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How to Write a Novel Step by Step

The toughest part of learning how to write a novel is knowing where to start and how to keep on going to the end. This section of Novel Writing Help is all about demystifying the writing process.

Figuring out how to write a novel can be confusing, probably because there are so many steps to take…

You’ve got to create all the characters and write a watertight plot. You’ve got to build an atmospheric setting and decide on a theme. So it’s little wonder that the question I’m most often asked is…

Where do I even begin?!

The answer is that you begin by studying a good map and familiarizing yourself with the route. The step-by-step process outlined below is your map.

A word of warning before we start…

This article isn’t short. But it’s critical to your success as a novel writer. Without a solid plan of action, it’s all too easy to find yourself in a hopeless mess a few chapters in. So please…

Take your time!

Ask 100 writers how to write a novel and you’ll get 100 different answers. And all of them will be right!

Pretty soon, it will be time to get to work on your novel. And you too will need to discover a process that works for you. And guess what? Whatever process you settle on, you’ll be right!

But first you need some guidance…

In Planners, Pantsters and the Middle Way, we’ll discuss the two broad approaches to writing a novel…

  • Planning (or outlining) everything in advance, so that you know what happens in every chapter before you write a single word of your novel.
  • Diving straight into chapter one, after the bare minimum of planning, and working out what happens as you go (i.e. writing your novel by the seat of your pants).

What are the pros and cons of each approach? And is one approach better than the other?

We’ll cover all of that. And as the heading implies, we’ll also look at the “middle way” – one that draws on the advantages (and hopefully none of the disadvantages) of each approach.

Decided how much of your time you’ll devote to planning and writing respectively? The next step is to dig deeper into the process itself…

In Writing a Novel from the Inside Out, we’ll look at how the best way to “grow” a novel is not in a straight line (i.e. from the first thing that happens to the last) but more like an expanding ripple on water.

Finally, we’ll run through The Steps themselves and lay out everything you need to do.

Let’s go…

Planners, Pantsters and the Middle Way

You’ve probably heard of planners and pantsters (sometimes called plotters and pantsters). I prefer “planner.” Plotting is just working out what happens – the sequence of events. Planning is broader, including tasks like getting to know your characters and researching the setting.

The basic idea?

  • Some folks like to outline their novels in detail before writing a word. These are the planners.
  • Others like to dive straight in to the actual writing. Armed with little more than an idea for a character and a situation to put them in, they start at chapter one and write the novel by the seat of their pants.

There’s actually less difference between planners and pantsters than you might think. At the most basic level, writing a solid draft of a novel involves just three steps…

  1. Planning. Sometimes called outlining. This is where you work out what you want to say (in note form, or sometimes just in your head).
  2. Writing. Here, you transform the plan into prose and dialogue.
  3. Revising. This involves checking that everything makes sense (that there are no plot holes or character inconsistencies, for example).

Now here’s the thing…

The planner puts a huge amount of effort into the first two steps. The final step, revision, is little more than a quick run-through to correct any inconsistencies that crept in during the actual writing.

The pantster, on the other hand, puts all her effort into the final two steps. Outlining the novel takes very little time at all (she doesn’t do any!). The bulk of the hours go into writing the first draft, and then making sense of it during revision.

In other words, planning and revising are essentially the same thing. It’s just that the planner does it in advance. The pantster does it after the event.

Which way is best?

The big advantage of writing a novel by the seat of your pants (assuming that that’s the approach you are naturally drawn to) is that it’s enjoyable! You get a kick out of sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper and having no idea where today’s work session will take you.

The last thing you want to hear is someone telling you that your way of working is all wrong. So I won’t do that! But I do feel like F. Scott Fitzgerald felt when he said this about Thomas Wolfe…

God, I wish he could discipline himself and really plan a novel.

What’s the disadvantage of being a pantster?

The likelihood is that writing a novel by the seat of your pants will result in a mess (that’s if you finish the novel at all). And the time it takes to unravel that mess, during the revision stage, may well be longer than if you’d actually done some planning (ideally a lot of planning) in the first place.

