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How to Write a Novel in 9 Steps: Novel Writing 101

how to write a novel

Every novel begins as a whisper, a fleeting thought that tickles the mind. If you’ve ever dreamed of writing a novel, you know it’s a mixture of inspiration, craftsmanship, and sheer stubbornness.

But where does one even begin? Right here, right now, my friend. 

You, the aspiring novelist, are the deity of the realms you conjure. But even deities need a game plan. Forget the romanticized myths of muses and writer’s blocks; this 9-step guide to novel writing demystifies the process, providing you with a clear framework to bring your story to life.

With this guide—and a little sprinkle of Fictionary magic—you’ll be equipped to start and empowered to thrive. Let’s transform your dream into a manuscript that breathes life into your characters and their journeys.

What’s the Secret to Writing a Novel?

The secret to writing a novel is that there is no secret—just a lot of caffeine, crying, and questioning your life choices. 

Just kidding. Kind of.

Writing a novel takes hard work, dedication, and a structured process. But hey, having the right tools can make this wild ride a bit smoother and maybe enjoyable enough that you only want to throw your laptop out the window once a week instead of daily.

There are three key elements you need to consider to craft a compelling novel:

  • Compelling Characters: How can you create a protagonist who drives the story forward and keeps readers engaged?
  • A Solid Story Structure: How can you ensure your plot has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with well-placed plot points and a satisfying resolution?
  • A Vivid Setting: How can you create an immersive world, rich with details that bring it to life?

Understanding how a good story works, both overall and at the scene level, is essential. This means knowing your characters so well you could predict their Starbucks order, structuring your plot like you’re organizing a heist, and painting your setting so vividly it makes Bob Ross look like an amateur.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, these elements are crucial. Plotters like to outline their story in meticulous detail before they start writing, minimizing the need for extensive edits later. They’re the ones with color-coded binders and flowcharts that rival NASA’s launch plans. 

Pantsers, on the other hand, leap into writing with just a spark of a character, plot, or setting, and they often spend more time editing afterwards to ensure their story works cohesively. These brave souls thrive on chaos, and their first drafts look like a literary Jackson Pollock painting.

Both methods are totally valid. 

Heck, you could even merge the two into a writerly hybrid called the planster. Plot a bit and then go wild within the loose structure you designed for yourself. Or plot a bit, but leave enough wiggle room for your creative spirit to hijack the story and take it on a joyride, and then adjust your outline afterward. Embrace the madness!

Speaking of embracing the madness, let’s talk about Fictionary—a powerful tool that can keep you from pulling your hair out, regardless of your writing style.

Fictionary supports the meticulous plotter and the daring pantser. It tracks 38 different story elements and offers gorgeous data visualizations that make your story’s strengths and weaknesses as clear as a crystal ball—albeit a crystal ball filled with bar charts, line charts, graphs, and interactive spreadsheets. 

That said, while Fictionary is an incredible guide, the real magic comes from your own creativity and effort. Turning a spark of an idea into a fully-fledged novel is challenging, no doubt about it. But it’s also incredibly rewarding—like finishing a marathon, except you’re sitting down the whole time, and there are fewer blisters.

So, get ready to transform your idea into a manuscript that dazzles. With Fictionary by your side, your journey from concept to completion just got a whole lot smoother and a lot more fun.

9 steps to writing a novel

9 Steps to Writing a Novel

The nine steps for writing your novel are: decide why you are writing, craft your central point, pick your protagonist, write your skeleton blurb, summarize your plot points, envision the world, choose the location, use sensory details, and integrate weather.

These nine steps are split into four categories: Your book’s concept, plot, and setting. 

Your Book’s Concept

Now, I know some of you might be itching to dive headfirst into writing, emerging from a creative fugue state with a gloriously sloppy first draft in hand. And that’s perfectly fine! Many great stories have started that way. 

But, if you’re reading an article entitled “How to Write a Novel in 9 Steps,” chances are you appreciate a bit of structure. Or, you tried the fugue state and it didn’t work out for you.

Either way, welcome! We’re glad to have you. 

