how to start writing a fiction novel

The Story Foundation Trifecta: 3 Critical Elements Every Novel Needs to Succeed

Want to write a compelling, dramatic story?

One that draws readers in, takes them on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and thrills, then leaves them hungry to devour your next book, and your next, and your next?

If so, then I have good news:

With the right understanding of story structure, I believe anyone is capable of writing an amazing story.

Yes, that includes you.

And the key to making this process as easy and natural as possible is to start every novel with a good story foundation.

This is where most new writers struggle. Either they have trouble getting their story off the ground, or they can get it off the ground, but it nosedives partway through the book.

Either way, the cause is the same: they didn’t start their book from a good story foundation.

In other words, they were missing one or more of the three critical elements that every novel needs to succeed. I call these foundational elements, “The Story Foundation Trifecta.”

Let’s talk about it…

The Story Foundation Trifecta

First off, what IS the Story Foundation Trifecta? It’s a combination of three things:

  1. An interesting premise
  2. A sympathetic hero
  3. A clear & compelling “A-story”

As you’re about to learn, these are the most critical and fundamental pieces to any successful story. As long as you have these three things in place, your story is bound to be engaging and entertaining. how to write a fiction novel by r.e. vance

In the rest of this post, I’ll explain what these things are and how you can improve these elements in your story idea. And to help you understand, I’ll be using examples from well-known stories such as The Hunger Games, The Matrix, and my own series GoneGod World.

Foundation #1: An Interesting Premise

Your premise is the foundation of your plot. The collection of situations or presuppositions that make up your story world.

That sounds complicated, so let’s put it in simpler terms:

Your premise consists of 2-3 seemingly unconnected ideas that have been meshed together to make something truly unique.

If you analyze really popular stories like The Hunger Games and The Matrix, you’ll realize they have great premises. And that’s a big part of the reason why they were so successful.

So how do you come up with an awesome premise of your own?

One common method is to use the “What If” technique. Here’s how that might look using The Hunger Games as an example:

The Hunger Games: What if, sometime in the future, there is a society which demands children must fight to the death once a year?

Immediately, the premise opens up a hundred other questions that your story may or may not answer.

  • What happened to create this world and contest?
  • Why children?
  • What happens to the victors?

Your story may not answer all of these questions, and certainly Suzanne Collins – the author of The Hunger Games – doesn’t answer all of them. See how that works? You take a few different ideas and combine them. See how they might fit together.

In this case the premise is using the familiar idea of a gladiator story…but it’s mish-mashing that concept by having the gladiators be children.

Then when you throw in a couple extra elements, like…

  • Setting the story in the future
  • Including a love-triangle with the main character
  • Having a power struggle behind the scenes only the audience knows about

…you end up with a really great premise for a story.

Here’s another example:

The Matrix: What if reality isn’t what we think it is, and in fact we’re all connected to computers as human batteries for the robot world?

Here we’re taking the idea “reality isn’t what you think it is” and mashing it together with “we’re human batteries connected to computers.”

These are cool ideas on their own. But when you put them together, they become something really fascinating. With a premise like this, is it any wonder why The Matrix was so successful?

And here’s one more example, from my series of books:

GoneGod World: What if all the gods are gone, and when they leave they force all their denizens to go to earth?

Here I’ve combined the ideas of “divine creatures” and “refugees” to create a unique story premise out of two familiar ideas.

In this story, every sort of magical creature you can think of—dragons, faeries, etc.—is forced to become a refugee on earth. As you can imagine, this opens up all kinds of possibilities for interesting storylines and conflicts.

So that’s foundation #1 of the Story Foundation Trifecta: create an interesting premise. Now it’s your turn:

  • Exercise: Take a look at your favorite stories and identify their premise. Turn those premises into “What if” statements.
  • Bonus: Among the premises that you have identified, see if you can alter them slightly to turn them into something completely unique.
  • Challenge: Create 3 to 5 premise statements of your own, statements that ultimately create world, you’d love to write in.

You’ll be surprised at how quickly you start cranking out really unique story premises.

Foundation #2: A Sympathetic Hero

Foundation #1 focuses on your plot. It’s a big-picture statement of what happens in your story.

But remember, stories don’t just happen by themselves. They happen to characters—to people. To human beings. (And sometimes, to elves and aliens.)

