Monday, 20 June 2011

How to Write a Novel

This article covers some basic tips on writing a good novel, by sticking to well-known and accepted conventions. Breaking these conventions outlined here is something that only the very brave or famous can afford to do.

These rules of thumb are pretty much standard across modern novels. If you are skeptical of any of them, pick up any famous, recent novel, read it, and you'll see that it's true.


Ensure that you use the right tense. Most novels are written in the past tense third-person: "Smith went to the shop." Some authors use first-person: "I went to the shop." This is more unusual these days; novels from the 19th century and prior used this tense a lot, but it's very rare nowadays and it sounds odd. Some authors, extremely rare indeed, use first-person present-tense: "I am going to the shop". Avoid this. Another thing to be aware about with tense is that speech and thought in the novel is technically present tense for the actors; they don't think "I went to the shop" or say "Smith - went to the shop". Speech and thought is present-tense in a novel: "I will go to the shop," or "I am going to the shop", or, "Smith - go to the shop!". This also means that when a person in the novel is thinking or talking about the past, you have to indicate this with "would/should/could have", and "have had" or "had had": "Smith had wanted to go to the shop, but couldn't." "I should have had the courage to go to the shop". Or even more importantly: "He had had enough. He had tried so hard to get it right, but couldn't." If there's no-one speaking or thinking, just use the straight past tense.

Chapter Length

Chapters must be of equal length. They should be less than 40 and more than 10 pages long. Take your book, and divide its number of pages by 20. That's roughly how many chapters you should have. Try to not have chapters of unequal length; it makes reading much harder because the reader starts to wonder when the chapter is going to end so that he or she can go to sleep.


Characters are developed by describing their thoughts and actions. You do not need to apply adjectives to them to create an impression of their character. E.g. it's considered amateurish to say something like this: "Smith was a scoundrel." It's better to use descriptions of behaviour, body language, and psychology: "Smith leered at Mary, whilst contemplating how much money she may have in her purse". That kind of thing.

You should have a clear protagonist (hero) and antagonist. The antagonist or "bad guy" does not have to be blatantly obvious or present from the outset. It is more interesting to let the bad guy reveal himself gradually through clues. A common device in modern novels is to trick the reader into believing a character is bad, and then reveal how it's actually someone else that has been causing all the trouble.

The ending or resolution of the story is called the "denouement" (pronounced day-new-mong, roughly). It's recommended that you have a denouement; stories that are left hanging are frustrating to the reader. If you want to do cliff-hangers, put it at the end of each chapter but not the last. It creates a sense of certain characters or storylines having been pointless if they're left unresolved.

Avoid indirect speech or narrations of descriptions of conversations. Rather use direct speech exchanges; they are useful for displaying or developing characters. E.g.: Smith then said to Jones that he didn't really like him as a person - versus - "Jones! You imbecile! Why do you always have to insult me in front of Mary? What's your problem?"

Multiple heads. Each scene has one protagonist from whose perspective the scene is narrated. The chief protagonist of your novel must have the most scenes in which he is the person whose perspective is taken. So, you shouldn't have a scene in which you psychologise about two different people. E.g. "Mary was wondering what John was thinking." "I don't think she likes me, John thought". Choose whose head you're inside, and use only that. E.g. "Mary was wondering what John was thinking" "She looked at John's face. It seemed to her that he was unsure about something." You mustn't confuse your reader about who they're supposed to be sympathetic to, and focusing on. Similarly, you can't say "they thought", as this implies that the narrator is in everyone's heads. You have to say "they agreed", which implies that they said it out loud. "They thought" implies that the narrator could read all their minds. Also, separate scenes in which you've switched from one protagonist's head into another's, with three asterisks and two line breaks or carriage returns above and below the asterisks, like so:

*         *         *

Diction and Style

Only write as you speak if you are writing the direct speech of one of your characters inside quotation marks. In descriptive paragraphs, do not use casual or spoken style.

Break your sentences into shorter sentences, especially in action scenes. Use commas. The word "however", for example, is almost always surrounded by commas. Use one clause (section of meaning) per sentence.

Avoid redundancies, like "sat himself down", "stood up", "shrugged his shoulders", "thought to himself", "five days' time", etc. Replace all of these with "sat", "stood" or "rose", "shrugged", "thought", "five days". Why? Because you can only sit down, you can only stand up, you can only shrug your shoulders, you can only think to yourself, five days are only in time.
"Got/Get". Avoid using this word altogether. It's casual speech. "He got confused" should be "He became confused". "He got into the boat" should be "He boarded". Etc. It's ok in direct speech, e.g. "GET OUT!"

Do not imitate accents, e.g. '"Zey are comeeng," Jacques said.' Rather just try to capture the style of the language through its unique structure. E.g. '"The enemy, they are coming, my friends. It is the life!", Jacques mumbled.'

Avoid -ing on verbs. Replace "he was walking" with "he walked". It's shorter and snappier.
Avoid adverbs and adjectives if you can replace the noun with one that implies both. For example: "he walked rapidly" - swap with - "he strode" or "he jogged." "He beat the enemy severely" - replace with "He smashed the enemy". Etc. It makes the pace seem faster. Obviously, in slow scenes, you use more adverbs and adjectives.

Repetition: avoid using the same word on the same page more than once, especially nouns, adverbs and adjectives. I've noticed many instances in which informal writers use the same word over and over. Unless the word's unavoidable, like "the" or "an" or "but", or unless it's technical, like "bandwidth", use a different word. So, "She was happy, she had no idea how it was possible to be so happy" is repetitive. Rather try "cheerful, cheery, merry, joyful, jovial,jolly, jocular, gleeful, carefree, untroubled, delighted, smiling,beaming, grinning, in good spirits, in a good mood, lighthearted,pleased, contented, content, satisfied, gratified, buoyant, radiant,sunny, blithe, joyous, beatific; thrilled, elated, exhilarated, ecstatic,blissful, euphoric, overjoyed, exultant, rapturous, in seventh heaven,on cloud nine, walking on air, jumping for joy, jubilant". English is not short of synonyms.