We’re going to start with some conceptual planning. The point of doing this big picture thinking first is to help you focus your story and keep the final goal in mind. Think of it as setting your GPS before embarking on a road trip. Sure, you might take a few scenic detours, but having a clear destination ensures you don’t end up lost in the middle of nowhere. 

Step 1: Figure Out Why You Are Writing This Book

Ah, the existential question every writer faces: why write this book? What core belief or driving force compels you to tell this particular story at this specific moment? Your “why” is the heart of your novel.

So, why must you write this book? Here are some prompts to get those creative juices flowing:

Personal Connection

Is there a personal experience or emotion that you need to explore through fiction? Maybe your protagonist’s journey mirrors your own path of self-discovery, or perhaps the themes in your story reflect challenges you’ve faced. 

Writing from a place of personal connection can add depth and authenticity to your story, making it resonate more powerfully with readers.

Universal Themes

Consider the broader themes and messages you want to convey. Are you tackling issues of love, justice, freedom, or redemption? Great fiction often stems from universal ideas that speak to the human condition. Think about what you want your readers to take away from your novel. What lasting impact do you hope your story will have?

Passion and Curiosity

Sometimes the “why” is as simple as a burning passion or curiosity. Maybe you’ve always been fascinated by the mythology of ancient Greece, the complexities of human psychology, or the mysteries of the deep sea. Let your interests and obsessions guide you. Writing a novel can be an exhilarating journey when fueled by something you’re passionate about.

Social Commentary

Is there a social issue or injustice that you feel strongly about? Fiction can be a powerful vehicle for commentary on real-world issues, offering readers new perspectives and inspiring change. Whether it’s through dystopian worlds, historical settings, or contemporary narratives, your story can shine a light on important topics and provoke thought and discussion.

Creative Experimentation

Perhaps you’re drawn to the idea of pushing the boundaries of traditional storytelling. Are you experimenting with narrative structure, playing with genre conventions, or blending multiple storytelling techniques? Your “why” could be rooted in the desire to innovate and challenge yourself as a writer.

Step 2: Craft Your Central Point Statement

Once you’ve pondered these aspects, try to distill your book’s concept into a clear, concise statement. This is a touchstone to return to whenever you feel lost in the labyrinth of your plot. Here’s a simple template to help you get started:

“I am writing this novel because [core belief or reason], and through this story, I want to explore [key theme or message], connect with [ideal reader], and evoke [desired emotional response].”

For example:

“I am writing this novel because I believe in the resilience of the human spirit, and through this story, I want to explore the theme of overcoming adversity, connect with readers who have faced similar struggles, and evoke a sense of hope and empowerment.”

Having a clear understanding of why you’re writing your novel, combined with a strong central theme, and a clear reader in mind, will keep you focused and infuse your story with the authenticity and passion that will captivate those readers from the first page to the last.

Now, take that touchstone concept and make it literal. Write it down—perhaps on a nice rock. Or print it out. Use pretty fonts, calligraphy, glitter—whatever tickles your fancy and makes it eye-catching. Then, place it in your writing space so that whenever you feel discouraged, lost, frustrated, or ready to fling your laptop out the window, you can look at this guiding statement and find your way back.

Got it? Great. Now that we know the WHY, let’s talk about the WHO.


Welcome to the grand casting call of your novel! This is where you’ll decide who takes center stage, who supports from the wings, and who occasionally steals the spotlight. What is your dream team of heroes, villains, and quirky sidekicks? Each one should bring something unique to the table, making your story vibrant and dynamic.

In this article, we’ll focus on the story’s protagonist, the character who will bear the weight of your plot, endure countless trials, and (hopefully) emerge victorious by the final chapter. 

Let the auditions begin!

Step 3: Pick Your Story’s Protagonist

Your protagonist is the star of the show. They have the most at stake, undergo the biggest change, and drive the action forward. The protagonist is the character around whom your story revolves, embodying its key themes and pulling readers into their world.

Consider the type of protagonist you want:

  • Single Protagonist: One central character driving the plot, like Harry Potter.
  • Dual Protagonist: Two main characters sharing a common goal, such as Thelma and Louise.
  • Group Protagonist: Multiple characters with interconnected goals, like in Game of Thrones.

