo, during whatever part of the year you’re reading this article. If tomorrow is May 1st, why not try to write a full novel by the time June 1st rolls around?

NaNoWriMo is best done with some preparation. Here’s our guide on the topic: 

How to Write a Novel: Honing the 6 Elements of Fiction

Here are instructor Jack Smith’s thoughts on how to write a novel.
Jack Smith
The novel works well when it interweaves the various threads of your fictional world together. To learn how to write a novel, let’s begin at the basics of good fiction writing.

Writing a novel requires the synchronous interplay of these 6 elements:

  • Character
  • Point of View 
  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Style
  • Theme

1. Writing a Novel: Character

A character is a person in a book. No matter what genre you’re writing in, readers are most drawn to compelling characters; moreover, a good plot is informed by the decisions that characters make, so you want to spend plenty of time developing your characters as you write your novel. 

Your main character is your protagonist. The protagonist is the main character because their conflicts shape the core of what the novel explores. The protagonist’s stakes must be high enough that readers care what happens. 

What do those stakes consist of? A small thing can be a big thing to one character and not to another. It’s the context that makes it work. Context is what affects the character in terms of needs, desires, goals, etc.

When we think of a character’s stake in the story, we think of conflict. Conflict is what drives fiction. Not all conflicts make for good fiction, but some conflict is essential for writing a novel.

Conflict is what drives fiction. Not all conflicts make for good fiction, but some conflict is essential for writing a novel.

For example, be careful with alcoholic, abusive fathers and husbands—these stories tend to be very clichéd. Stephen King did a marvelous job in Dolores Claiborne with an abusive husband, but generally speaking, it’s hard to escape the clichés ridden in this storyline.

Who should be your protagonist? To answer this question, ask yourself whose story needs to be told. Whose story is important enough to give full treatment to? Whose story is the most intriguing? You might opt for more than one point-of-view (POV), using a character who isn’t a protagonist, but simply an interesting (and necessary) additional perspective.

Let’s return to your protagonist, who is central to understand as you learn how to write a novel. More than any other character in the novel, your protagonist needs to come alive—to seem very real. Avoid writing a one-dimensional, cardboard character. We need to get to know this character in and out—their traits, loves, hates, goals, aspirations, disappointments, etc. Make your protagonist complex—or “round,” as E.M. Forster describes it in Aspects of the Novel.

Protagonists also need the potential for change. In Forster’s terms, they need to be “dynamic characters.” They need a character arc, in which they change in some way—undergoing some sort of movement, perhaps coming to a newfound recognition.

But not every character needs to be multi-dimensional or undergo change. Secondary characters are an exception. Even so, make them as real as possible, if not fully developed. Who are secondary characters? They might be friends or associates. A secondary character might be an antagonist. They might serve as a foil for the protagonist, to reveal certain things about the protagonist that don’t come out elsewhere.

2. Writing a Novel: Point of View

Point of view is the lens through which the story is told. It is also the choice of person: first, second, or third. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is the POV character; in The Catcher in the Rye, it’s Holden Caulfield. All novels are “filtered” through these points of view, or perspectives. We’re in these characters’ heads, not in others’.

Generally speaking, the protagonist is the lens through which we view the story’s action. In other words, the protagonist defines the narrator.

Generally speaking, the protagonist is the lens through which we view the story’s action. In other words, the protagonist defines the narrator.

There is also the choice of person. First person, in which the protagonist is usually the narrator (using the “I” pronoun), gives an immediacy that’s lacking in third. With the third person, you have the choice of a fully omniscient narrator, a limited narrator, or an effaced narrator (where the author makes no appearance, or presence) with multiple third-person points of view. There is also an objective or dramatic point of view, in which all we come to know about characters is what they say and do. Think of this as close to the script of a play—dialogue and action only.

The riskiest point of view when writing a novel is the omniscient one, because you can easily fall into mere telling, without giving your reader an experience to enter into.

You can find more help in Jack’s article entitled “Tips on handling the omniscient POV in fiction.”

An unusual point of view for writing a novel is the second person—the “you” POV. Jay McInerney famously pulls it off in Bright Lights, Big City. I deal with the ins and outs of this point of view in a Writer’s magazine article entitled “When to use the second-person POV in fiction.

