How do I start a novel?

Other than just writing, which while true, is not very helpful advice, how do I personally start?  There are people who do literally just sit down and start writing by the seat of their pants.  Creating as they go, following story lines as they evolve and allowing their work to grow organically.  This works for some to varying degrees.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read a couple of Steven King novels that were written without much forethought.  Unfortunately, unless you hit on the right thing first off, you’ll probably end up doin a lot of editing and rewriting to turn that novel into something useable.  The other way, the way I work, is with an outline.  That’s all well and good, but how do I build my world and how do I start the outline?

The Seed

I start with a seed thought.  An idea that sparks a little passion in me and fires my imagination.  I’ve just recently had a seed plant itself in my brain and take root.  In this case I’ve been taken by the desire to write a super hero story.  A novel to be precise.  I’ve written two short stories along the super hero theme, one about a frustrated hero and one about an involuntary hero.  Once I’ve had more time to edit and revise them, I’ll post them for the world to see.  So, I have a seed (the desire to write a super hero novel) what’s my next step?

Stream of consciousness

I start a new document and begin pouring all my thoughts into it. I don’t pay particular regard to making a lot of sense at this stage. eg:

As a lead in to a series, I’d like an origin story to start with.  This would likely mean the hero starts “normal”, has difficulties then transforms.  His old difficulties may go entirely or only partially.  For example a poor hero would still be poor but a hero who worried about their car breaking down would probably not worry any more.  After the transformation they would get new problems, problems only a super hero could solve.  That’s the important part.  If the problems could be solved by a non-super hero, why bother?

That’s a snippet of my document.  As you see its just as if I was speaking to myself.  As the document goes on I get greater clarity, I start to ask myself questions like “what sort of hero?”  and “How powerful is he?”  I also explore implications of his actions and what groups in my world might like / dislike him.  After about a page or so of talking to myself a structure starts to form.


My stream of consciousness always raises many questions that need answering.  I list each question as a heading and write bullet points beneath each.  So for example I asked “How powerful should he be?” and in bullets I outlined each of several levels of power, their pros and cons.  Then a summarising statment about which choice I like and why.  I find that writing the options down I quickly get a feeling for what I like.  This is sort of like the people who write off the cuff, except I haven’t started the story yet.  Once I answer all the questions I raised in the stream section I’m ready to create characters and plot.

Characters and plot

This bit is a little chicken and egg in nature.  I create the main character by coming up with a name, age, general description and basic things like occupation, nationality, where they live and so on.  This often leads into what they will do in the novel, what their role is.  At the same time as creating the main character, I start a second section that begins to discuss what the plot is.  Where the character starts and a brief synopsis of what they will do.  This plotting will often bring up other characters.  For example if I start the main character at work and he saves someone’s life, I might want to outline who that person is and why he bothered to save them.  If they sound interesting I come up with a name and character outline for them, which leads to a plot section about them.  I don’t believe in having characters without a purpose.  All my writing drives toward the main plot points and the end of the story.  If a character has no purpose, they have no place.  Once their purpose is completed, the character either needs another purpose or they move on.  At the end of this character and plot process I’ll have a list of characters and their relevance to the story.  I’ll also have the main points of the plot; what the primary problem is and how it will be solved.

The next step is to outline and I’ll cover that next week .

About sjohnhughes

Author, nerd, father, runner and more View all posts by sjohnhughes

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