If this is your first novel, I highly advise sticking with a single protagonist to avoid the complexities of juggling multiple main characters. This is ultimately, of course, up to you. I am merely passing along the advice I am kicking myself for failing to heed when I started writing. Dual protagonists are so much more work! 

Ahem. Moving on. A strong protagonist needs depth, flaws, and motivations that make them relatable. Remember our example central point statement?

“I am writing this novel because I believe in the resilience of the human spirit and want to explore overcoming adversity, connect with readers who have faced similar struggles, and evoke hope and empowerment.”

Let’s use this to create our protagonist. We shall call her Jane. Now, sure, you can dive into Jane’s physical appearance, her quirky habits, and her questionable fashion choices. But that’s not what makes a character memorable. It’s not what gives them depth or makes them believable as a real human person (or ferret—I don’t know your story).

What truly breathes life into Jane is her inner world—her fears, her dreams, and the gritty details of her struggles. Make her a walking contradiction with strengths and weaknesses that clash. Give her a backstory that tugs at the heartstrings and motivations that drive her actions. This is what transforms Jane from a cardboard cutout into a living, breathing character who leaps off the page and into your readers’ hearts.

Here are some aspects of your protagonist to consider: 

Core Wound: Start by identifying an emotional injury from their past that influences their actions and decisions even today. It doesn’t need to be a full-on trauma, but it certainly can be. Just consider your genre and your ideal reader.  

For Jane, our determined single mother, perhaps her core wound could be a childhood betrayal by a loved one, making her wary of trusting others.

Fatal Flaw: This core wound often ties into their fatal flaw, a significant character weakness they must overcome. At first it is an obstacle, but then it becomes a growing edge, and by the end of the novel, your protagonist has faced and started the path to fixing their fatal flaw. 

Jane’s fatal flaw might be her stubborn independence, preventing her from accepting help even when she desperately needs it. She doesn’t want anyone else to betray her, after all. 

Goals and Desires: Define your protagonist’s external and internal goals. What do they ultimately want in life? These goals will shape your protagonist’s journey and development throughout the narrative. 

Jane’s external goal might be to pass her business on to her daughter, while her internal goal is to find a sense of security and build a core group of family and friends she feels safe with.

Growth Arc: As the story progresses, the protagonist should experience a growth arc, showing tangible development and change. This growth arc is one in which they overcome their fatal flaw, often by facing their core wound. 

Jane’s journey could involve learning to trust again and recognizing that accepting help is a strength, not a weakness.

Internal and External Conflicts: Outline the challenges your protagonist faces—what keeps her from reaching her goals and fulfilling her growth arc? 

Perhaps Jane’s external conflict involves her business partner engaging in business fraud. He frames her for it, then skips town, leaving her with huge debt, her beloved business in shambles, and a town that doesn’t trust her. 

Ironically, Jane’s internal conflict revolves around overcoming her own mistrust and accepting help from others—help that, at the beginning, the town doesn’t want to give anyway.

Moral Compass: Consider their moral beliefs and how these guide their actions. What does your protagonist value? What do they believe about the world? What keeps them in check? 

Let’s say that Jane’s moral compass is shaped by her desire to give her daughter a good life. This will guide her through the story’s challenges.

By incorporating these character elements, you create a protagonist that reflects the core message of your story and keeps readers glued to their struggles and triumphs. 

This step-by-step approach ensures your protagonist is well-rounded and deeply engaging, aligning with your story’s central theme. In the case of our example, it is one of resilience and empowerment.

Plot and Story Structure

Alright, aspiring novelists, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. We have our why. We have our theme. We have our protagonist. We’ve discussed the importance of your protagonist’s goals and conflicts. Now, let’s dive into the heartbeat of your story, the plot.

Plot is the sequence of events that make up your story, driving your protagonist’s journey and shaping their growth. It’s what keeps readers turning pages, eager to see what happens next. In this section, we’ll cover two critical components of plot development: the skeleton blurb and the main plot points.

Ready to build a plot that dazzles? Let’s get started.

Step 4: Write Your Skeleton Blurb

A skeleton blurb is a concise statement that encapsulates your protagonist’s goal and the stakes involved. This blurb will serve as the backbone of your story, guiding you as you write, edit, and revise. 

