Creative Writing Fiction 2020-02-20 00:00

You Started a Novel, Now Be One of the 3% That Finish

happy writer sat in front of laptop with hands in the air

  1. A Story Idea is Not a Novel
  2. Develop Your Story Idea
  3. Create a Place to Store Your Story Elements
  4. Give Your Story A World
  5. Get to Know Your Characters
  6. Create a Storyline
  7. Create a Writing Rhythm
  8. The Major Challenges to Finishing

A Story Idea is Not a Novel

Writing a novel is a process. Completing a novel from the first sentence to The End takes thought, commitment, and dedication. Many people believe they can write a novel, but the reality is that most don’t get to The End. Only 3% of people who start a novel finish their project.

If you want to write a novel from start to finish, you have a better chance of finishing if you approach your novel writing as a process. Through that process you’ll need emotional stamina. There will be days went everything you’ve written feels like trash. Your characters may try to derail the story. It isn’t just work, it’s also emotional. You have to be ready for both.

A story idea is a great beginning, but you’ll need to do a lot of thinking and writing before you finish.

Develop Your Story Idea

In order to have enough material to write a novel, you first need to flesh out your story idea.

Create a touchstone target for your story. Everything you write in your novel relates back to this baseline, and it’s only one sentence long.

Your one-sentence story will help you focus your creative efforts during the time when you plan and write your mystery. Knowing what your story is about will keep you on track when the inevitable rabbit trails pop up.

Even if you don’t figure out your storyline until after you write your first draft, it can be a powerful tool to help you cut out the nonessentials when you get to editing and revisions.

woman writing in notebook

Frame your story sentence like this:

In a (SETTING) a (PROTAGONIST) has a (PROBLEM) (caused by an ANTAGONIST) and (faces CONFLICT) as they try to (achieve a GOAL).

Before you start your sentence have each element clear in your head.

  • Setting
  • Protagonist
  • Problem
  • Antagonist
  • Conflict
  • Goal

This sentence is based on your main idea or theme.

Write your story sentence in 25-30 words. Leave out character names, subplots, or any other details. You are constructing the core of the story.

Once you formulate the base sentence, everything in your story stems from and relates to this story seed. Expand the sentence to a paragraph describing the story narrative, any major events, and the ending. There's a simple formula you can use to expand your sentence to a full paragraph. A good story will consist of the following:

  • The exposition - the status quo at the start of the story
  • The first plot point - what major event kicks off the story
  • The mid-point - where things take a turn for the worse
  • The second plot point - where your protagonist hits rock-bottom and starts turning things around
  • Climax and denouement - how the story resolves

Using this formula, expand the sentence to a full paragraph. It’s worth putting time into getting this summary just right. You can always come back to revise it if things change, but having these plot signposts in place will help guide the next few steps.

These first two points will help you define the structure of the story.

Looking for more tips on creating your base sentence? Check out this webinar with Story Development Consultant, Jeff Lyons:

Create a Place to Store Your Story Elements

You’ll be writing notes about future scenes, collecting research, saving inspirational images, developing background for your characters. Put everything related to your story in one place. It doesn’t matter what vehicle you use, just create the place, because as you continue with your novel you’ll add details.

Some writers use a 3-ring binder, others use software like Scrivener. Some writers keep all their notes in one folder and do the story writing in MSWord.

The key is to keep everything pertaining to the novel in one place—characters, research, scene ideas, setting notes, chapter outlines. Which vehicle you use is not as important as making your notes easy to find. When you are writing, you want to focus on writing. You don’t want to spend an hour looking for that description of the Nile Valley or how a Glock works because you can’t remember where you saved it.

You’ll save time and energy later if you create your novel resource file now.

Give Your Story A World

Setting is the place where your story takes place. It doesn’t matter if you are writing fantasy or detective fiction or romance. Your story world brings readers into your story and grounds them.

You’ll need to know the culture, political climate, geography, and weather. All of these elements add dimension. If you’re writing science fiction your story world elements will be different from a cozy mystery.

Get to Know Your Characters

Characters drive your novel. From your hero or heroine to the doorman who appears once, you need to know those characters. Create a character bible. List each character, their physical and emotional traits, and their role in the story.

Concentrate on the character’s story role. Their context in the story is the reason why they are there. If you do this work on your characters, you’ll eliminate extra characters. And, each character will be distinct. Your readers won’t get confused.

Create a Storyline

Every writer is different. Some writers write to discover what happens. Others keep the entire story in their head. Others create a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline. Beginning novelists will find that creating a basic story line will help them focus on each part of the story.

The four-act structure gives you the freedom to write without a commitment to each scene while keeping in mind the important steps of your story.

Some writers find it helpful to sketch out the major story points.

  • Inciting incident
  • First plot point
  • Pinch point
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch point
  • Climax

After you note these major story points, all the chapters in between flow toward the next story point. As you write, you have a goal in mind: to get to the next story point.

open book held in hands

Create a Writing Rhythm

The preparatory steps help you with the big challenge—writing the novel. Your writing rhythm is the consistent time you dedicate to writing your novel.

The best rhythm is to write every day. You can set a time frame like an hour a day or three hours a day. Some writers set a word count goal 1000 words, 2000 words. Don’t be intimidated. Ernest Hemingway had a goal of 500 words a day.

Your commitment to write the novel is the driving force that keeps you writing. There will be good days when everything flows. There will be challenging days when what is in your head just does not come out when you write. Keep writing. Find out more about creating a writing discipline that works for you here.

The Major Challenges to Finishing

With all the preparation and writing time structure to keep you going, things can go wrong and your story stalls. To finish your novel you need to be prepared to meet the challenges. Mindset is key to getting past the challenges. Knowing what to do when they arise gives you practical steps to get past the stuck points.

Successful novelist Richard Bach says,

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.

Lack of Practice

As a beginning writer, you need to work out just like gaining any new skill. The good news is, the more you write, the better your writing. As you continue writing you’ll increase your writing flow and your speed. You’ll get more written in the daily one hour dedicated to writing.


Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. The first draft is a rough draft. You can always edit later (with ProWritingAid!)—focus on writing. You can go back and fix things once you get to the end. As you are headed toward The End, just keep writing.

Lack of a Plan

For new writers doing research, creating character background, and outlining a story seem like activities that keep them from writing the novel. In reality, all of the preparation you do actually helps you write faster. You know where you are going. You know what characters are involved and why they act the way they do.

Rushing the End

First time novelist often had toward the end before it’s time in the story. Take time to flesh out your story. Set up the story theme and introduce your main characters, create an incident that pushes your protagonist into the story problem, spend time developing the problem to give your protagonist reasons to continue, give your protagonist as challenges, obstacles, and setbacks as they try to reach the goal.

Make it complicated and then tie up all the threads one by one before you get to the end. You may feel you want to end the story, but working on all the complications and threads will make your novel more readable and engaging.

Lack of Feedback

Writing is a lonely process, but feedback from other writers can help you smooth out rough spots or give you inspiration for where the story needs to go next.

A good writing group will give you feedback and encouragement to continue. If you can’t find a writing group, find another author to share critiquing. The experience of reading another’s work and giving feedback can help you understand your work.

Attend a writing workshop. You’ll meet other writers. The instructor will have experience in novel writing. You’ll find the workshop will help you focus on your story and provide inspiration for ways to improve your writing.

Every writer has their own personal challenges. Recognize your challenges. Practice ways to work through the challenges to help you keep writing you novel until you finish.

Be confident about grammar

Check every email, essay, or story for grammar mistakes. Fix them before you press send.