Writing a novel is hard. From character development to worldbuilding to trying to keep all of your subplots straight, there is a lot that goes into writing a novel, especially for beginners. When I was first starting out as a writer, I made a lot of mistakes, and I struggled for years to even finish a story, let alone revise and edit one.
Now, as someone who works with emerging writers, I’ve noticed several common challenges that most new writers struggle with. While you can find pages and pages of advice out there on the world wide web, I came up with a list of my 8 key tips to writing spectacular stories so that you can avoid these common pitfalls and craft a story readers love:
- Start with conflict
Stories are all about conflict, right? If everything was perfect in the world of your characters, there wouldn’t be a need for a story.
One mistake that new writers make is waiting too long to start the conflict in the story. Conflict shouldn’t be something that appears halfway through your book; it’s something that needs to be happening on the first page.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you need to open your story with an epic chase or fight scene. But it does mean that you need to hook your reader, and to do that, something needs to be happening, whether it’s an internal or external conflict. The longer you wait to introduce conflict, the more likely you are to lose readers.
But wait! Some writers may say. What about my character’s backstory! Shouldn’t I start with backstory so readers don’t get lost?
While it’s true that your reader does need to understand who your character is and why they think and act the way they do, opening a novel with pages of backstory is one of the best ways to lose your readers’ interest. Instead, show us your character’s backstory through their memories, likes and dislikes, or triggers. Readers are smart–you don’t have to spell everything out in pages of exposition for them to pick up on your character’s backstory.
- Define your character’s desire and fear
If you’ve been hanging around this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I believe good characters are the key to good storytelling. But how do you develop good characters?
While a quick search online will give you character-development resources that prompt you to write down everything from your character’s eye color to the first word they ever spoke to their least favorite aunt’s maiden name, getting to know your character well doesn’t have so much to do with memorizing random factoids as it does with coming to intimately understand their desire and fear.
What is it your character wants? What is it your character fears? And more importantly, how is their fear preventing them from getting what they want?
Almost all conflict in life boils down to the struggle between fear and love, and between goals and the things that get in the way of those goals.
Some of the conflict in your story will come from external sources (we’ll get to that later.) But the interesting part is seeing how your character reacts to these external challenges and develops as a person. This is the work of the internal conflict, or your B Story.
Nail this aspect of storytelling by clearly defining your character’s fear and goal, and weaving that tension throughout the story.
- Follow a story structure
When I was a newbie writer, I dealt with a common problem: I was rife with story ideas, and I would excitedly start a new novel before watching the characters meander their way to page 30, at which point writing started to feel too hard and I would give up. On to the next shiny new idea.
The reason I had this problem is because I knew nothing about plotting and novel structure. If you’ve been struggling to finish the stories you start, a lack of structure may be a contributing factor.
To fix this, start by researching a bit about plot structures. Personally I’m a fan of the Three-Act structure, but other common structures include the Hero’s Journey, the Fichtean Curve, or Save the Cat. Pick the one that seems right for your story, and sketch out a rough outline.
And if you bristle at the idea of outlines and want to discover the story as you write, know that story structure and discovery writing are not antithetical to each other. You can craft a rough outline with your major plot points that keeps you on the right track while still allowing you to flesh out the details of each chapter as you write. (That’s what I do!)
But by having some sort of structure, you approach novel-writing like taking a road trip, and instead of wandering aimlessly through your draft, you start with a map of where you’re headed that you can reference when the middle starts to feel tricky.
- Weave your A Story and B Story together
You know earlier when we talked about your character’s desire and fear, and how this creates internal conflict? This aspect of storytelling is known as the B story. But what is happening externally is the A story.
For example, if you asked me, What is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban about? I could give you two different answers.
If I’m talking about the A story, I’d respond by saying, “This book is about Harry Potter learning that a mass murderer named Sirius Black has escaped from prison and is coming to find him.”
But if I’m talking about the B story, I could say, “This book is about Harry learning to face his fears and past trauma so he can go on to be the hero that he needs to be for the rest of the series.” (This is shown visually through his battling the Dementors, but your B story doesn’t always need to be symbolized in such an external way.)
So what makes this book work? The A story and the B story are woven together, and at the climax of the book, Harry needs to conjure (literally) the strength that he’s developed through the B story to save Sirius and resolve the A story.
No matter what kind of story you’re writing, your A story and B story need to be woven together. I cannot stress this enough. Learning this has completely transformed my writing.
