how to write a novel

Guide to writing good fiction

I’ve never written more than a chapter of fiction (I have about 20 first chapters though if anybody wants to buy some). I always get stuck on giving good names to characters. Plot devices aren’t all that hard, there are only six plots afterall, and a limited number of twists. And character development (except for the elusive name) doesn’t phase me. The final piece of the writing puzzle is reaching an audience. You do this by being popular. Here’s a quick guide to popularity from XKCD.

Fiction Rule of Thumb

Tolkien, Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll get an exemption in the alt text.

Character checklist

If you’re like me you know all about narrative, have grand plans, but fall at the most basic hurdle. Naming and developing characters. I am terrible at coming up with names that I like. But even worse at developing a character past that point. It’s why I steer clear of writing fiction.

Wikihow has a handy guide.

And a video. Which is boring. Don’t watch it.

The definitive and authoritative guide to the six basic plot lines

I made a comment in my Avatar post that accusations of plot plagiarism are hollow when there are only a limited number of plots to choose from. I set that limit at six. I was called out on that limit and asked to define them. So. Here goes.

  1. Star crossed lovers – an unlikely pair meet from different tribes, nations, species etc but their love is not meant to be and ultimately leads to some sort of sacrifice. Think Romeo and Juliette, Avatar, Samson and Delilah, or any Rom-Com where a loser somehow scores his dream girl from the other side of the social tracks.
  2. Buddy movie – two friends go on a merry adventure – think Milo and Otis, any Jackie Chan comedy, Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3…
  3. The unlikely hero thrust into an equally unlikely situation or sporting event – think The Lord of the Rings, any sporting movie, any movie about superhero (genetic mutations, spider bites etc). Basically the hero has to come to grips with their powers and then choose to say the day. This has been popular since Jesus.
  4. The “betrayal twist” – take the unlikely hero, or the buddy adventure and have the hero be betrayed, or the buddy be betrayed by a buddy – think the Matrix, Mighty Ducks, any story about Julius Caesar, Jesus and Judas etc.
  5. The tragedy – simple recipe – develop characters, get people to like the characters and then unjustly kill the character people like the most with a disease or act of unwarranted evil. Think just about any chick flick that is not a Rom Com. Think The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, just about any war movie (unless it’s a buddy movie), or anything written by Shakespeare that wasn’t a comedy. There’s a slight variation where you think there’s going to be a tragedy but the protagonist escapes through a lucky turn of events – like Apollo 13.
  6. The “alien” invasion – where the alien can be any kind of foreign species or a freak act of nature but is often an alien. Chances are an unlikely hero will need to emerge to fight off the aliens. But add something big and ground shaking to the mix and watch everybody deal with the consequences. Think Men in Black, Transformers, Alien, Predator, Alien v Predator, Independence Day, The Perfect Storm, etc…

Just about all of these can be applied to the story of Jesus. Jesus is an alien who comes to earth to be tragically killed following a betrayal by one of his buddies. His ministry involves him using his awesome powers while walking around with his band of merry disciples. He does this all because he loves the world and wants to save it – which is ultimately his downfall. Only it’s actually an untragedy because he comes back to life.

Can you think of any stories not covered by these options? I can’t. Not any that I’d want to watch anyway.

For a different set of “plot types” check out this article that features a few different ways of breaking plots down.

How to write a novel: the twist

So you’re writing that novel you’ve always had trapped inside your head. But the plot is formulaic and requires something a little bit special. How bout a twist. Here’s a nice chart that will help you pick the perfect plot device for a completely non-formulaic storyline.

From Dresden Codak.

A novel solution

I started writing a novel once – well, a few times – and one of the problems I came across was settling on names for characters. This is why I think many authors stick to historic fiction. Sadly, others have issues coming up with the right plot devices – this will be a problem no more thanks to this great character reference card

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