Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Should You Know Before You Write a Novel?

Writing Wednesday

Last August, Nathan Bransford posted a note on how to write a novel. He said there are six things you should know before you start:

  • Plot arc
  • Obstacles
  • Protagonist
  • Setting
  • Style and voice
  • Climax
It's a good list and half of us could profitably spend our time discussing each item.

Why only half?

Many people who share writing advice divide the universe of writers into two camps: outliners and discovery writers (or "plotters" and "pantsers" if you like alliteration).

I've already argued that diving right into the story and doing a lot of preparation before you write are better viewed as techniques than a consequence of your nature as a writer. Now I want to make the case that there's one fundamental thing required, regardless of where you fall on the outline/discovery spectrum:

You need to know enough so that you can write with confidence.

So, what does that mean for Nathan's list?

I say it still stands. Even if you're a purely discovery writer, you must have some notion of where the story takes place (setting), who the protagonist is, what obstacles they face, where the story is going (climax), how you're going to get there (plot arc), and how you'll tell the story (style and voice). Otherwise you'll have the literary equivalent of a slow river: your text will meander about but not really go anywhere.

Image: Simon Howden /

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