Your plot points should push on your character’s internal fears and cause your character to change. That change should then affect the plot and drive it forward.
Weaving these two elements together shows your reader not only what happens in your story, but why they should care.
- Show more than tell
When it comes to your prose, some writers worry that they need to try to sound “fancy” when they write, and they add lots of descriptive sentences and flowery language. And while description is great, it can also become too much and distract from the story, especially when it devolves into purple prose.
Instead, when it comes to improving your prose, focus on showing more than telling. Some examples of showing, not telling:
- Describing a character’s body language (rather than saying “he was mad”)
- Writing strong dialogue to show characters’ thoughts
- Weaving information into dialogue and discovery, rather than “info dumps”
- Getting rid of “narrator” words such as saw, heard, felt, and thought. (Ex. rather than saying “she heard a bird call,” say, “a seagull’s scream cut through the air.”)
- Diving into your characters’ emotions so we can see how they feel
- Showing your story’s theme through your character’s inner growth, rather than “preaching at” your readers
Why do I say show more than tell rather than the common show, don’t tell? Because it’s a balance, and you will have to do some telling in your story. Sometimes new writers think that show, don’t tell means that you should never have exposition, or that everything has to be conveyed through dialogue and body language, almost like a glorified screenplay. But this certainly isn’t true, and there will be times when you need a bit of interpretation to clearly communicate what you want your readers to know, or when you need to tell something for brevity’s sake, since showing typically uses more words.
Again, it’s a balance, but overall, showing makes for a more immersive reading experience, which is what you want to provide for your readers.
- Raise the stakes
One of the best ways to keep readers engrossed in your story is to raise the stakes. If your story is starting to feel a little dull, consider raising the stakes (and making sure your reader understands them!) Readers shouldn’t only know what your character wants, but also what is at stake if they don’t achieve their goals. What is there to lose? How will losing the internal conflict or losing to the antagonist harm your hero and their world?
Some simple ways to raise the stakes:
- Introduce time limits
- Show what life would be like if your hero fails and the villain wins
- Highlight your character’s past traumas–how would failing to achieve their goal amplify this?
- Put someone’s life or reputation on the line
- Give your antagonist a meaningful goal
If your story has an antagonist or a villain (and many do), one of the most important things you can do to level up your storytelling is to give your antagonist a meaningful goal, just like you did for your protagonist.
While you might say your villain is a dark lord who was simply born evil, this doesn’t give the reader much to connect with and runs the risk of making your antagonist feel flat. Villains certainly irk your hero and can wreak major havoc in your story, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they need to be pure evil. Make them more interesting for readers by giving them some redeeming qualities and a goal that the reader can relate to, or at the very least one that they can understand in theory.
What goals might your antagonist have other than wanting to take over the world and antagonize your hero? Do they truly think they’re making the world a better place? Do they have the same goals as your hero and are trying to race your hero to achieve them? Do they have good intentions but poor execution?
Whatever it is you decide, make sure your readers clearly understand who your antagonist is and where they’re coming from.
- Nail your story’s ‘aha’ moment
What is the ‘aha moment?’ If you’re following a story structure, this is the point in your story after disaster strikes, when your hero digs down deeper and overcomes the fear or misbelief that’s been holding them back. It’s the moment where they truly become a hero and find that they have what it takes to overcome whatever external conflict comes their way.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, this moment comes when Harry understands that he did not, in fact, see his father rescue Sirius, but instead saw himself. In this moment, Harry finally realizes that he has what it takes to overcome the Dementors and save Sirius in the process. Harry doesn’t struggle with casting a Patronus charm for the rest of the series.
Let’s take another example: in Me Before You, disaster happens when Will discloses to Louisa that he is going to carry on with his plans to end his life, despite Louisa’s efforts to cheer him up and get him to change his mind. She leaves and quits her job, but her ‘aha’ moment comes when she realizes that it’s not in her power to change someone, and as she makes peace with this inner struggle, she decides to go to Switzerland to see Will one last time.
Your ‘aha’ moment is critical because it is the culmination of the entire B story that you’ve been building. What message do you want your character to learn about life? What message do you want your readers to learn? What is the theme that you want to convey with your story? You can answer all of these questions in a great ‘aha’ moment.
While there is a lot that goes into crafting a compelling novel, keeping these tips in mind can help you finish that novel and send it out proudly into the world.
What elements of storytelling have you struggled with? Which ones do you find the easiest? Comment below and subscribe for more articles like this one.