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Three Approaches to Starting a Novel

Posted August 23, 2018 1:57 pm
Woman writing at a café

One of the most commonly asked questions by new writers is, “How do I start?” It can be paralyzing to stand before the daunting task of filling hundreds of pages, and many don’t want to start down the wrong path right off the bat. The worst thing you can do is be so intimidated that you end up not writing at all, so let’s look at three popular ways authors start their novels.

Create the Characters and Build Around Them

This one’s probably the least used of the three approaches we’re covering, but some authors swear by it. The thinking is that you take your loose idea for a story, create your protagonist and any additional characters you can envision, then let them “tell” their story to you. Maybe you can see your central character being a friendly lawyer who’s always willing to lend a hand. Does he stumble onto a devious scheme because he decided to take a case pro bono? Is he so naïve that he doesn’t see the scheme until someone has to point it out to him? You start by creating characters that feel so real that they answer all your questions and naturally dictate to you how events will play out.

Just Write

This is hands down the most popular approach to writing. It’s the approach we all learned in school and the one practiced by countless new and experienced writers alike. You start writing, sometimes with an idea but sometimes without one, and you just go wherever it takes you.

The main reason this approach is frowned upon by some is that this type of writing can often feel disjointed and meandering to readers. We’ve all read books that describe too many mundane details, just seem to go nowhere, are rife with frustrating loose ends, or just feel amateurish. More than likely, the culprit was a failed attempt at this approach to novel writing.

In skilled hands, however, this approach can produce successful results, but the key is merciless editing. Many new writers want to believe their first draft is “pure” as is and they’re afraid that if they tamper with it it won’t be as effective. Experienced writers know the opposite is true, but it becomes even more vital when using this approach to make up for skipping all planning. Proceed with caution here.

Outline First

The approach most often recommended by experienced authors is to start with an outline. You take your loose idea for a story, then build a stripped-down version of it. Index cards are a great choice. If you’re using NovelEasy one approach might be to use chapters as story events. Either way, you want to be able to easily reorder events, so just write a short blurb for each to get a feel of the path your full story might take. Don’t be afraid to move stuff around. The classic example is to start with a glimpse of your ending then going back in time to show the events that led up to it.

It doesn’t have to be perfect, but once you’ve got an outline you’re comfortable with, you start writing your first draft. Don’t try to make this perfect either, just get it down. Use your outline as a guide to keep the story on track and cohesive, but freely deviate from it when you deem necessary. When it’s done, go back, reread, and edit. Repeat as many times as necessary, until it’s ready for submission.

The advantages to this approach should be obvious. By working on the story in its entirety throughout the process, you’re less likely to lose sight of major events, timelines, and what’s driving your story and holding a reader’s interest.

Although we agree with authors who recommend the outline-first approach, none of these work for everyone. You’ll find successful writers who advocate each of the three methods. In the end, the “right” approach is the one that gets you writing, so experiment if you’re having difficulties starting but get something written. Tomorrow, you might decide to throw away what you did today and try a new approach, maybe a combination of the above, but you’ll have gained a better understanding for getting your story underway.

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