It's not conventional to end sentences on prepositions. ("Can I come with?") - Prepositions being things like "in", "on", "around", "at", etc.

Passive voice/active voice. Passive voice: the man was hit by the ball. Active voice: The ball hit the man. Rather use active voice in a novel.

Check that each sentence has a verb. -ing words don't count as verbs. "Walking there", for example, isn't a sentence, it has to be "He was walking there", where "Was" is the verb.
Hyphens. Quite a lot of words are hyphenated in English. Double-barrelled, for example. It's hard to explain the rule. Effectively, if two words have been together for a long time, they gradually acquire a hyphen, and then become one word. So, in Old English, tomorrow was "to morgen". In early modern English, it was "to-morrow". Nowadays, it's just "tomorrow" - one word. I think the easiest way to explain it is to say: put a hyphen or combine the words if the two words that make up a term make it into a new term by being together. So, a red coat is a coat that is red, but a redcoat is a British soldier. And so on.

Write everything in full; do not use digits, e.g., "1st", "1 AM", and so on. Rather: "First," "one in the morning". Only use digits for very large numbers, like a house number in a long street in an address: "Mary lived at 1024 Smith Street".

Don't forget to check my Correct English page, in the menus above.

Sentence run-on. Keep one clause per sentence. Otherwise it sounds rambling. E.g., "The sun was shining and the birds were singing and Smith went for a jog and it was a good jog and it was hard for him to think that just the day before he had been stuck in an office." Rather have this: "The sun was shining. The birds were singing. Smith went for a jog. It was good. It was hard for him to think that just the day before, he had been stuck in an office." Note how it's been split into individual clauses. It makes it easier to follow and read. You may ramble only in direct speech where the character or person speaking is prone to rambling.

Storyline Structure

Gone are the days where you could have a straight, linear story with only one protagonist and everyone else is incidental or peripheral. You have to have different scenes which feature different characters, and the protagonist (hero) must not be in every scene. You should also have scenes which show the world view and experiences of the antagonist, to give him (or it) some depth of character.

It's a common device nowadays to have multiple unrelated scenes with unrelated characters that eventually come into conflict or cooperation through chance. The idea is that initially, the reader can't tell which character is important and what is ultimately going to happen to them. If you start with a particular character and always show the world from their point of view, you're ensuring that the reader knows immediately that this person is the protagonist and is going to be immortal throughout the story, since they cannot disappear from the story if the story is only told from their point of view. A recent modern example is the Sookie Stackhouse series, upon which the TV series "True Blood" is based. You can have no fear or suspense in such a novel because the reader knows that no real harm can come to the character, since the novel is exclusively from her first-person perspective. This is one of the disadvantages to the first-person perspective narrative point of view. From a third-person point of view, all people are equal.

You can, if you like, tell the story asynchronously, that is, start by revealing scenes from later in time, and then lead back to them through subsequent chapters, to show how the starting scene came about. This is a very common device in modern films.

Make sure that you draw up a timeline spreadsheet. Each row is a chapter. Each column is an event that happens to a character in that chapter. You should do this to ensure that you don't end up with anachronisms; where an event happens to character (A) ostensibly at the same time as an event that happens to character (B), but reference is made to an event that happens to character (C) at the same time, but the event that happens to character (C) is impossible because it happened before the event that happened to character (A). To avoid this, simply make a spreadsheet with a row called "Chapter 1", and columns as follows: Character A, Character B, Character C. Then under each character's column, write a word or two about what happens to that character in that chapter, if anything. Then repeat for Chapter 2, etc. That way, your story cannot become asynchronous or anachronistic.


Most stories rely on certain facts. Some stories twist the facts, and some aim to be revisionist. That's OK. The most important thing in writing a story is to make sure your facts are correct. This is especially important in historical or political novels. So, you can't have James Bond going to kill a Communist General in Soviet Russia in the year 2010. And if you want your story to be about that, you can't have Bond driving a BMW Z4, since Communism fell before the Z4 came out. You get the picture. The only time you can introduce anachronisms is if you're doing a re-imagined revisionist history, such as the film "Inglourious Basterds", or some kind of graphic novel or Steam Punk story, whose time and geographical setting are unclear. Introducing an anachronism deliberately is only OK if that anachronism is the entire point of the story, e.g., Jurassic Park, the Land that Time Forgot, and so on.

Sex, Violence and Cursing/Swearing

You may want to include some sex and/or violence (verbal or otherwise) in your novel. Take the following into account. Firstly, is the novel intended for an audience of adults only? What are the odds of a child reading the novel? If you do not intend your novel for adults only, you should probably not have explicit sex or violence in the novel. If, however, it is a romance novel or a horror story, then by all means, put the explicit material in. If it is a story intended for adults, and it's not specifically intended as a horror story, then balance the violence with sex; violence-only doesn't make for a good story. And vice versa.

Publishing your Novel

The hardest thing with a novel is to be seen; I call this the "wood for the trees" problem. Unfortunately, the easiest way to get your book read is to publish it for free on a site like If, however, you want to make money off it and have it widely read, you probably still need to persuade a traditional paper publisher to take it on. This means that it really has to be good and have something unique. If, however, you're mainly wanting to publish it for a few friends to read, then consider online publishers like Lulu. This does not mean that you can't succeed through an online publisher; there are many success stories.

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