As a first-time writer, starting that first sentence of your novel can be a daunting task. Unlike writing short stories where it’s relatively easier to track down the plot and make changes where necessary, some novels go on for over a hundred pages. You have to worry about continuity, logical coherence, character development, and basically creating a story through several arcs instead of the one arc a short story provides.
While there are plenty of tips out there for specific types of genres and writing styles, our Novel Writing 101 can provide you with general tips as a first-time writer. Take note, though, that creative writing is an art and isn’t restricted by rules. These tips won’t apply to everyone, and if you find yourself struggling to follow these tips, then it’s fine to adjust in your own way. But until you can improve your craft or find someone experienced who can help you with your novel, here are some tips you might want to consider.
1. Remember: You’re a Writer, Not an Editor.
Your first job is a writer. Focus more on the content you’re writing now over grammatical errors you might have while writing your rough draft. As you write, it’s not your job to stop and think after writing every paragraph about the syntax of your punctuation or if you could have started the scene better.
For our example, take a look at this. I took one of the creative writing prompts for a horror or thriller story and selected this prompt: “Write a thriller novel about how your character wakes up to a door slamming. They rush to their toddler’s room only for them to be missing. A single gardening glove is in their place on the bed.”
Here is my rough draft of what the first paragraph of my novel would look like:
At 5:28 AM, Olivia Craft woke up two minutes before her alarm rang. She always woke up on time like clockwork, but the sound of a door banging had woken her up earlier than usual. Next to her, her husband Edmund evidently did not hear it and continued to doze. Oddly, she did not hear the sound of Izzy crying in the next room – for such a light sleeper, that bang should have woken the baby. She assumed one of the twins had already awoken and gone to the bathroom to get ready for school, so she stretched one last time before beginning her duty as a housewife of the Craft family.
It’s not the best introduction to a novel (and a novel’s introduction needs to be good – how else can you convince a reader to invest hours reading your book unless you don’t provide them with a hard sell?), but it’s one that just came off at the top of my head as I wrote. As I was writing, I could already tell that I was doing a no-no for all types of fiction writing: providing the reader with an information overload. From that paragraph alone, we know a lot of things about the Craft family:
- Olivia and Edmund are parents with three children.
- Two of those kids are twins.
- The baby is a girl nicknamed Izzy.
- Izzy is a light sleeper.
- Olivia runs the household like a tight ship.
You can make much more inferences and observations about that family just from that one paragraph alone. But while it’s good to give your readers as much information as possible, you don’t want to bombard them with so much information in one sitting. It’s not a short story where you have to cram everything into a much smaller form, so you have the leeway to provide this information much later in parts where it is more natural.
However, avoid trying to edit that paragraph immediately after writing it. I recommend finishing a chapter before editing grammar and content-wise and seeing what can be done to change it. Once I’ve finished the first chapter, I’d probably go back and change this paragraph into this:
At 5:28 AM, Olivia Craft woke up two minutes before her alarm rang.
I’ve decided to cut it down to this one sentence. Earlier, I said that the intro needs to be compelling. This may not sound like a compelling sentence when taken out of context. But when you consider that this is a thriller novel, it’s going to get the reader to ask questions and have the foreboding feeling that something is not quite right. Other writers may want to have a different approach, but for me, I prefer this sentence because it seems so innocent but the change in Olivia’s routine suggests something is not right.
This isn’t depriving the reader of information, though, as the readers can still infer the information I gave earlier in later scenes. For example, in the next paragraph, I can write Olivia trying to quietly leave the bed to not disturb Edmund; later scenes can further solidify the fact that they’re married. And then I can talk about the twins, the baby, and the way Olivia handles her family in later scenes in the chapter.
2. Prepare Your Characters.
Once you have the premise of your novel, before you can create a plot, you have to create your characters. You cannot move on to the next step without them because your characters personalities and motivations are what create a coherent plot.
