If you misunderstand how to write a novel with the proper story 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.
Here are the steps for how to write a novel:
- Write The Setup
- Create The Inciting Incident
- Add the First Slap of a novel
- Add The Second Slap
- End it with the Climax
But before we dive right into those, we have to understand your unique writing method in order for you to understand novel writing in a way that’s best for you.
What is a Novel?
A novel is a work of fiction told through narrative prose focusing on characters and a plot 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 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.
But that doesn’t mean your book will be that long. You have to learn how many words are in your novel.
Below is a table detailing how many words make up a novel in each respective genre, as some are typically longer than others.[table “9” not found /]
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.
How do you plan a novel? Your Novel Structure Breakdown (& Template)
Planning a novel involves coming up with your plot, character development, knowing your audience, and outlining your book.
- Coming up with your plot involves knowing which genre you want to write or even utilizing a list of writing prompts to get your thoughts moving.
- Character development is one of the most vital parts of your novel. Take the time to know your characters and protagonist well before you start writing in order to better plot your novel to fit how they act.
- Your audience will dictate the type of content in your plot. You can always plot first and then decide if you’ll be writing young adult, new adult, adult, or even middle grade. Just make sure you categorize your novel correctly in order to reach the right audience.
- Once you know the above, you’re ready to outline your novel. First, however, you have to figure out if you’re a
pantser, plotter, or somewhere in between before you can outline your book.
If you want to have a solid fill-in-the-blank template, we have a book outline template generator available above for you!
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
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 first draft.
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 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.
This may not even be something authors do intentionally but rather, these are what make a story (even spoken) good and captivating.
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 when writing a novel
This is where you make your story promise and write an introduction that pulls readers in.
Here’s a solid resource for how to start a story if you need a few more tips.
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 Amazon reviews that make such a difference.
The Setup of a novel 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 red 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.
Inciting Incident in a Novel 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 for writing a novel!
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.
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!”
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.
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: writing a novel 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.
Common Questions About Writing a Novel
Now that you know the 5 key milestones of a gripping novel readers will love, let’s consider some of the common questions people have.
What should I write a novel about?
You should write a novel about any idea or theme that excites or inspires you.
If you’re stuck for inspiration, consider using a writing prompt to give you an initial story seed your full novel can eventually bloom from.
Many writers take inspiration for their novel from their own lives. Is there an event you’ve lived through that makes for a compelling story? How about a memorable person you’ve known that you could fictionalize?
You can also take an emotional truth you’ve experienced and apply it to a different context. Even if the situation of your novel differs from your life, the emotional authenticity will shine through.
You can also let your imagination run riot and see where it takes you. Picture an entirely different world from ours. Go crazy brainstorming ‘what if x happened to y person’ scenarios.
How do I get started writing a novel?
Getting started with novel writing depends entirely on you and your situation.
If you already have an idea in mind, you can start by outlining your plot, or jumping straight in if you’re more of the panster school of thought.
If you don’t have an idea, you could aim to come up with as many as possible using some of the techniques you’ve read here. Coming up with a large number of novel ideas gives you a good chance of finding something you love and want to pursue further.
You can also consider setting out a project plan for your novel. How many writing sessions will you need? When will you schedule them for?
No matter how you go about starting your novel, the important thing is to build momentum and a sense of excitement to propel you forward.
How do I choose a point of view when writing a novel?
It can be tricky to know which point of view to choose when writing a novel, especially if it’s your first time.
The most common choices are first person and third person.
Most published novels are written in the third person. You can read about the different points of view here and decide which is the best fit for the novel you want to write.
Should I edit my novel as I write?
It’s often a bad idea to edit your novel as you write. Doing so results in a loss of momentum and flow that inhibits your progress towards a complete first draft.
If you self-edit on the fly, you often end up second-guessing yourself and losing that delicious sensation of being swept away by the story.
Are there books on how to write a novel?
Yes, there are a large number of books on novel writing.
Some of the best out there include:
- On Writing by Stephen King. A mixture of King’s personal story and actionable advice on the craft of writing. Seeing King’s exact process for drafting and redrafting his work is invaluable for any aspiring novelist.
- How to Write Bestselling Fiction by Dean Koontz. A popular guide to crafting fiction novels, recommended by successful novelists such as Jerry Jenkins.
- Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. This book offers the perspective of Maass, an author who is also a literary agent. This background provides useful insight to guide your next novel.
Are you ready to start your novel writing adventure?
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.
Disclosure: Some of the links above may contain affiliate partnerships, meaning, at no additional cost to you, Self-Publishing School may earn a comission if you click through to make a purchase.