Like your central point statement is the touchstone that helps you stay on track with your theme and your why, the skeleton blurb ensures your story always comes back to three things: the protagonist, the story goal, and the stakes. This is the template for a skeleton blurb: 

Protagonist MUST story goal OTHERWISE stakes. 

This step connects your “why” with your protagonist’s journey and helps you define the stakes that will keep readers hooked. So, how do we determine a good story goal? 

Determining a Story Goal

A strong story goal is essential for driving your narrative forward. It provides your protagonist with a clear objective to strive for, giving their journey purpose and direction. It will also connect to your protagonist’s life goal and dreams. 

Here are the key characteristics of an effective story goal:

  • Addressable: The goal must be something your protagonist can actively work towards or achieve.
  • External: It should be a tangible and visible objective, not just an internal desire.
  • Relatable: Readers should be able to understand and empathize with the goal.
  • In Line with Genre Expectations: The goal should fit within the norms and expectations of your genre.
  • Specific: A clear and well-defined goal helps maintain focus and drive the narrative.

Going back to our example: Jane’s life goal is to pass her business down to her daughter. Her internal goal is to find a sense of security and build a core group of family and friends she feels safe with. 

So a good story goal for Jane might be to rebuild her business after discovering that her former business partner committed financial fraud and disappeared. This goal is addressable, external, relatable, in line with the expectations of a contemporary drama, and specific.

Determining Compelling Stakes

The stakes in your story should be both external and compelling enough to create tension. They represent the consequences of your protagonist failing to achieve their story goal. 

The stakes must: 

  • Matter: The stakes should be significant enough to drive the protagonist’s actions and keep readers invested in the outcome.
  • Be Specific: Clearly defined stakes help create a sense of urgency and importance.

In Jane’s story, the stakes are losing the business she dreams of passing on to her daughter. These stakes are external, tangible, and significant enough to drive her actions and create tension, ensuring that readers are invested in her success.

By defining a clear story goal and high stakes, you create a framework that will guide your narrative and keep readers hooked. Now, let’s continue building Jane’s story with a skeleton blurb that encapsulates her journey and the stakes involved:

Jane, a determined single mother MUST rebuild her business after a devastating financial fraud OTHERWISE she will lose the legacy she wants to pass down to her daughter.

By combining these elements, the blurb highlights Jane’s resilience and the thematic focus on overcoming adversity, connecting seamlessly with the initial “why” behind writing the novel.

And here’s why this process is so helpful: Even as I’m crafting this fake example for a Fictionary article, I had a lightbulb moment. The theme doesn’t quite fit! It’s fine, but wouldn’t it be even better if Jane’s lesson was about legacy? About how maybe she doesn’t need to pass on a business to her daughter to have a legacy? Or perhaps her daughter doesn’t even want the business, and Jane saves it, only to realize that her true legacy is her daughter, not the business.

Wow. At this step, as an author, I would have a decision to make. If the story goal and stakes don’t quite match up to the novel’s theme, one needs to change. Which one am I most attached to? A story of resilience or a story about legacy and the power of motherhood? Am I more attached to the plot or to my theme? 

Why not both? Jane can still grow and become more resilient, but now that becomes secondary to the main theme in which Jane learns the true meaning of legacy and comes to see her daughter for the wonderful person she is, not what Jane is trying to mold her into.

So, take a moment and compose your own skeleton blurb. Once you have that, you’re ready to move onto the main plot points. 

Step 5: Summarize the Main Plot Points

Creating a compelling story involves identifying the crucial events that propel the narrative forward and challenge your protagonist. 

If you aren’t sure whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, plotting out only these five main plot points is a nice happy medium between plotting and pantsing. You get just enough structure to know you have a story but not so much that you can’t still make creative decisions along the way.

Here’s how to summarize the main plot points so that you can have a solid story arc, followed by how this plot point might be applied with our protagonist Jane. 

