How to Start Writing a Novel – Story Foundation Trifecta


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 for you to publish 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. In this article, we’re uncovering the Story Foundation Trifecta—a method we created that you can use in every novel.

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…

This is how to start writing a novel:

  1. Prepare to write a novel
  2. Book Idea
  3. Novel Outline
  4. Book Length
  5. Characters
  6. Worldbuilding
  7. Plot
  8. Novel opening
  9. Use the Story Foundation Trifecta
  10. Create an interesting premise
  11. Build a sympathetic hero
  12. Build a clear, compelling story

3 Steps to Prepare to Write a Novel For the First Time

If you’re new to the world of writing, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed. It’s normal to feel that way. You’ve never done this before and it’s a major task to learn how to write a book.

What advice do you listen to?

How will you even sift through all of the ideas you have?

What steps do you actually need to take to start writing a novel?

The best part about being a beginner is that you can only make progress. There’s really nowhere else for you to go but up.

The tricky thing, however, is knowing how to get started. After all, that step is the most important, but also the most difficult.

These are among the first things you have to do in order to start writing a book as a beginner:

#1 – Choose a book idea to write about

If you’re ready to write a book, chances are you have more than a single idea in mind – that’s just how the minds of creatives like yourself work. In fact, you could have many great book ideas.

But how do you choose which to write and which to save for later?

The good news is that any and all of your book ideas can get written (especially if you want to write a book series), it’s just a matter of choosing which goes first.

These are a few questions I like to ask myself when it comes to deciding which idea to start next:

  1. Which do you find yourself thinking about most often?
  2. Which has a theme/message that means the most to you?
  3. Which do you have the most content developed for?
  4. Which will be the fastest to write?
  5. Which is an idea that you wish someone else wrote so you can read it for the first time?

Once you have an idea in mind that fulfills these questions, you’ll know that that is the one to write about.

Essentially, in order to choose a book idea, think about which one you’re most passionate and excited about.

#2 – Start your mindmap and outline

Outlining is necessary no matter what type of book you’re reading. Even if you think you’re the type to “write by the seat of your pants,” an outline of some sort will come in handy.

Even Stephen King has the end of his stories in mind and a few plot points along the way, and he self-identifies as a pantzer, or someone who writes by the seat of one’s pants

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.

Knowing where your story is going can help you develop the plot to be more complex, exciting, and allow you to hide foreshadowing within the book.

This will help you craft your twists to be even harder to see coming – something all bookworms love.

We have complete guides for learning how to fill out a mindmap and then complete an outline based on it. Check those out before moving on to the nexts steps because it’s essential to have those details done first.

We also have a complete fiction book outline (including front and backmatter for your book & tips for each section). Just fill out the info below and check your email inbox!

Fiction Book Outline [TEMPLATE]

#3 – Consider how long you want your book to be

This is also the stage in which you figure out if you’ll be writing a standalone (a single book) or a series (2 + novels of the same storyline).

But first, how long do you want this book to be? Some authors will tell you to just write as much as is needed, but it’s often a good idea to know your baseline so you can stay on track.

This is a table of the average word count for different types of novels to help you get an idea for what to shoot for:

Type of WritingWord CountPages in a Typical BookExample
Short story100 - 15,000 1 - 24 pages"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry
Novella30,000 - 60,000100 - 200 pages"A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess
Novel60,000 - 100,000200 - 350 pages"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone": by JK Rowling
Epic Novel120,00 - 220,000+400 - 750+ pages"Game of Thrones" by George R.R. Martin

The industry-standard word count is really important in order to have a quality book (especially if you’re self-publishing). If you write an epic fantasy novel that’s only 60,000 words, you will appear like an amateur since the standard for that genre is double that at 120,000 words.

Once you have an idea as to how long you want your book to be, you can better plan out each chapter’s length and formulate a writing schedule that will allow you to make real progress.

You can also just put in your book’s info in our calculator below, and we’ll tell you the proper word count goal to meet industry standards.

FREE TOOL

Word and Page Count Calculator

Choose your book type, genre, and audience for a word count and page number total.

Enter your details below to get your personalized word and page counts for your book!

Your Book Will Have

words

pages

*These results are based on industry standards. The total word and page count will vary from book to book and is dependent on your writing and overall book formatting*

Average Time to Write This Book: 60 days

#4 – Develop lifelike characters

We’ll get into even more detail below when it comes to crafting your main character, but you’ll need all kinds of characters before you start writing a novel.