3. Writing a Novel: Plot and Structure


Plot is what happens and why. It’s a matter of causality. Of course, this can be complicated, though if it’s too complicated your reader will get lost in a thicket of plot threads and story strands. When writing a novel, simple is better than excessively complicated.

Plot is based on conflict; conflict involves reversals. Readers look for foreshadowing (thoughts, events, etc.) that predict future happenings. They also look for echoing, or reminders of different developments. Foreshadowing and echoing stitch a novel together.


As we explore how to write a novel, keep in mind three basic types of narrative structure:

  1. Five-stage plot structure: exposition (with inciting incident; rising action; climax; falling action; resolution). Also known as Freytag’s Pyramid.
  2. Three-act structure, as in screenplays.
  3. Episodic structure, as in journey stories (e.g. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

If you have two protagonists, matters get more difficult. Not only do you need to decide on the overarching structure of the storylines of each character, but you must also decide on how you’ll alternate from one point of view to another.

For more help on structure, check out Jack’s article in The Writer magazine, entitled “How to find your novel’s structure.” 

Also read Jeff Lyon’s article discussing the difference between a story and a situation. This guide is essential to any storyteller wondering how to write a novel. 

Stories vs. Situations: How to Know Your Story Will Work in Any Genre

4. Writing a Novel: Setting

Setting includes time and place. In fiction, as in real life, characters are someplace, somewhere, when they engage in action and speech. You need to situate your reader in a given environment, whether it’s an apartment, a workplace, a restaurant, a bar, or in the middle of the woods. If you need to create an atmosphere, choose the details that do this.

You need to situate your reader in a given environment.

In some novels, setting is really important and less so in others. In a workplace novel, setting might well be critical to understanding the conflicts the protagonist faces. In a survival story in the Alaskan wilderness, the rugged setting needs plenty of development to feel real to your reader. If you’re writing a novel set on a college campus, it might be enough to give what in movies is called an establishing shot, a wide shot of the campus—and perhaps only a few details about one classroom building where the protagonist has most of her classes.

No matter the importance of your setting, it should influence the decisions that your characters make. The more important the setting, the more personality it should have. Some writers even treat setting like it’s its own character. A great example of this is the novella Especially Heinous by Carmen Maria Machado.

5. Writing a Novel: Style and Tone

Style refers to the manner of your expression. As you learn how to write a novel, you’ll find that a novel and its style are inseparable. Style affects the novel’s mood, how we understand the protagonist, how we picture the setting, etc.

As you learn how to write a novel, you’ll find that a novel and its style are inseparable.

Some writers are very dense with their language, very detailed—think Charles Dickens, Henry James, or Toni Morrison. At the opposite end there’s Cormac McCarthy, whose style is utterly stripped-down. Style also is related to the use of figurative language like metaphor, simile, and analogy. Style has to do with the sound of the language, with tone. Is it nostalgic, sarcastic, biting?

Style affects tone—the apparent attitude generated by the work. Tone isn’t just related to style, though. Tone is affected by everything in the work: the nature of the protagonist, the plot, the mood from scene to scene, etc.

Lastly, tone is related to voice. You might be interested in Jack’s article on voice in The Writer magazine, entitled “Setting the tone: How to handle voice in your fiction.”

6. Writing a Novel: Theme or Idea

Theme is the most abstract idea or ideas of your novel. Any number of plots can suggest the same basic theme. Perhaps the theme is the seductive nature of the pursuit of money, or let’s say it’s the rite of passage from innocence to experience. Any number of plots have been borne out of familiar thematic patterns.

When writing a novel, should you begin with a theme in mind? Some writers do, but many writers argue against doing this, claiming that this leads to authorial intrusion, to manipulation intended to make a point. In other words, theme should be a natural byproduct of storytelling, not the primary focus of the storyteller.

Illuminate instead of preach.

Incidentally, be careful to avoid didactic novels. Illuminate instead of preach. The latter might work well in certain nonfiction works, but the novel reader wants to experience the world of the novel, not be told how to experience it.

