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.

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.

R.E. Vance

R.E. Vance

R.E. Vance lives in Edinburgh with his wife, recently born child and imaginary dog where he enjoys a beautiful city, whisky (Scottish spelling, not mine) and long walks. All he really wants is to quit his job and write stories based in Paradise Lot. All he really hopes for is that his child is healthy (ten fingers, ten toes and at least two eyes is a good start) and that eventually he can can get a real dog so that he can have an excuse to go on even more long walks.

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