  1. Inciting Incident: The event that sets the story in motion, disrupting the protagonist’s world and presenting the central conflict. This is when the protagonist first encounters the story goal—though they may not be aware of it yet.
    1. Jane discovers that her business partner has disappeared, leaving behind evidence of financial fraud.
  2. Plot Point 1: A significant turning point that pushes the protagonist into a new direction, often marking the end of the first act. From here, there is no turning back for the protagonist. 
    1. Jane decides to take legal action and begins the daunting task of rebuilding her business from scratch. She also starts to see the impact of the turmoil on her daughter, who seems distant and preoccupied.
  3. Midpoint: The moment in the middle of the story that raises the stakes and changes the protagonist’s understanding of their goal. It is often a moment of decision for the protagonist, and they often make the wrong one here. 
    1. Jane finds a potential investor, but they require her to rebuild trust in the community first. She throws herself into regaining the community’s support, further straining her relationship with her daughter, who feels neglected.
  4. Plot Point 2: Another major turning point that leads into the climax, often presenting the protagonist with their greatest challenge. This is the quintessential “all hope is lost” scene. The protagonist is at their lowest, and they could give up. But they don’t. Instead, they get that last bit of whatever it is they need to move forward. 
    1. Just as Jane is about to secure the investment, her former partner reappears, threatening to ruin her reputation further. At the same time, Jane’s daughter reveals she has no interest in taking over the business, shattering Jane’s vision of their shared legacy.
  5. Climax: This is the peak of the story where the protagonist faces the central conflict head-on, leading to a resolution. This is the penultimate scene—the one in which the protagonist either achieves or does not achieve their story goal. 
    1. Jane confronts her former partner publicly, exposes the fraud, and wins the support of the community and the investor. She also has a heartfelt conversation with her daughter, realizing that her legacy isn’t the business but the values and love she passes on.
  6. Resolution: The conclusion is where loose ends are tied up, and the protagonist’s journey is completed.
    1. Jane successfully rebuilds her business and decides to pass on the leadership to a trusted colleague. She regains stability for her family, builds a closer relationship with her daughter, and finds a renewed sense of trust, empowerment, and understanding of what legacy truly means.

Each of these events should be tied to the protagonist’s inner emotional journey, showing their growth and transformation. 

This can be an iterative process. For instance, upon reflection, the climax here feels a bit disjointed. It has two actions that are not connected. So, how can we tie Jane’s confrontation with her partner to heartfelt conversation with her daughter? 

Maybe in the climax, Jane’s daughter steps up to help confront the partner, revealing her talents and hinting at a future as a lawyer. Jane then realizes her daughter’s strengths lie elsewhere, not in the family business. 

This prompts Jane’s realization after a heart-to-heart with her daughter, in which her daughter tells Jane that she learned grit and tenacity from Jane. Jane realizes that her daughter is her legacy, not some store.


Welcome to the world-building wonderland! The setting of your novel is so much more than a mere backdrop for your characters’ shenanigans—it’s the very stage on which your entire narrative unfolds. From the bustling streets of a futuristic metropolis to the eerie silence of an abandoned mansion, the setting sets the tone, mood, and atmosphere of your story. It shapes your characters’ experiences and drives the plot forward. 

Ready to create a world your readers will get lost in? Let’s do this.

Step 6: Envision Your Story’s World

When done well, your novel’s setting is a character in its own right, ready to stir up trouble or lend a helping hand. If your story takes place in an unfamiliar world, you’ve got some serious world-building to do. 

Think of it as planning the ultimate vacation spot but with more political intrigue and fewer margaritas. Map out the rules, history, environment, and culture. Consider the political climate, social structures, and geographical features. This groundwork will add depth and authenticity to your world.

In our sample story, Jane’s world is our everyday world. But, we might want to consider what specific aspects of the town she lives in might be relevant. Perhaps Jane’s story unfolds in a small town where the gossip travels faster than a sneeze in a classroom. 

This quaint, nosy little town will crank up the tension when people start whispering that Jane caused her business’s downfall. And when it’s time for her redemption arc, re-establishing trust in this tight-knit community will be a journey worthy of popcorn and a comfy chair.

Step 7. Choose Locations with Purpose

Each location in your story should serve a purpose. For each scene, consider whether the location is important to the plot, characters, or theme. Also consider the emotional impact of the location. Consider how each location also resonates with your POV character’s emotional state, enhancing the scene’s mood and tension. A dark alley might heighten fear, while a bustling café might enhance a character’s feeling of loneliness.

