Some books start with a character, some with an image. Most start with a story. Not a fully-fledged plot, of course. That mostly comes when you’re writing, but some sense of shape, nevertheless.
Let’s say, for example, you are Suzanne Collins with an idea in your head about a dystopian world where kids are made to fight it out for survival on television. That is the seed of a story and, at this stage, we don’t need more, but you still need to write it down. On a blank sheet of paper (or, better still, computer screen), give yourself a heading (it can change, and it can be as simple as ‘Story’), and write down what you’ve got.
Simple is fine for now.
One sentence is fine. One or two sentences is actually good.
Because if you have your story down in a very brief sentence or two, you can understand its shape and purpose much more clearly than if you start with five pages of waffle.
Yes, you’ll need to get to a more detailed view in time, but start with the crystal clarity of simplicity at first. You can then start to elaborate, little bit by little bit, knowing that you have a solid base to work from.
So let’s just say we happened to be called Suzanne Collins, our encapsulation of story might be something like this:
In a dystopian future world, teenagers are pitted against each other in a grim battle for survival – and it all plays out on a reality TV show.
Just guessing, but that concept sounds like it might have a real chance of doing nicely, don’t you think?
Next up. We need to populate our story with character, and that’s where we go next …
Need more? You might want to use this help on structuring your story, and you may well benefit from building your story up via the snowflake method. The snowflake method is a way to help you build your story up in layers – starting simple and getting gradually more complicated.
Next, you have to figure out who is going to lead your action? Perhaps you have a strong idea already, in which case you’ve maybe written about them already as you outlined your plot ideas.
Just be careful. The classic rookie error is this: you start with the character that people would expect you to choose.
That sounds like it can’t be a bad thing, right – but obvious choices are almost never the best. Think about these stories and who you’d like to lead them:
Example: Dystopian reality TV / survival story
Character 1: a sixteen-year-old guy with good looks, a bad-boy past and herculean fighting skill (like Cato from District 2), versus …
Character 2: a teenage girl with great skill at archery and real concern for the feelings of others
Example: Swedish noir crime story
Character 1: grizzled, middle-aged male detective. Probably hard-drinking and handy with his fists.
Character 2: a young woman. A computer genius. With Aspergers. And victim of a sexual assault. And effectively an orphan. Oh yes, and with a pretty handy capacity for violence.
Example: children’s series about a school for wizards
Character 1: school head boy. Successful wizard. Confident about his origins.
Character 2: a new boy at the school. An orphan.
Which character would you first think of for those books? And which one actually turned out to be better?
When you start writing your book, your first thought will probably always be to head for the obvious choice … but you need to resist that temptation. You need to think hard about your main character before you settle on your final choice.
That doesn’t mean you should just go nuts. Katniss Evergreen isn’t the obvious protagonist for Hunger Games, but she is a plausible one – she’s physically and emotionally resilient, and we learn how those skills enable her to overcome the hideous challenge laid in her way. Same thing with Lisbeth Salander and Harry Potter. You might not think of them as a first choice – but they do fill their allotted roles plausibly.
So again, before you start writing your book, jot down some ideas about your main character in a sentence or two:
Katniss. Uses bow to hunt food for her family. Tough and independent, not manipulative or experienced for the world she finds herself in.
That would do nicely!
Need more? We’ve got absolutely everything you need to know about character right here.
Create a setting
Next up is setting. Suzanne Collins’s world is a fantasy, so it’s obvious she needs to understand the rules of her world. (“A rich city, poor districts. Yes, that’s good. But are all the districts the same? Why does the rich city get to rule with its rod of iron? How sharp do we want to make the parallels with the world we actually live in?”)
If your story is going to be set in that kind of world, you need to set out the parameters as clearly as possible before you start writing your novel. That exercise is called worldbuilding and it really matters!
But most people setting out to write a novel will be dealing with much more ordinary settings: New York. London. Albuquerque. Wherever
Even when the place is widely known and the setting is contemporary – you still need to figure out your settings.
There are a million Londons, after all.
Are you writing about the Chelsea of investment bankers? The old East End? The new East End?
All these places will also look different to each inhabitant. Perhaps they love their cramped flat. Perhaps they feel trapped amidst the lights. And what particular parts of this city will you make use of? A café, a street market?
Try to figure out what gives you a frisson of excitement. Where your world and your character and your story all come together excitingly.
The trick here is writing vibrant, alive, mobile and atmospheric descriptions. People have a tendency to think that descriptive writing is of necessity boring – and OK, large slabs of unbroken description probably are. Done right, though, descriptive text actually adds life to the story – and can be a source of movement, instability and danger. It’s like having a new, unpredictable and exciting character in your novel. And it’s fun!
Need more?We’ve got a ton of info on how to write vivid descriptions. The great news is that it’s easy to do. We’re not expecting you to write huge slabs of purple prose. (Yuk!) And the techniques are so simple you can master then in twenty minutes.
Decide the inciting incident
Nearly all novels are triggered by some initiating event. In Katniss’s case, it’s the moment when her sister, Primrose, is called up, and Katniss volunteers in her place. In a regular crime novel, it may be the moment when a body is reported to the police.