Isn’t it possible to write by the seat of your pants and produce a story that isn’t a mess?

Yes. But not when you’re learning your craft. When you’ve got a few novels under your belt, you probably will have the ability to start writing with the minimum of planning (or even none at all) and end up with a story that is bang on the money in terms of character development, plot progression and all the rest of it. For now, though, here’s my best advice…

Plan your novel in as much detail as you can stand.

But isn’t planning boring? Actually, it’s not – not if you see it as equally creative as writing a first draft, which it is. Think about it…

The main difference between planning and writing is that one happens in note form and the other takes the form of prose and dialogue. Apart from that, they both involve inventing people and places and events in your imagination and getting them down on paper. And if that’s not pure creativity at work, I don’t know what is.

Sure, there are some aspects of planning that can be tedious (if you don’t enjoy that sort of thing), such as writing extensive character profiles – where they went to school and what their favorite movie is and so on.

But I don’t recommend that you do that kind of detailed planning – not if you don’t find it useful.

Next, let’s focus in on planners…

If detailed planning in advance is my recommended approach to writing a novel, does that mean there are no disadvantages to being a planner? Sorry, but no…

A plan is a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s important insofar as it helps you to write a better novel. But at the end of the day it’s the novel that people will read, not the plan.

For some writers, however, planning becomes an end, not a means

  • They write 20-page biographies for each character and draw up diagrams of their setting on squared paper.
  • They plot their novels in such detail that they don’t only know what happens in each scene, they know what clothes the characters are wearing and what they all ate for breakfast that morning.

Now, if you love planning and you’re in no hurry to reach the end, there’s nothing wrong with this. It may take you a decade or more to complete your novel but, hey, if you’ve only got one novel in you and you’re in no rush to reach the end, so what?

If, on the other hand, you have ambitions to write a string of novels and earn a living from writing them, you simply can’t justify taking any longer than necessary on the plan. So if you still spend a heap of time on the planning, even though entrepreneur inside you understands that time is money, you need to ask yourself why…

  • Maybe you have a fear of writing first drafts – a fear of that dreaded blank page that needs to be filled with prose and dialogue. It’s not uncommon if you do. Planning may be creative, but there’s still no pressure to turn your creative thoughts into prose and dialogue.
  • Maybe you simply love the act of planning. You understand that you’re probably doing far more than is necessary, but so what? You’re having a ball doing it!
  • Maybe you’re a perfectionist. It’s not that you’re afraid of a blank page or that you particularly love planning for its own sake. You don’t want to start the writing right now in case the story starts veering off in an unplanned and potentially disastrous direction.

In each case, you need to remind yourself that a plan is just a means to an end. A novel ultimately consists of 80,000 words (or whatever) of prose and dialogue. Until you start cranking out the words, you’ll remain a long, long way from the end.

Now let’s look at the “middle way”…

If you’re a natural pantster, you may accept the importance of planning but nevertheless find it impossible to spend the coming weeks and months doing nothing but planning. You want the thrill of the blank page, and nothing I say is going to change that!

If you’re a planner, you’ll love my advice about the importance of planning. Trouble is, you may end up spending so much time on your plan that you never get around to the task that really counts – doing some actual writing!

The simple solution is the same in both cases…

Start writing today!

Even if you have no idea yet what your novel is about, write anything. As soon as you’ve got the first inkling of your novel’s main character and a situation to put them in, use your daily writing sessions to work on your novel itself.

It doesn’t matter if the character changes, or if the scene you write never ends up in the novel. The main idea is to…

  1. Satisfy your creative urge to write something if you’re a natural pantster. Or get you out of your “planning rut” if you’re the sort of person who could happily plan for the next decade.
  2. Exercise your “writing muscle” so that, when the time comes to hit the first draft full on, you’re already in shape.
  3. Help you understand things about your story that you couldn’t understand through planning alone. The writing will feed back into the plan as your characters take on a life of their own. Equally, the plan will stop the characters from taking over the story entirely and replacing your plot with a state of anarchy.

Bottom line?