How to Write a Novel: Fiction Writing Techniques

Now that we’ve covered the large, overarching elements of fiction writing, let’s get into the more granular elements of storytelling. Fiction writers have a few different modes of storytelling at their disposal, including:

  • Summary writing
  • Scene writing
  • Dialogue
  • Description
  • Exposition

These different uses of prose allow fiction writers to convey the most information possible, letting them create cohesive, immersive worlds. It is important to vary your uses of each of these storytelling modes: readers get tired if they read pages upon pages of description, or unending snippets of dialogue.

Of course, those considerations are more important in revision. For the purposes of how to write a novel, let’s explore these fiction writing techniques.

1. How to Write a Novel: Narrative Summary Versus Narrative Scene

A novel operates in two main modes of storytelling: summary and scene.

Narrative summary is a telescoping of life over a given period, perhaps a week, a month, a year or more. Here’s how it was for your protagonist from January to June when she was struggling to advance in her career.

Narrative scene, in contrast, is action at a given time. Your protagonist arrives at a meeting and overhears her bête noire making an ugly remark about her. A narrative scene involves us directly in a play-by-play action. It should reveal character and advance plot. It shouldn’t be dead space you fill up.

Good writing has a mix of scene and summary. You never want to bore the reader with too much summary, but you don’t want too much scene either, or else the reader might lose focus on what’s important. You need places where you stop with the action and distill experience in your protagonist’s head: here’s how it’s been; this is what it adds up to at this point…

For a closer look at scene vs summary, check out this craft analysis:

On Timing and Tension

2. How to Write a Novel: Scene Writing with Dialogue

Good dialogue makes a scene, but it’s not easy to write. You’ve got to get the right rhythm going. You have to avoid making it sound like a prepared speech. Listen to conversation. Notice how speakers interrupt each other, or don’t finish ideas… and move on. Notice how they dodge questions. Work with some back and forth. Get your reader involved.

Some ingredients of a good scene:

  1. Interesting dialogue.
  2. Revelation of character through language and gesture.
  3. Setting details that situate the scene and create interest.
  4. Depending on point of view, character thoughts.

But, there’s no strict formula here. Read it out loud. Does it move? Does it sound real? Make sure it does.

Novel Writing Tips: Character Tags

Avoid dull character tags like “she responded,” or “he replied,” or “she admitted.” Dead language. As much as you can, avoid “he said,” and “she said.” It’s true that Hemingway could make repetition of “said” sound lyrical and carry us right along, but so often it’s dull. As long as the speaker is clear, you can leave off the “said” bit. Now and then, it’s true, you need to insert the tag for clarification’s sake.

3. How to Write a Novel: Description

Description is a word picture. If you want to show versus tell, give your readers imagery that places them in a world of the five senses.

How much description? This is a matter of style. Some writers use very little description, but we feel like we know their characters because of what they say, and how they say it. Or if they do describe, they give a dominant impression, just enough details to individualize the character, place, or thing.

Some writers describe a lot, providing us a real thicket of language. Some don’t. When writing a novel, decide on the purpose. What is vital in telling your particular story? Which details will get at the essence of this character or place? Be careful, too, about inflated, overdone descriptive language, called purple prose—that can kill your writing right off.

4. How to Write a Novel: Exposition

You can think of exposition in two different ways. In terms of the five-stage plot structure, exposition sets forth the present equilibrium of your protagonist just before a complication, or an inciting incident.

A second way to think of it is expository prose, which explains or comments. This technique can be used anywhere in the story, where ideas and feelings need to be bounced around.

Exposition handled through an author can certainly work—and work beautifully—but you must avoid sounding like you’re telling. If this happens, readers will feel that they can’t enter into the story as well—they can’t experience the world you’re creating.

In the case of the third-person limited point of view, do as much as you can to make readers feel like they’re in the character’s head, experiencing their thoughts and feelings.

There are two key uses of expository prose in writing a novel: backstory, and the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.

Novel Writing Tips: Backstory

Backstory is important in giving your reader context for present conflicts. Backstory shapes where your protagonist has been. You’ve got a choice in bringing in backstory. First, how much do you need to make the present time-frame of the novel clear? Second, you can either front-load it or bring it in as the novel proceeds in memories and flashbacks.

Novel Writing Tips: Thoughts and Feelings

Your protagonist struggles to make a decision, to understand what to do, to decide how she feels about different choices she’s got. Think of the many areas where we engage in private thoughts and feelings. We work things over in our minds. We analyze problems. We sum up.