Often, writers find themselves really obsessing over this moment, because it acts as the entrance to everything else (to the entire novel, in effect). And that’s fine. You’re amongst friends here and we understand a bit of authorial obsession, but don’t take it too far.
Scribble something about that inciting event. (“Katniss’s sister is called up by lot to take part in the Hunger Games. Katniss realises she can’t let this happen and asks that she be given her sister’s place.” That’s all you need.
That insight into what kicks things off is enough to anchor the start of your book – and give you a sold pier from which to start constructing the rest of the bridge.
We’ll extend our knowledge of our own story by dropping in a few more piers or stepping stones too. That’s what we look at next.
Need more?The inciting incident is so crucial, we wrote a whole blog post about it. You can find it here.
Pinpoint key dramatic moments
You’ll also, quite likely, have some ideas for other key moments that take place during the novel. One novel of mine had a sequence set in the Welsh hills during the coldest winter on record. I didn’t quite know how that scene was going to fit into the action, but I knew I had to have it.
In another novel of mine, I knew I had to have a scene where my protagonist, working undercover, would share a prison cell with one of the bad guys she was pursuing. Again, I didn’t have more than a vague idea of how that scene would fit in with everything else, but that didn’t matter for me.
In both the cases I’ve just mentioned, the scenes I ‘knew’ about beforehand were key to each book. The snow scene is something that readers will, I hope, remember long after they’re forgotten other plot details.
So write down what you have. You’re not looking for detail here. I might, for example, have written no more than this:
“Scene set in the snow in the harshest winter on record. Up in the mountains. Car broken down (or lured off the road? or sabotaged?). A murder attempt. Death by hypothermia. Fiona escapes.”
Your key moments don’t have to be life-and-death affairs. Perhaps your character has her heart broken. Or meets the love of her life. Or has to deal with a parent dying. Those things are just as significant in a novel’s emotional landscape, so note down what you have. A sentence or two is all you need.
So before we’ve actually started writing our novel – we’ve got a few great assets at our disposal. They are:
A sense of the shape of the story – the sentence or two that encapsulates everything
An idea of our main character – not too obvious, and yet still plausible
A sense of our settings – and how they are going to work for us
The inciting incident – the moment that starts everything else moving
Two or three key moments in the book
I hope you can already see how this preparatory work is actually helpful. When you do start writing the book, you’ll have so much knowledge about it, you’ll be able to blast ahead far faster than if you had to work everything out on the page.
Write your denouement
Just as you know something about the start of the book, and some key mid-book episodes, you almost certainly know something about your denouement.
So write it down in the same way. Simple is good, remember. We don’t want three paragraphs just yet. One or two sentences will give us less detail – but a lot more clarity.
And right now, clarity is your friend. The detail can be left for later.
So again (in the Suzanne Collins example) you might just write something like this:
“Katniss wins. Stays alive. Defeats the others.”
Or perhaps she knows a little more. Something, perhaps, to do with the romantic tensions that develop. If you half-know something about your “B-story” – the story that runs alongside the main one, and often has to do with a romantic liaison – then you might want to note that down separately.
But don’t fuss if you don’t know it. We want to make progress at this stage.
Nothing is set in stone, and it’s just fine to have gaps in your knowledge.
Just write down what you have. You can come back to everything later. (And will.)
Need more? You’ve already got the basic building blocks of your story down on the page. (And congratulations for that.) But you will need to start elaborating at some stage. For that, we really recommend getting into some detail on your plot outline. Most writers also find that some version of the snowflake method really help. (And yes, I know I mentioned snowflakes before, but you’ll probably see the purpose of that approach even more clearly now.)
Consider mood and voice
Less tangible, but just as important, you probably know something about the mood of the book. Is it grim? Light? Funny? Grim and funny?
And what about the voice you’re writing in? Is it elegaic, old-fashioned, sad? Or is it cutting edge, urban, cool? Or something else?
Getting those things right is so important – but also it’s hard to plan those things.
You can construct a plot outline from a blueprint. That’s what we’ve done in this blog post so far.
But what about voice? What about prose style? What about the fingerprint of the writing itself?
I’d like to tell you that I have a nice, easy, clean answer for you, but I really don’t. It just isn’t like that. Style emerges over time and the single best thing you can do to develop it is to write plenty and to focus on the quality of each sentence. Things to ask yourself are:
Is this sentence clear? Is my meaning obvious?
Am I precisely conveying what I want to say? (Compare: A bird sang in a tree and A couple of swallows darted around the old apple tree, squabbling as they did so. The first sentence is bland and generic. It doesn’t do anything to conjure up a picture. The second sentence is immediately precise and vivid.)
Can I cut any words of unnecessary text? In a huge number of cases, the answer is simply yes. For example, that sentence could be better written as Can I cut any text? So simple to do – and the answer is so much cleaner.
So write. Pay attention to your sentences and write.
You might even want to write a sample scene from your book and see how it feels. This is still the time to experiment. Find a voice and a style that suits you and the story you are telling.
Need more?Here’s a useful refresher on what voice means, in the context of novels, obviously. And we strongly recommend that you take a quick look at our advice on prose style, which you’ll find right here.