The detailed planning of fiction, in my opinion, is essential if you’re just starting out. To write a chapter knowing little or nothing about what happens in the chapter isn’t easy. You really need to know what you’re doing to work like that, and that kind of knowledge can only come from experience.

On the other hand, planning in too much detail can be a wasted effort, because sometimes you only truly discover what you want to say through the act of writing the novel.

And it makes sense to me to do these two things simultaneously – hence the “middle way.”

How much time should spend on each task?

As your novel progresses, you’ll come to spend a larger proportion of your day on writing, and a smaller proportion on planning…

The relationship between planning time and writing time

When you start out, you’ll mainly be planning. Though still do some writing (30 minutes a day, say) to satisfy your inner-artist, to build up your writing muscle, and to learn more about your story as your characters come to life and act in unexpected ways.

At some point, you’ll know enough about your story to put planning on the back burner and push ahead with completing the first draft. Don’t completely ditch the plan, though. It will be invaluable when the time comes to revise the first draft and you need to refer to an “at a glance” guide to what happens in your story.

Wrapping up…

I hope you can see how that labelling writers as “planners” or “pantsters” is not especially helpful. Sure, you’ll be naturally drawn to one approach or the other. But each approach has its disadvantages…

  • Pantsters may enjoy the thrill of the blank page. But unless they have a lot of experience, the story they create will end up as a structural disaster zone.
  • Planners avoid this structural mess, but they also avoid getting down to the actual writing for weeks, months or even years. And it’s not healthy to be a writer who doesn’t write for long periods of time.

The “middle way” addresses both of these disadvantages. It gets the pantster to actually do some planning without depriving them of their daily writing fix. And it gets the planner to actually do some writing without the fear of losing control.

Ultimately, only you can decide on the best novel writing approach for you. But I hope that everything above has convinced you to take an approach that sits somewhere in the middle!

Now it’s time to pull everything together with a step-by-step process covering everything you need to do to get from a blank sheet of paper to a polished manuscript…

How to Write a Novel from the Inside Out

The most logical way to write a novel is to start at the beginning of the story (i.e. chapter one) and finish at the end. And there are two groups of writers who do work this way…

  1. Experienced novelists who have written so many books before that they can get away with writing by the seat of their pants.
  2. Newcomers to novel writing who are pantsters by nature and usually end up in a hopeless mess by about chapter four.

What’s the disadvantage of writing a novel in a straight line?

Well, novels are complicated things. There’s a large cast of characters, an intricate plot, several strands of subplot to weave into it, and so on. In short, there’s a lot of detail to figure out and place in the right order. And it’s tough to do that if you simply start at the beginning and plough on through to the end.

Let’s make that crystal clear with a series of diagrams…

First, imagine your completed novel as a straight line. The story starts on the left, ends on the right and contains every detail along its course…

A novel as a straight line

Now turn that line into a circle. It contains exactly the same story with exactly the same level of detail, and it still runs from the first chapter to the last, but this time it does it clockwise instead of in a straight line…

A novel as a circle

Finally, imagine a series of concentric circles. The outer circle is the completed novel, as above. Each smaller circle represents an earlier version of the novel, one that is less advanced and therefore contains less detail than the circle outside it.

By the time you get to the center circle, you have very little detail indeed. But it still contains the core of your novel, or the seed that the outer circle will eventually become…

A novel as a series of concentric circles

Planning and writing a novel from the inside out means starting at the core and adding layer after layer of detail as you develop the story. The diagram shows three circles beyond the core, but in reality there’s an infinite number of them.

Every time you sit down to do some planning or a clever plot twist comes to you while you’re in the shower, your novel is taking one more step in its growth from the simple idea at its core to the final outer circle.

Writing a novel in this way is so much easier.

Why? Because it’s more logical. Instead of developing the story in a straight line, from Event A to Event Z, you develop it organically, from the point of knowing virtually nothing about the story to the point of knowing everything.

It also makes it much easier to change your mind as you go. Let’s say that the story at the core concerns two friends taking a trip to Las Vegas to win enough money to start their own business together (hey, what could possibly go wrong?!)