At the heart of every story is a hero who strives to meet an important goal. And the more your audience can understand and identify with that hero, the more likely they are to become engrossed by your story.

Now when you’re creating your hero, the three most important things to figure out are your hero’s…

  • Key traits
  • Outer journey
  • Inner journey

“Key traits” refer to your character’s distinguishing features. Is your hero…

  • Brave?
  • Intelligent?
  • Beautiful?
  • Charming?
  • Underhanded?
  • Strong as an ox?

Your character’s journey refers to the challenges they will be forced to overcome throughout the story. And we break that journey up into inner and outer journeys. how to write a fiction novel

A few examples:

The Hunger Games: Katniss’s outer journey is to survive the games. Her inner journey is to mature as an individual, to let other people in, and to learn to accept help from others.

The Matrix: Neo’s outer journey is to defeat Agent Smith and the robot forces enslaving humanity inside the Matrix. His inner journey is to believe in himself and accept that he’s the only one capable of saving the human race.

Make sense? Great. Now go figure out who your hero is, give them a few key traits, and most importantly decide on their inner and outer journey. Then when you’ve completed that, you’re ready to move for…

Foundation #3: A Clear & Compelling “A-Story”

Once you know your story’s premise and have identified your hero, your next step is to use those 2 elements to create your “A-story.”

Loosely defined, your A-story is the main storyline in your novel. It’s the one story we need to see resolved in order for us to put down your book and feel satisfied at the end.

Your book can have multiple storylines—maybe you have a romance subplot, for example—but your A-story is the main story. The big problem that gets resolved at the end.

In most cases, your A-story is going to be the same as your hero’s outer journey. In The Hunger Games, for example, the A-story is Katniss’ trial to survive the games. 

But your A-story can also tie into your hero’s inner journey. In The Matrix, the A-story deals in part with Neo’s struggle to believe in himself and become “the one.”

Here are some common A-stories for different genres:

  • Sci-fi: Repel the alien invasion
  • Action: Get revenge on the bad guys
  • Romance: Finally succumb to the love of your life

It’s important to know your A-story. This is the storyline that you need to focus on, to keep coming back to. This is the major conflict of your story, so don’t lose sight of it.

Exercise: Identify two or three unique A-stories that fit could each premise. Spend a few minutes contemplating how the premise and the A-story work together. (And also relish is how your A-story is better than the original 😊.)

Bonus: Could you alter one of the premises to fit with your own unique A-story? If so, you very well may have the a kickass story on your hands!

Challenge: Now that you have defined your premise in step one, identify 2-3 A-stories that could work within that premise statement.

You Know Your A-Story…Now, What’s Next?

OK, so you’ve gone through the Story Foundation Trifecta and figured out your premise, hero, and A-story. What should you do next?

In a word, you need to start outlining.

Now this does NOT mean you have to go through every single part of your story and create a step-by-step outline of everything that will happen.

You can do that, but you don’t have to.

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of writers out there:

  • Plotters (like James Patterson)
  • Pantzers (like Stephen King)

Plotters are people who like to plot their stories in advance, while pantzers are people who don’t—they “fly by the seat of their pants,” coming up with their story ideas on the fly.

You might think that outlining is only important for plotters…but actually, that’s not the case. EVERY writer needs to come up with at least a basic outline before they start writing.

Even Stephen King, the most well-known pantzer out there, has admitted that he writes his stories with an end in mind.

So whether you want to write an in-depth, blow-by-blow treatment, or just a general outline to help give some direction to your pantzing, there are 5 Key Milestones that you’ll need to include in your story outline.

These are the 5 Key Milestones that every story has to hit in order to reach a satisfying conclusion. Luckily, I’m hosting a new (free) workshop where I’ll teach you what the 5 story milestones are and how to work them into your story.

Once you know the 5 Key Milestones you need to include in your story, you’ll NEVER again feel lost while you’re writing. You’ll always know where to go next to keep your story moving in the right direction.

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As a result, you’ll find it much easier to guide your readers through a story that feels complete and satisfying. So that when they finish reading the last page of your book, they’ll feel like they went on a meaningful journey with your hero—and that nothing was missing or incomplete.

Click here to learn more and register for the free webinar now, before you forget.