The greatest novels in the world didn’t happen overnight. They were born through months and often years of committed work. Learning the craft of fiction writing is very different from learning the craft of nonfiction writing and people seem to have their natural strength in one or the other. When I was in college, I butted heads with my English instructors a lot because I was trained as a fiction writer and nonfiction writers tend to look down their noses at us sometimes. It doesn’t matter. The English language is a living, breathing thing that constantly changes and evolves with history. It isn’t just the language that makes a novel great, however. Jane Austen probably would not be published today just like JK Rowling would not have been published in the nineteenth century due to the differences in the evolution of the craft.
When people come to me asking about how to begin a novel, I tell them that they need to ask and answer this question first: “What is the point of this novel?” All great novels teach a central lesson to the reader through storytelling. You need to be able to decide what lesson you want to teach before you build any characters, write any outlines, or commit a word to the page. If you can’t tell yourself what the point, the lesson of your novel is, then you haven’t gotten to a place where you can write it.
After you’ve decided what point you want to make and a basic idea of how you want to make it, the next step is to become comfortable with the structure of a novel.
Despite the differences in language styles, the basic structures of novels have not changed very much in the last few hundred years. It’s not unlike the structure of a play but far more subtle. Take a look at this diagram that shows the structure of a novel from beginning to end. I believe this is the most important thing a new author can learn about writing a novel because it’s like a map that guides them toward tying up all loose ends. The biggest issue people have with poorly written novels is that they lack structure and not every loose end gets tied by the last page. A reader should be left wanting more but not bewildered. There is a big difference.
Here we clearly see the three acts of a novel and roughly how much space they require in the total length. The introduction and climax/resolution sections should only make up about 50% of the novel, while the rising action and buildup of tension should take up the other 50% on its own. In other words: Act I – 25%. Act II – 50%. Act III – 25%.
Let’s discuss each Act in detail.
The beginning 25% of your novel should totally set the stage and give your reader an clear picture of where things will go without giving away the twists or the ending. Describe the setting within the narrative. Give the reader a picture of the main characters’ personalities but don’t introduce too many characters at once. Give the reader a little time to get used to being inside the main character’s world.
Plot Point 1 should be introduced by the end of Act I. “Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their ‘normal’ life toward some different conflicting situation that the story is about. Great stories often begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things, but they never really leave out Act 1, instead filling it in with back story along the way.”*