how to write a novel

How to Write a Novel: 5 Key Methods That SELL Books Fast

If you misunderstand how to write a novel with the proper structure, your book will never sell.

Harsh, but true. And that’s why we’re here to tell you the exact methods that skyrocketed the popularity of books like The Hunger Games and the Divergent series.

Learning how to write a novel requires 5 key milestones in your story:

  1. The Setup
  2. The Inciting Incident
  3. The First Slap
  4. The Second Slap
  5. The Climax

But before we dive right into those, we have to understand your unique writing method in order for you to understand how to write a novel in a way that’s best for you.

What is a Novel?

You probably already know this, but a novel is a work of fiction told through narrative prose focusing on characters with at least some degree of realism.

Essentially, a novel is a long story in which a message, theme, and plot are revealed slowly over the course of scenes and chapters that make up a bigger storyline.

how to write a novel milestones

How Many Words in a Novel?

The exact number of words that make up a novel varies greatly depending on the genre and personal taste, however, a book is considered a novel if it has more than 50,000 words.

Below is a table detailing how many words make up a novel in each respective genre, as some are typically longer than others.

GenreAverage Word Count
Fantasy90,000 - 115,000
Epic Fantasy115,000 - 180,000+
Sci-Fi70,000 - 115,000
Romance
50,000 - 80,000
Suspence/Horror70,000 - 100,000
Mystery70,000 - 100,000
Contemporary65,000 - 90,000
Middle Grade25,000 - 65,000

Keep in mind that these are a baseline. You want to make sure your novel is in the ballpark word count for your genre and target audience but just remember that you can easily go over or under depending on how well the story is crafted…

…and if it covers our 5 key milestones – it will be crafted well.

What’s the Difference Between Pantser Versus Plotter

A plotter is someone who plans out their novel with an outline before actually writing, whereas a pantser is someone who writes with seemingly no direction – they write by the seat of their pants.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Fiction authors tend to fall into one of two buckets when writing their books.

Pantsers

These are writers who basically only have a few vague elements about the story in mind when they start writing, but nothing else.

One of the most famous pantsers is Stephen King. In interviews, Stephen King has said that he often has an idea of the beginning, the premise, and a vague idea how it’s all going to end – and that’s all he needs to start writing his book.

Plotters

These are writers who need to know every piece of their story, down to the minute detail, before they will write a single word. They have full, complete outlines that serve as a guide for their writing.

They will know who each and every one of their characters are, what their motivations are, the chapters needed for the book, chapter sections, and in some cases, even paragraphs. Probably the most famous plotter out there is James Patterson.

Knowing if you’re a plotter or pantser will dictate your entire writing process.

Clearly, it’s possible to be successful whether you’re a plotter or pantser. But here’s the harsh reality: whereas Stephen King and James Patterson sit on opposite extremes of the ‘Outline Spectrum’, most of us fall somewhere in between.

But that still doesn’t answer the question: Are you a pantser or a plotter?

My best advice is to be something in between. Someone who looks beyond the “outline” of a novel, and identifies something much more important in their story…the 5 key milestones we’re about to reveal to you.

how to write a novel panster versus plotter

How to Write a Novel with 5 Key Milestones of Every Successful Novel

Most novels and movies have five key points that make up the core of their story – it’s a formula that’s been around for longer than books have.

What’s more, these milestones are something that readers have subconsciously been trained to look for when digesting a piece of fiction.

In other words, if you don’t have these five key moments, your reader is likely to turned off of your story because it didn’t meet expectations set by the hundreds (if not thousands) of stories they have already digested before yours.

Let’s get started.

#1 – The Setup

This is where you make your story promise and write an introduction that pulls readers in.

You tell your reader what kind of story it will be – a comedy drama, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi – and you give a few clues as to what they can expect. Whatever you said in these initial pages must be followed to the end of your story.

A stone-cold drama cannot turn into a slapstick comedy by the end of the story. That doesn’t mean a stone-cold drama can’t have humor in it, it just means that you can suddenly pivot and become an Adam Sandler movie.

Also, during the setup, we learn a little bit about:

  • The characters
  • Their everyday lives
  • Their challenges
  • The world they live in

We get a sense of where the story is heading.

One mistake made by first-time fiction authors is that they do not properly set up the story expectations and the reader goes in expecting one thing, only to get another.

Nothing annoys readers more, and so it is essential that during the setup phase of your novel, you set the expectations that you will meet during the book or you’ll lose those 5-star reviews that make such a difference.

The Setup Example:

In the Hunger Games, we meet Katniss. From her surroundings, it is obvious that she is poor, and as soon as she steps outside of her wooden shack we see hovering drones.

Within the first few pages of this book, we have learned three essential things:

  • This book is a drama
  • Katniss is our heroine and she has a miserable life
  • SURPRISE! There are drones and other technologies that indicate this to be a sci-fi
  • We are about to read a dystopia set sometime in the future
How to Write a Novel Action Step: Ask yourself these questions.

  • What does your story’s setup look like?
  • What happens?
  • What story promises do you make?

Create a list of everything your reader needs to learn in order to enter your story’s world before crafting your introduction.

#2 – The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is the moment in your story when your hero’s life changes forever. It is the ‘no-going back’ moment, where nothing that happens afterwards will return your hero’s world back to normal.

Katniss volunteers, Neo takes the blue pill, Dorothy lands in OZ … the aliens are here!

As soon as your inciting incident happens, your story should be full throttle towards the climax.

The most common mistake first-time authors make is that their inciting incident is reversible. That means that something could happen that would return the hero’s life back to normal.

No, no, no!

