Thursday, November 15, 2012

How to Write a Novel in 3 Easy Steps

by Ellen Meister

There was a Monty Python skit in which the ostensible host of a children's television show  demonstrated how to play the flute by saying, "You blow there and move your fingers up and down here. And next week we'll show you how to rid the world of all known diseases!"

That's sort of how I feel about this blog post. You want to know how to write a novel? Just follow these three simple steps!

Still, I stand behind the advice here. As a novelist and creative writing teacher, I find myself coming back to these same basic principles again and again. So whether you're pounding away at a NaNoWriMo novel or struggling (as I do) at a slower pace, these three essential rules might help you focus:

1. Make sure your protagonist wants something 
This serves two purposes. First, it enables reader to relate to your character, even if he or she isn't especially likable. But more importantly, it's the essence of your narrative drive. Once there is some goal or yearning your main character aspires to, you will hook your reader, and the book's journey can begin. Make sure this is a strong goal, and that there are obstacles to achieving it. That's the entire basis of your plot.

2. Give your story a climax
Whether or not your main character achieves his goal, there must be a climactic scene toward the end of the book where everything that's at stake comes to a head. Often called the "final battle," this is where your hero will discover hidden strengths and come face-to-face with the toughest obstacle of all. If your character achieves the thing she was after, terrific. Your book has a purposeful resolution. If not, that's okay, too, as long as your protagonist has a satisfying arc. In other words, she must learn something that either changes the goal or creates an understanding that it wasn't really what she wanted after all. (Remember the ending of Gone With the Wind? Scarlett doesn't get Ashley or Rhett. But she learned so much that she finally understands what's most important to her—Tara.) Which brings me to the last item ...

3. Create both an outer journey and an inner journey for your main character
The most satisfying stories are those in which the main character has an arc. The more closely this inner journey is tied to the outer one, the better your chances of writing a successful book.

For many writers, this is where the seed of the story lies. To use my own novel as an example, I knew that I wanted the main character in Farewell, Dorothy Parker to be a woman whose timidity had cost her dearly, as I needed her to have an arc in which she discovers her "voice." (The ghost of Dorothy Parker helps her get there.) So I created  a storyline in which she needed this voice to achieve the goal of gaining custody of her orphaned niece. So as you can see, her inner journey  (becoming bolder) and her outer journey (gaining custody) are in sync.

If you have any questions about all this, please feel free to post them in the comments section. In the meantime, good luck with your writing. I know you can do it! And if all else fails, there's always the flute.

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Ellen Meister is the author of four novels, including The Other Life, which was optioned by HBO for a television series, and Farewell, Dorothy Parker, which comes out this February from Putnam. She lives in Long Island and teaches creative writing at Hofstra University Continuing Ed. 

For more information on Farewell, Dorothy Parker--and to order a free signed bookplate--please click here.


19 comments:

  1. Very informative post!

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    1. Thank you, Karin! Glad you like it.

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  2. Ellen, just brilliant! You take the huge overwhelming prospect of novel writing and break down into three steps that actually can get you there! After Dorothy Parker is done being the must-have read (three or four years from now) you should do a craft book... guessing you probably already thought of that.

    Now back to my incredibly slow WIP, just hearing about NoNoWriMO gives me a hive.

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    1. You are so sweet! One day I would love to do a craft book ... if I could come up with info that hasn't been done before!!

      And I hear you on Nano. I could never write that fast. xx

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  3. Great advice, Ellen!! But then again, you always give me great advice. :)

    Off to tweet about this!

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  4. Ellen,
    Loved your post...and that Monty Python skit! LOL. You may have only 3 steps here, but they're packed with valuable advice. I'm in the middle of (slowly!) revising a scene leading up to the story's climax, and your advice here is exactly what I'm trying to make clearer: "...she must learn something that either changes the goal or creates an understanding that it wasn't really what she wanted after all." ;)

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    1. I know you can do it, brilliant woman! Good luck with the scene!!! xx

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  5. I'm with Marilyn. I'm working on a massive novel rewrite, and these three steps are something I have to keep in mind. This is a good reminder, and it all sounds so simple (like the flute), when in fact, it can be the hardest thing in the world. Thanks, Ellen for a great post.

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    1. I know! Easy to SAY, hard to DO.

      I'm working on a proposal rewrite and also struggling. Good luck, Michele!

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  6. p. s. I can't wait to read Farewell, Dorothy Parker.

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  7. You are aware that these three steps are not a bit easy, aren't you?

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    1. Sadly, yes, I know exactly how hard it all is. Hang in there, Jane.

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  8. Really great to be reminded of this as I'm working on novel 2 (still no name, in revision and past due!) Your book sounds wonderful--I'll check it out. HI Michele--Are you doing the Virginia book fair again?
    Thanks, Ellen. From Anne Barnhill (At The Mercy of the Queen)

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  9. Great advice!This will definitely help me with the rewrite at the revision process. Thank you so much, Ellen!

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    1. You're welcome, Alexandra. Congrats on crossing the finish line!

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  10. Wonderful! I love how you boiled it down to the basics. This is it, bottom line. :)

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  11. Oh. Well. As long as it's THAT simple... *gg* You're killing me, Ellen!

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