If you decide to make the friends female instead of male, or 80 instead of 18, or change the setting from Vegas to Atlantic City, it’s simple enough to do at an early stage of the development. Write your novel linearly, though, from start to end, and fundamental changes can potentially become huge undertakings.

Clear on the overall concept? Then here’s that step-by-step process I promised…

Stephen King: When asked, how do you write, I invariably answer, one word at a time.

Step 1. Prepare to Become a Writer

Not much to say here. I just want to remind you not to miss the introductory articles if you skipped over them. They cover, amongst other things…

Step 2. Find Your Big Idea

This is where you create the core of your novel, or the seed from which it will grow.

Some people will tell you that good novel ideas are difficult to come by. I would respectfully disagree. As a matter of fact, I believe that most writers face the opposite problem: not having the time to turn every idea they have into a novel. Unfortunately, I can’t help you with that one!

Why a “big” idea? Because it’s actually composed of several smaller ideas – more specifically, ideas covering the four elements of a story…

  1. Theme – the “why” of your novel.
  2. Characters – the “who.”
  3. Plot – the “what.”
  4. Setting – the “where” and the “when.”

The key here is to ensure that all four elements work together in harmony, and that you don’t move ahead until you’re happy with everything. The Big Idea itself is very simple – one sentence long, to be exact. But because it contains the “DNA” of your entire novel, you want to get it right.

Yes, novel ideas can and do change as you develop them. Nevertheless, there’s a big difference between deliberately allowing an idea to evolve as you learn more about the story, and starting out with an underdeveloped idea that you hope, fingers crossed, will somehow make sense by the time you reach the end.

And why would you want to rush this stage, anyway? You’ll be devoting a significant chunk of your life to this novel. The last thing you want to do, a few months down to road, is wish you’d taken an extra week or two at the outset to come up with a much stronger idea.

The section on Finding Ideas shows you how to brainstorm for more ideas than you could ever hope to use.

Step 3. Develop the Story

So you’ve discovered your novel’s core. Now it’s time to expand it, to gradually turn it into that larger concentric circle.

This step is about getting to know the story world – in particular, the “who,” “where,” “when” and “why.” We’ll touch on plot here (the “what”) but only very lightly.

Until you understand your story world – the people, in particular – it’s impossible to write a good plot. If your main character is still on the sketchy side, for example, how are you meant to decide how they will act and react in a variety of situations?

Here are the tasks to carry out in this step…

i) Develop the theme.

Theme, as you’ll discover, is not some highfalutin’ thing that you only find in literary novels. It’s your story’s “internal guidance system” – the thing that will allow you to decide what belongs and what does not.

By taking the time, right at the outset, to think about your chosen theme – what it means to you, what you want to say about it – you’ll be in a great position to write a highly-focused novel in which everything belongs and “feels right.”

Your story will also have a deeper layer of meaning that sets it apart from more one-dimensional novels.

Don’t worry, theme isn’t nearly as tricky as it sounds. And it doesn’t involve a whole lot of work, either. When the time comes, visit the section on Theme and all will be revealed.

ii) Assemble the cast and get to know them.

The first job is to draw up a cast list. It’s impossible during the planning stage to think of all the characters you will need (some of the minor characters, in particular, won’t occur to you until you start to write your novel). But you certainly need to figure out who all the major players are.

Second, you need to “get to know” the characters before bringing them to life on the printed page. Doing that ensures that the characters will come across to the readers as convincing human beings.

This is also where we’ll start to think about the plot, about what happens. Part of characterization is thinking about what they want and why they want it and what they’re going to do about getting it – and those things, of course, will form the essence of your novel’s storyline.

Again, don’t worry about the details for now (I’m just laying out the big picture of how to write a novel). When the time comes, the section on how to create characters gives you all the how-to information you need.

iii) Get to know the setting.

Setting encompasses a lot more than just streets and buildings and houses. It also includes things like…

  • What characters do for a job.
  • The weather (very important for atmosphere in a novel).
  • The town’s history and folklore.

