Robert Pimm

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How to write a novel: plan in advance, or not?

What is the best way to write a novel?  Let’s explore two common methods.  I’ve tried both.  Each can work well: which is best for you will depend on how you write and what you are writing.

Before we look at that, let me cite the US fantasy author Stephen R Donaldson, who was once asked by an admirer how to achieve success in writing.  “Start today,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson’s advice is great.  If you want to start writing fiction, don’t wait until the conditions are perfect and all the stars are aligned (“I’m waiting until the kids grow up”; “I have to get some new writing software”; “I’m too busy right now”).  Set aside some time tonight, this afternoon or even this morning; get out a pen and paper;  and start writing.

How do you begin?

How to begin?  There are different ways of writing a novel

The first method is taught in writing courses and top universities across the world.  You should plan your story around a standard structure.  This structure is set out in a thousand primers – try googling “narrative structure” or “three act structure”.

This plan goes back to the ancient Greeks.  That’s no bad thing: it has stood the test of time.  In brief:

  • the first part (or “act”) of your story introduces your main characters and describes their situation, usually including a problem or conflict;
  • the second part involves an “inciting act” (eg: a letter in the post; discovery of a body; a glance across a crowded room) leading to, or highlighting, a conflict or problem.  This then escalates, perhaps via a series of mini-crises, to become a crisis;
  • the third part sees the main character or characters developing and changing (“digging deeper than ever before”) to a climax where they overcome the crisis, often preceded by a section where it seems that “all is lost”.  This leads on to the end of the story, with the main character in a new equilibrium.

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