Novel Writing Tips: Find Your Voice as a Novelist

The culmination of all these different skills—the elements of fiction, the tools of successful prose writing, and the honing of your own writing style—is “voice.” 

What is “voice?” It’s a difficult concept to define in creative writing. In short, voice is the nebulous, ineffable quality of a piece of writing that “sounds like” you. You can’t point to one specific thing and call it voice; it is the gestalt of everything happening in the text. Not just your style and word choice, but also your characters, your themes, your perspective as a novelist. 

Our instructor Donna Levin puts it another way: voice is “you, artistically projected.”

Voice: you, artistically projected.

No guide on how to write a novel is complete without mentioning voice. Why? Because your voice is what your readers will fall in love with.

Yes, they will love your characters and plots, the ways your novel immerses them in worlds both strange and familiar. But the thing that sells these elements is your voice as a novelist. 

Think of a novel you love. You don’t just love the story and its characters, you love the way the story is told. That’s voice. It’s a selling point for readers and, if you want to publish your novel traditionally, it’s a huge selling point for literary agents.

So, how do you find your voice as a novelist? That’s the hard part: there’s no easy way to teach it. After all, voice comes from within you. The only advice we can offer is the work you can do to find your voice and coax it onto the page.

So, here’s some advice on that—how to hone your voice as you write a novel:

  • Write often and regularly. The more you write, the better you get at writing, and the more you find your own style and approach to the page.
  • Write like yourself. Do not try to write like anyone else, and do not try to be a capital-W “Writer.” 
  • That said, experiment on the page. Try different styles and techniques. See what works for you, what feels good, and what doesn’t sit right in your ear. You will find what it means to “write like yourself” this way. 
  • Spend ample time in revision. You won’t hone your voice just in the first draft; it will emerge as you write, revise, and revise again. 
  • Write with confidence. This is easier said than done, of course. But the more you believe in yourself and your work, the easier it is to let your natural voice shine through on the page. 
  • Don’t just write a novel. Experiment with short stories, microfiction, essays, poetry, and other forms of writing. Every word you write is an exploration into your voice as an author. 

Books on How to Write a Novel

For more novel writing tips, here’s a list of books on how to write a novel:

  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  • On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
  • Write and Revise for Publication by Jack Smith
  • Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  • Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
  • Get That Novel Written by Donna Levin
  • Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
  • Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster

Learn How to Write a Novel at

Do my characters seem real? Can you picture this setting? What parts of my novel need editing?

Writing a novel is an ongoing process, and the more you work on it, the more questions you’ll ask. Find your answers at With different novel writing courses to choose from, additional novel writing tips at our blog, and a supportive and caring Facebook group, we’re here to get your novel from idea to bestseller.

Jack Smith is the author of 6 novels and 3 books of nonfiction. He’s a regular contributor to The Writer magazine. He teaches novel writing, as well as other fiction writing courses, for


  1. Timothy ngundi on August 6, 2020 at 1:34 am

    This is wonderful! congrats!

  2. Rebecca Hanley on March 8, 2022 at 10:48 am

    Thanks for this well-written and detailed article on the novel. I was interested in the discussion about what length/page/word count differentiates writing forms and had not heard of the term “novelette”. If novella length fiction is difficult to find a home for with the exception of small, independent presses, then the novelette length must be near impossible. Or so it seems.

    Again, thanks for the informative article.

    • Sean Glatch on March 8, 2022 at 11:07 am

      Our pleasure, Rebecca! I’m happy you found it useful.

  3. King on April 14, 2022 at 9:27 am

    I’m so pleased with your article. Thanks for this one! I was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!

  4. Chino Rao on October 2, 2023 at 7:12 am

    Good overview. Very helpful. It helps an aspiring writer to think about what he/she is missing, and helps the writer improve. Thank you.

  5. anibal kahom on December 20, 2023 at 1:48 pm

    This article provides a comprehensive guide to tackling the daunting task of novel writing, offering insights into essential elements like character, plot, setting, style, and theme. The practical tips and diverse techniques presented here serve as a valuable resource for both novice and experienced writers, demystifying the intricate art of crafting a novel. Excited to apply these strategies to my own writing journey!

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