And so on. Just like with the characters, you need to “get to know” the setting before you start to write. That way, you’ll be able to convincingly describe it to your readers so that they can get to know it as well as you do as the novel unfolds.

If you’re already intimate with your setting (you grew up there, say), you won’t have a huge amount of work to do here. If your novel is set in a time and a place that’s unfamiliar to you, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy.

The section dedicated to setting covers everything you need to do.

Just one caveat about Step 3…

Developing your “story world” – or expanding your novel’s core into a larger circle – involves working on the various elements of fiction (theme, characters, setting, plot) one by one. In reality, though, it’s very difficult to deal with each one in perfect isolation.

Every decision you take about one of the elements affects all of the others. For example…

  • Change something fundamental about a character’s personality and you will also have to alter what they do in the plot.
  • Change what a character’s actions and you may have to tweak their personality to make what they do more in keeping with who they are.
  • Rethink your theme and everything you have been working on will have to be altered in small of large ways to reflect the novel’s new meaning.
  • Change the setting – from London to New York, say, or from a restaurant to a coffee shop – and you’ll have to alter the character’s backstory to explain how they got into their new situation.

None of this means that you shouldn’t plan and write your novel in a step-by-step way. It just means that you’ll have to do a certain amount of back-tracking and forward-thinking as you go. But, hey, it’s the fact that writing a novel is not like painting by numbers that makes it interesting!

Moving on…

Step 4. Decide on the Best Viewpoint

The previous step was about getting to know your story world. The next step is about bringing that world to life by working out the sequence of events in detail. Before you can do that, though, you need to decide whose eyes you’ll be looking through. Or to think of it in movie terms…

Step 5 is when you’ll start shooting your movie. First, though, you need to set up the cameras and the lights and point them in the right direction.

There are two main tasks here…

  1. Figure out which of your characters will be viewpoint characters (i.e. the ones whose eyes we look through and whose thoughts we can hear).
  2. Decide whether to use the “I” of first person or the “he/she” of third person (or if you’re feeling brave or possibly stupid, the “you” of second person).

Another decision is whether to use past tense or the present tense. Strangely, the past tense often feels a lot more rooted in the “here and now” than the present tense – so that’s my recommendation.

But don’t worry about the details now. When the time comes to make your decisions, head on over to the section on point of view. Everything you need is there – not only a rundown of the different viewpoints to choose from but, crucially, help on how to handle your chosen viewpoint more professionally when you come to write your novel.

Step 5. Work Out What Happens in Detail

Writing the plot is the big one, at least in terms of how long it will take you.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the job will be made a lot simpler by following my comprehensive guide to plotting a novel.

Start with the introductory articles covering topics like what a plot is and what keeps readers turning the pages. Then follow along with the “how to” steps. They take you all the way from a strong beginning to a satisfying ending… and without creating a “sagging” middle section.

Also check out the section on subplots. Not every novel contains subplots, but most do. I show you precisely what they are and how to weave them seamlessly into the main plot.

Once you’ve written your plot, you need to shake it up a little in order to tell a more compelling story.

What do I mean by that? A plot is a sequence of chronological events – everything that happens from Event A at the beginning to Event Z at the end.

“Shaking it up” can mean changing the chronology (so that readers are presented with Event B before Event A, for example). Or it can mean playing around with time in a variety of other ways – making Event B last for 30 pages, for example, and Event C for just a sentence or two.

The section on structuring a novel tells you everything you need to know. It also covers a few other “structural” issues, such as how to divide your novel into chapters.

Step 6. Write the First Draft

At last, we turn to the actual writing of your novel! If it seems like we’ve come a long way before getting to the fun part – the writing itself – remember the following…

  1. Planning a novel is just as creative as writing one. You may not be putting words on paper in the form of prose and dialogue, but you’re still creating people and places and events out of thin air.
  2. You’re still learning how to write fiction. Once everything above is second nature to you and you’ve got a few novels under your belt, you’ll be able to get from idea to completed plan a lot quicker.
  3. If you followed my advice above, you’ve actually been working on the first draft from the very beginning – even when you knew virtually nothing about your novel.