For example, what if the nicest man in a neighborhood were to one day go to a public place and murder everybody in sight? It would make for a nice thriller if your novel explores the reasons behind the sudden change. And maybe if you’re going for a postmodern novel that doesn’t really focus on logical actions, then it could be symbolic, too. But if you’re writing a fictional novel based on realistic logic, you can’t just have the nice old man walk into a park with a flamethrower because it makes zero sense on their character.
Going back to the Craft family’s story, let’s try to build the characters. Here’s what I came up for these characters:
- Olivia Craft – 42, a housewife. Keeps an iron grip on her home and hates losing control. Has a strained relationship with her husband after getting caught having an affair with the gardener, which strained her relationship even further with one of her sons who found out about it.
- Edmund Craft – 44, a high-ranking executive in a law firm. Is rarely home due to his job and the fact that he hasn’t completely forgiven his wife. Tries to be a good parent who never brings home the stress of his work, but often fails to do so and gives off an unapproachable and grouchy vibe.
- John Craft – 16, fraternal twin brother of James. The elder brother who often outshines his younger brother.
- James Craft – 16, fraternal twin brother of John. An above-average student but often outshined by his brother and overlooked.
- Isabelle “Izzy” Craft – 3, toddler daughter of the Crafts. Blind.
From there, it can be easier to create a consistent plot once you establish a personality for each character. For example, let’s say that Izzy was kidnapped not by the gardener Olivia had an affair with as most would assume, but her son James, who had been hiding Izzy in their abandoned treehouse this entire time. From my character descriptions, you can tell that they are a very dysfunctional family who don’t really like each other. Had I written their character descriptions to make them a loving family, it would seem very illogical of James to be the bad guy and ruin his family from the inside – and a terrible plot makes for a terrible novel.
3. Prepare Your Plot.
This may not apply to some people, though, but have you ever read a piece of fan fiction or fiction written by an amateur who doesn’t map out their plot? Or, have you ever watched a soap opera that seems to drag on and on forever because the ratings are so high that a studio didn’t want it to end just yet? Here’s a good example of this: Netflix’s Riverdale. It’s a series, not a novel, but it’s a good example why you ought to prepare your plot. At one point, the plot has become so convoluted and unlikely because it always feels like someone is adding something at the last minute out of the sidelines.
Or, let’s say you’re watching the final season of Game of Thrones (minor spoiler alert for those who haven’t watched it yet). The North, accompanied by their allies, go off to fight the Night King. Let’s say all goes badly for our heroes. Arya, Jon, and Daenerys have all tried their hand at killing the Night King, but nothing seems to be working. But just when all hope seems lost, we see a random man walk up to the castle, effortlessly deflect the wights, and slice the Night King in half. This guy claims to be Azor Ahai, the one prophesized to defeat the Night King, and we’re all just supposed to accept that.
It doesn’t make for a good plot, does it? That’s because there’s nothing in the plot that suggests this ending to lead to it. For the last seven seasons of Game of Thrones, we’ve accepted that one of the characters we know are destined to kill the Night King. So, to simply add another character for the sake of it is just a cop-out – one that won’t provide a satisfying ending for your readers.
If you want to avoid looking like an amateur, have your plot ready. Once you have your characters, you have the motivation and personality to drive the plot. Some writers tend to map out a plot using arrows and other symbols. Other writers have a separate document file where they write down the entire layout of their story, from the plot to the motivations, and anything you need to know before writing the chapter.
This isn’t a hard requirement, though. Some pretty good writers are capable of memorizing their entire plot in their mind without ever needing to have a physical layout of it ready. If you can do that, that’s fine. But as a beginner, it’s best to have a guide ready to help keep track of your plot’s consistency. A fairly straightforward plot with not too many arcs are much easier to track, but mystery and thriller with twists, turns, and things hiding in plain sight will need a god-like surveillance on each of the characters.
Remember, these tips aren’t hard requirements for writing a good novel, but for beginners who want to get past their first page with no idea on how to start ought to have a guide so that they can turn their idea into a story with less difficulty. But how you write ultimately depends on your talent and the type of novel and style you want to achieve.