Your inciting incident should as final as the severing of a limb or a death of a loved one. Nothing should be able to reverse the effects of your inciting incident has on your hero.how to write a novel inciting incident

Inciting Incident Example:

Katniss volunteers! In the Hunger Games, the inciting incident is irreversible because – quite literally – soldiers grab Katniss, whisk her away from her world, and into the world of the games.

There is no escape.

And even if she could get away, she would be hunted by the Capital for the rest of her life. With those two simple words, “I volunteer!” her life has changed forever.

Note: There is an exception to this rule when it comes to romances.

With romances, the inciting incident is almost always when the two lovebirds meet. (Not always, but for the vast majority of romances, this is the case.) With romances, try to create an inciting incident that simultaneously shows how perfect these two people are for each other while setting up the numerous reasons why they can’t be together.

How to Write a Novel Action Step: Answer these questions in full and complete the brainstorming activity.

  • What is your inciting incident?
  • Is it strong enough?
  • Are there ways you could up the stakes or shorten the timeline?
  • How can you make it your inciting incident as impactful and irreversible as possible?

Brainstorm several inciting incidents… Don’t settle for one. Take a look at your inciting incidents and ask yourself this: Which one of these is the harshest, deadliest inciting incident of the bunch. Then pick that one.

#3 – The First Slap

Now, we are away to the races!

Over the next few chapters, your character should be making a series of gains and losses, where the aggregate result is that their situation is slightly better than what it was at the moment of the inciting incident.

The reason why we need this upward trajectory is because we are setting up the reader for the first slap.

The first slap is the moment when everything that our hero has gained is lost in fell swoop. Your hero is brought down to zero. In other words, all gains are lost, and your hero’s situation has never been bleaker.

The greater the fall, the more engaged your reader will be.how to write a novel structure

First Slap Example:

In the Hunger Games, Katniss’s world is brought down to zero when she actually enters the Games.

Between the inciting incident on the first slap, Katniss has made several gains, garnering the attention of the Capital and making some friends along the way. But none of that matters the moment she enters the Games – and what a moment it is.

How to Write a Novel Action Step: Brainstorm what your first slap can be. Like with the inciting incident, try to come up with 3-5 scenarios and pick the one that is harshest.

Take a look at all the events that could potentially happen between the inciting incident and the first slap. This is a loose mind map as you are not committing to anything at this point, but do try to get a sense of whether or not your hero will be making gains and losses (with a net value of gains) and try to assess whether or not the first slap is harsh enough to truly wow your reader.

Remember, you want your readers to hate you for what you’ve done to the characters they love.

#4 -The Second Slap

Your hero has rose to the challenge! They have successfully thwarted the big evil that has been thrusted upon them by the first slap and she is doing well.

…Now it is time to bring her back to 0 again.

The second slap should be as harsh, if not harsher, than the first slap. This is the moment when the reader should be looking at your book and thinking, “Wow, this author is mean. Diabolical villain mean!”

But there are two essential differences between the second slap and the first:

In the second slap we are setting up for the climax, which means that the hero needs to have an out. In other words, there should be some semblance of hope.how to write a novel

Second Slap Example:

In the Hunger Games, the second slap is when the Game Masters announce that two tributes can survive the Games should they both be from the same district.

Katniss goes looking for Peeta, only to find him mortally wounded – he is bleeding to death and won’t survive the next few hours, let alone the rest of the Games. We know enough about Katniss to realize that Peeta dying is the worst thing that could happen to her (besides her own death).

But there is hope!

An announcement is made that there is something at the cornucopia that the Tributes need, and Katniss just knows that there is medicine there for Peeta.

How to Write a Novel Action Step: Brainstorm several seconds slaps and pick the harshest one.

Then ask yourself: where is the hope and how will it lead into the climax?

#5 – The Climax

The rollercoaster that you’ve put your reader on is almost over.

The reader has gone from an engaging setup where they get to learn about your characters and world to the inciting incident where everything is turned on its head.

Then they are subjected to the first and second slaps where you embrace your inner sadomasochist in order to punish your hero and give the readers the thrills they so richly deserve.

Now it is time to wrap it all up with the climax.

There is only one rule to the climax. A rule that must be adhered to, no matter what genre you are writing in:

Make it amazing! The climax should be the moment where your reader puts down the book and goes, “Holy S&*%! That was awesome!”

Novel Climax Example:

The climax in the Hunger Games is the final confrontation between Katniss and the remaining Tributes, as well as the monsters that the Game Masters send after her. It is wrought with danger and excitement.

But what makes the climax truly kickass is the poisonous berries at the end.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, pick up a copy of Hunger Games today and read it! You’ll immediately get why this scene is so amazing.

How to Write a Novel Action Step: Brainstorm your kickass climactic scene!

Show us how amazing, smart, resourceful, powerful your hero is when overcoming their final obstacles, but remember to make sure it’s realistic and makes sense for your character.

 

There you have it: how to write a book is made much easier with your 5 key milestones. This method is particularly effective for first-time authors who are still finding their writing feet (or should I say typing fingers) and is an awesome resource that experienced writers can rely on time and again when planning their stories.

The 5 Key Milestones combined with a spot-on Premise and A-Story will tell you where your story starts, where it is headed and how it will end.

In other words, if you do the novel writing exercises above, you should have everything you need to get your novel to the finish line.

how to write a novel

And if you need a bit of extra help, I’m going through these 5 Key Milestones in a lot more detail in an upcoming webinar I’m going to conduct with Chandler Bolt. Get the full scoop and register to join us (before we fill up!) here.

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.

fiction writing webinar

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.