And on that final point…

If you’ve already completed the first draft – if the planning and writing both ended at precisely the same time – there’s nothing to do here. If you’ve done some drafting, or even none at all, now is the time to get everything written.

At whatever stage you do it, writing the first draft should be a magical experience. Vladimir Nabokov put it well…

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.

For many writers, however, drafting a novel is agony. In fact, it’s precisely at this stage that writer’s block is most likely to set in.

My best advice? Don’t try to draft and edit at the same time (i.e. get a sentence down on paper and them immediately start trying to improve it). First drafts are simply about getting black on white, no matter how terrible the quality of the writing is.

And guess what? Once you’ve freed yourself from the burden of having to writing professional-sounding prose, the process of getting lots and lots of words on paper becomes as simple and as magical as child’s play!

See this article for more help on writing a first draft.

First draft all written?

Take a break of at least a week. You’ve earned the rest! And in practical terms, it’s important to gain some objective distance from your story so you can return to it with fresh eyes. When you do, it’s time for…

Step 7. Revise and Edit

I’m not 100% sure of the difference between revising and editing. They’re both used as synonyms for each other. Here’s how I define them, though…

  • Revising is improving WHAT you said – tweaking the plot, checking how the characters come across, that sort of thing.
  • Editing is improving HOW you said it – polishing the language itself.

If you pretty much skipped the planning stage and wrote your novel by the seat of your pants, you’ll have a lot of revising to do (remember what I said earlier: revision is really just planning after the event). Your best bet? Run through the planning steps above. The only difference now is that instead of starting with a blank canvas, you’ll have a full one.

If the full canvas is a mess, your job is to deconstruct it and put it back together again in a hopefully better way.

If you did plenty of planning before you wrote the first draft (like I advised), there will be very little revision to do.

That said, stories have a tendency to take on a life of their own when you write them, so it’s always important to take some time to check for plot inconsistencies, how the characters and the setting come across, and so on. Did everything work out as planned, or are there some unintended glitches to fix?

Whether you have a lot of revision to do or hardly any, the aim is to end up with a clean manuscript where WHAT you say in your novel is as perfect as you can make it. Once it is, it’s time to edit the words themselves. This means polishing the language until it flows as effortlessly as good conversation. Or as Hemingway put it…

Getting the words right.

To my mind, this is the best part of writing a novel. The hard work is behind you and the finishing line is right ahead. All you have to do now is tweak the words and sentences until they are “just right.”

The best advice here is simply to trust your ear…

It was a love of language that drew you to novel writing in the first place, so this is the time to trust your instincts.

For help on how to write prose and dialogue to a professional standard, please visit the following sections on the website…

  • Finding Your Voice. Because you’ll have a hard time standing out if there isn’t something about your prose that is “unmistakably YOU.”
  • The Different Types of Writing. This gets you up to speed on the basic building blocks of fiction: narration, description, exposition, dialogue and monologue.
  • Prose Writing 101. A whistle stop tour of the “rules” of good writing.
  • The Art of Description. Unlike movies, novels are not a visual medium. Descriptive writing is the one tool you have to paint pictures with words.
  • How to Write Dialogue. The key here? “Realistic” dialogue should never sound like a conversation you’d hear in the real world.
  • Writing Interior Monologue. This section is all about handling a character’s thoughts. The ability to get inside a character’s head and hear what they are thinking is one of the big advantages that novels hold over movies, and you must make full use of this advantage.

And that’s it!

All you have to do then is the best step of all: publish your novel – either traditionally or using online self-publishing – and get your novel into the hands of the people who count the most – your readers.

Some parting advice…

First, bookmark this page and return to it often.

Second, take your time working through the novel writing process above (and outlined in all the detail you need throughout the site).

It’s not a quick process (see this article for more on how long it takes to write a novel). But it will be much quicker the second time around, when you already have a successful novel under your belt. And by the third or fourth time, writing a novel will be second nature to you.

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