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How to Write a Novel Step by Step

Step One: The Premise

It should be possible to express the premise (central idea) for your story in a single sentence.

The premise sentence is a bit like the question on an essay exam paper - you should keep referring back to it to make sure you're not wandering off the point. It will help keep you anchored and moving forward at the same time, helping to avoid meandering, wasteful scenes and chapters (and time).

Writing a single sentence summary of your story will also help you work out if you actually have a complete story idea or just a kernel of a concept that needs further development. If it turns out you do only have a kernel, the premise step will help you turn it into something you can work with.

So, let's get started...

Every story should contain all five of the major story elements, which are:

  • Character
  • Situation
  • Objective
  • Opponent
  • Disaster

Let's take a quick look at each of these story elements:

The Major Story Elements

Character

Many people believe that every story is an attempt to understand the human condition. That counts for stories with animals as their leads too. Whether the above statement is strictly true or not, your story isn't going to get anywhere without characters.

Many stories focus on the actions of a single lead character and follow that character's adventures. If you're George RR Martin you can have 30 leads, each with fully fleshed out histories, characteristics and idiosyncrasies, but for now let's just stick with a single lead character. That doesn't mean there won't be more later, but it's early days.

Pick one, and have in mind the following information about them:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Profession

Character examples: Joanna the Plumber (36), King Edvard Bearheart (52), Candy Collins (19, wannabe actress), Patches the Guinea Pig (2, pet)

Situation

This includes setting and external forces. Is your story set in a futuristic factory or a giant-bee infested rainforest? Or perhaps everything happens in a restrictive manor-house in the British countryside. What kind of world does your lead live in? Note the following (don't get too hung up on what each thing means - interpret it however you wish):

  • Date
  • Place

Situation examples: Earth in 2050, Medieval England, Hollywood (current day), A terrible pet shop (current day)

Objective

Your lead must have an objective. People in real life don't always have clear objectives, but many people in real life would make boring stories. Good fictional leads always have desires and goals. What is the goal of your lead? Is it to become rich and famous? To save a family member? Perhaps they need to win that critical contract or want to wed Johnny Depp? Figure out what your character's story objective is - here are a few prompts to help:

  • Selfish
  • Benevolent
  • Money
  • Love
  • Principle

Objective examples: save earth and the people from alien attack, bring peace to warring lands, become a star, find a good home

Opponent

Conflict. Imprint the word conflict on your brain. If you want to write a page-turner that's going to fly off the shelves, then your story must be jam-packed with conflict. Conflict builds tension, excitement interest. A lack of conflict is a big fat bore. There may be multiple opponents - note down at least one. Here are some examples of types of opponents:

  • Person / people
  • Organisation
  • Force of nature

Opponent examples: aliens, ambitious Lords, disapproving family, the pet store owner

Disaster

You want your readers to care, right? You want them on the edge of their seats, biting nails and flipping pages, desperate to find if your lead character can triumph against the odds. For that you'll need some odds. You'll need a disaster. As your plot progresses you'll pile on all kinds of troubles, but since we're only writing a single sentence at the moment let's pick a single, main disaster to hook the attention.

A disaster can be a potential disaster, hanging over the head of your character or an actual disaster that transpires to make what they seek seem all but impossible.

A potential disaster outlines the consequences should the character fail to succeed, this could a personal loss as in Around the world in Eighty Days by Jules Verne where Phileas Fogg faces both embarrassment and the loss of his estate, or a more sweeping doom such as the destruction of the earth by aliens or even the end of the Universe itself!

A realized disaster is an event that occurs in your story that makes the goal seem suddenly impossible. For example, Jane wants nothing more than to complete a marathon but disaster strikes in the form of a freak gardening accident and she is paralyzed from the waist down. This implicitly asks the question: How can she run a marathon now?

In some cases you might even be able to get both a potential and actual disaster into the same premise. For example, Joanna could be trying to prevent aliens taking over the world (a potential disaster) when the government throw her in jail (an actual disaster which makes her goal seem impossible).

The disaster must be something unspeakably awful (relatively speaking is fine). What is the worst possible thing that could happen to your lead?

  • Loss of something
  • Threat to family
  • Threat to the human race

Disaster examples: being made a scapegoat by the government and thrown in jail, declared incompetent by younger brother and deposed, a disfiguring accident, getting lost in the city streets

Creating your premise

Hopefully now you will have some idea of each of the major elements of your story. Now we're going to bind them together into a single sentence which summarises the premise of your story.

(Remember that word and use it when telling people about your story in order to feel clever).

You're bright, so you'll have noticed that our examples knit together nicely to create four story backbones. Observe:

When aliens attack Earth in the year 2050, how can Joanna the plumber save the human race when the traitorous government turn her into a scapegoat and lock her in jail?

Deep in medieval England, can King Edvard Bearheart bring peace to warring Lords, while his jealous younger brother is plotting to have him declared incompetent and overthrown?

The bright lights of Hollywood find Candy Collins seeking her way to stardom, but will she be defeated by her meddling disapproving family and a disastrous accident that threatens to leave her disfigured?

Trapped in a horrible petshop, Patches the Guinea Pig plots his escape, but the pet store owner isn't going to let him go easily - and how will he find a good home when he ends up lost on the city streets?

Note that each of these is a question, and that each roughly follows this pattern:

Situation > Character > Goal > Opponent > Disaster

Task One: Write your premise.

Click here to go to the next step or go back to the Novel Writing Roadmap overview.

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