If a location doesn’t pull its weight, it’s time for a change.

For Jane, imagine her standing in the town’s cozy, yet claustrophobic, coffee shop. It’s the perfect spot for tension to brew (pun intended) as the barista throws her a pitying glance while the regulars whisper behind their mugs. This setting amplifies Jane’s feelings of isolation and paranoia. Then, contrast it with the town park, where she plans a community event to win back trust. The open space and cheerful atmosphere reflect her hopes and determination, making every location in Jane’s story work double duty to elevate the narrative.

Step 8: Use Sensory Details

Sensory details breathe life into your setting and characters. Without them, your scene risks falling flatter than a pancake. Using the POV character’s senses to describe the action pulls your reader closer to the character.

Engage all five senses (and at least three per scene) to bring the setting to life. Don’t just describe how things look. Include sounds, smells, textures, and tastes. Instead of telling the reader the forest is eerie, show it through the rustling leaves, the distant hoot of an owl, and the damp, decaying wood underfoot.

For Jane, the sensory details are what transform her world from flat to fabulous. Picture this: 

Jane walks into the bakery, and the sweet scent of freshly baked bread wraps around her like a warm hug. The bell above the door jingles, alerting the ever-watchful eyes of Mrs. Thompson, who sits by the window, her gaze as sharp as the taste of the tangy lemon tart Jane nervously nibbles. 

The rough wooden tables, worn smooth in spots from years of elbows and coffee cups, remind Jane of the town’s long history and her uncertain place within it. When Jane steps outside, the crisp autumn air bites her cheeks, and the distant church bells toll, each chime a reminder of the community she’s striving to reconnect with.

Step 9. Integrate Weather Thoughtfully

Weather isn’t just background noise; it can be a powerful tool to reflect or contrast the character’s inner world. A sudden storm can symbolize turmoil, while a sunny day might ironically contrast a character’s despair.

For Jane, imagine a storm rolling in just as she’s about to attend a crucial town meeting. The dark clouds mirror her anxiety, and the driving rain keeps people indoors, emphasizing her isolation. The wind howls around the corners of the old town hall, making the rickety windows rattle—each gust a reminder of the turbulent emotions she’s battling. 

Later, when Jane starts rebuilding her life, let the sunshine break through the clouds, symbolizing hope and new beginnings. Picture her standing in the town square, bathed in golden light, the warmth on her skin reflecting the warmth she hopes to rekindle in her community.

Bringing It All Together

By following these steps, you’ll create settings that provide a backdrop for your story and enhance the emotional depth and engagement of your narrative. From envisioning your story’s world to thoughtfully integrating weather, each element of setting plays a crucial role in bringing your story to life.

How to Write a Good Book Tips

As you embark on this creative journey, keep these final tips in mind to help you craft a compelling and cohesive story.

  • Develop a regular writing habit and stick to a schedule.
  • Create character profiles to understand their backstories, desires, and motivations.
  • Use all five senses when describing settings and action.
  • Balance showing what happens with revealing characters’ inner thoughts and feelings.
  • Cut out unnecessary backstory, description, and exposition.
  • Make sure every scene advances the plot and character development.
  • Read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds natural.
  • Get feedback from beta readers or a writing group, and be open to constructive criticism.
  • Edit your complete first draft multiple times before considering it finished.
  • Don’t give up when you hit writing blocks—power through and write a bad first draft.

How to Write Fiction: Conclusion

Writing a novel requires coming up with a compelling premise, developing memorable characters, constructing a well-paced plot, and putting it all together through the hard work of writing, rewriting, and editing. Leveraging storytelling tools and the nine steps outlined above can help you navigate the novel writing process. 

There is no substitute for your own imagination and effort in crafting an original story. 

But resources like Fictionary can help you wrangle the beast that is your brain. Fictionary provides customizable story templates and intuitive tracking tools to make your novel writing experience more manageable, productive, and rewarding. 

The journey to a finished book is challenging but worthwhile for turning your creative vision into an immersive experience to share with readers. The key is to get started, persevere through the process, and never stop improving your writing craft.

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