Your characters will carry your story.

You can easily write a bad plot and people will read it if the characters are great. However, even the best plot in the world will not save a book if it has bad, uninteresting, or poorly written characters.

When it comes to creating realistic characters, one of the best things you can do is craft them to either compliment each other or agitate one another. This makes for an interesting, fun, and entertaining story.

Here are a few steps to craft lifelike characters before starting to write your novel:

  • Grab our character development worksheet by clicking on that link (and read that entire post about characters)
  • Build a backstory for each character that gets facetime – the more they appear, the richer their back story needs to be
  • Give each character personality traits that shine through often, at least 3 per main character
  • Create juxtaposition by creating character with conflicting traits (so they cause additional conflict in your story)
  • Ask yourself: is this character too perfect? Give them flaws so you don’t fall into the trap of writing a Mary Sue

#5 – Build your world

If your characters have no world to live in, it will be boring. Unless you’re writing in the modern world, in which case you wouldn’t need to do as much worldbuilding as you would if you’re writing a fantasy novel.

Worldbuilding is all about creating a setting that feels realistic, new, fresh, and intertwines with your plot in an interesting way. Sometimes this means building your plot and characters around your world.

What this means is that if you have a world that goes pitch-black at night because it has no moon, and dark fantasy creatures go bump in the night, then you can create a character who is terrified of the dark. This builds in more natural conflict that can make your story more intriguing to readers.

We have entire blog posts dedicated to helping you world build, and those will be the best resources for this step of how to start writing a novel.

  1. Worldbuilding (overview and questions)
  2. Fantasy worldubilding
  3. Worldbuilding process (detailed)

#6 – Build a Plot

When we go over the Story Foundation Trifecta below, we’ll touch on this more, but ultimately you need an interesting plot before you can start writing a novel.

Oftentimes, you’ll build on each of these elements as you create them. Meaning, you will likely alter characters to fit your worldbuilding and update your plot to suit the characters. So don’t think you have to have every single one solidified before moving on to the next.

When it comes to your plot, it’s all about the structure and your book genre.

Different genres have different “rules” for plotting—but always remember that you only need to know the rules, and you’re always free to break them if it suits you.

Ultimately, before you start writing a novel, your plot will consist of these 5 milestones:

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

You can read more about each of these steps in our blog post about how to write a novel if you’re ready to get started.

#7 – Start your novel with strength

Starting your novel—actually writing the opening scene—can set the tone for your entire book.

When starting your novel, think about the best order of operations to get someone interested, sucked in, and caring about your character.

We have an entire blog post dedicated to starting a story that we recommend reading for the full-scope of this, but here are some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Start “in media res”, which means “in the middle” of action when you begin
  2. Create a scenario that showcases the struggles of your character’s everyday life
  3. Create sympathy or a situation that encourages readers to root for and care for your character
  4. Introduce elements of your world without explaining much about them (people need to read more to learn more!)

Use the Story Foundation Trifecta to Plot & Start Writing a Novel

I’ve used this method to teach our Fundamentals of Fiction & Story students how to write compelling novels that bring in raving, 5-star reviewing fans.

But, first off, what IS the Story Foundation Trifecta?

The Story Foundation Trifecta 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. 

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.

Story 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 that 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 of 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:

ACTION STEP: 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.

Story 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. 

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…

Story 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.

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 to think about when you start writing a book:

  • 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?

Sign up for your free training to guide you through this process with more detail

It’s not enough to just read about it. What you need is someone who’s done it before to take you through this process step by step.

When it comes to fiction, those with experience are those who thrive – and we should all learn from someone who know what they’re doing because if we can bypass all the mess of starting to write a book, we should.

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.

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.

Disclosure: Some of the links above may contain affiliate partnerships, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Self-Publishing School may earn a commission if you click through to make a purchase.

R.E. Vance

Ramy Vance is a Canadian who lives in Edinburgh with his wife, three-year-old kid and imaginary dog. With over 14 years experience in both traditional and self-publishing, Ramy is the bestselling author of over 13 novels and has helped nearly 450 aspiring writers with their publishing goals. Recently Ramy created Self-Publishing School’s Fundamentals of Fiction to help aspiring novelists tell their stories.

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