Some books have touchstones. Things that may or may not play a huge direct part in the story you’re about to tell, but are still an important reminder about why you wanted to write this thing in the first place.
So, for example, Kew Gardens in Richmond features throughout Tor Udall’s wonderful debut A Thousand Paper Birds, in a way that somehow connects the whole book.
In Hunger Games, Katniss’s skill with the bow and arrow is a critical part of the whole book – and, indeed, is almost like a touchstone for her too. Almost invisible. Quiet. Deadly. Easy to underestimate.
And perhaps you remember that I mentioned one of my detective novels a little while back – one about my detective stuck in the snow, dying of hypothermia.
That book was all about the cold. Before the weather turned, there were lots of references to the weather being about to turn. Then it turned. There was that scene in the snow. There were other major, important scenes where the snow dominated. Then, finally, ordinary weather returned, and the book came to a close … but with a denouement set in the far north of Norway, during the last ice of spring.
That cold reverberated all the way through the book. It’s how I remember it in my own mind. It’s what determined the book cover. It’s how readers think about it.
If you have such a touchstone, note it down.
If not, it doesn’t matter. You may (quite likely) find that you do, in fact, have one as you write. And if you still don’t, it still doesn’t matter. You can write a perfectly good book without it.
Need more?No, you don’t. Not for now. Let’s keep moving.
Place the camera
Some writers get very tied up with the whole (somewhat technical) business of points of view, and how many protagonists to have, and how to handle time, and much else.
In general, your first instinct is likely to be the right one. If it seems natural to you to write in the past tense, then do. If the present tense appeals, that’s fine, too.
Equally, if you want to write in the first person, that’s probably the way to go. If it feels more natural to write in the third person, do this. There’s no right or wrong here, just a couple of good rules of thumb:
Don’t have too many protagonists. It’s fine to have just one!
Don’t switch point of view inside a scene or chapter. That’s quite a hard thing to do well – and most new writers make a horrible mess of it. So just don’t do it!
The past tense is still the default storytelling tense. If in doubt, use it.
The first person is best used when you have a strong voice for the person in question. In other cases, third person is probably better.
But those things are rules of thumb only. If you want to do things differently, go for it. The only thing that really matters is you have a clear storytelling structure which will be obvious to readers – and clear to you too.
Need more?The one thing I would say about points of view and all that is that if you DO make a mess of things, it can be an awful lot of work to sort out. So, though my main advice is just that it’s probably fine to proceed just the way you intended – if you do have doubts or questions then read all about point of view here. Much better to spend half an hour figuring those things out upfront than make a mess of your whole book and give yourself a massive rewriting job.
Create your secondary characters
Finally, your key character will bump into other people and some of those relationships will be key. You don’t need to know nearly as much about those characters as you do about your main one, but if you do have an idea of some of the other key players, write down what you have, however sketchy your ideas at this stage.
Secondary characters like Cato and Rue in The Hunger Games also accentuate Katniss’ goodness (she helps Rue, she turns against sadistic Cato).
So do as we’ve done so far: sketch out what you know about your main secondary characters in a swift, economical way.
And congratulations, because …
You are ready to starting writing your book
The truth is that if you’ve written notes on all the above points, even just covering two or three pages, you have probably increased your odds of finishing your first novel by about 500%.
Not just that, but you’ve saved yourself a ton of time. You’ve saved yourself from untold horrible errors.
One last thing – and this one matters:
Get into good writing habits.
That wasn’t emphatic enough, so here goes again with a big emphatic headline:
Get into good writing habits
There are only three things that distinguish real writers (ie: the ones who go on to get book deals and sell a lot of books) and people-just-playing-at-being-writers. Those are:
Passion. Real writers are always passionate about writing.
Technical ability. That means you have to be able to master the skills spoken about in this blog post. And yes: I know you’re just starting out on your writing journey. That’s fine. We all had to start somewhere. But real writers go on acquiring skill and knowledge for ever. You need to be the same.
Good writing habits. And the habit that matters most of all? That you write every day?And if you can’t literally write every day (because of childcare or work commitments or whatever, then you need to define what your goals are (X hours per week, Y thousand words written). And you need to meet those goals. Real life catastrophes aside, you just need to meet make the time to write. And if you can’t easily make time to write – then you just write anyway. At dawn. At midnight. On a train. With a child yelling in your ear. Whatever. If you are writing a book, you need to create the time to do yourself justice.
Is that easy?
It is not. But I didn’t tell you I’d tell you that it was easy to become a writer. I just said I’d tell you how to start writing your book.
And I’ve just done that. So yay for me! And yay for you too, for reading this far.
Harry Bingham is founder and Chairman of Jericho Writers. He has written a variety of books over the years, some leading to six-figure deals with three of the world’s largest trade publishers. His work has been adapted for TV and is currently the subject of a major, and very exciting, new screen deal. Harry’s critically acclaimed crime series Fiona Griffiths has been published across the globe.
Harry’s also worked as a ghost writer and editor on a number of projects. He is the author of a range of short stories and a series of nonfiction books.