Some people dream of owning a successful company.
Some crave a corner office with a view.
Some dream of public service careers in healthcare, education, firefighting, or law enforcement.
You always dreamed of becoming a writer.
And not just any writer, either.
You want to see your name on the New York Times Bestseller List. If you’re honest, you dream about prestigious awards, too, awards like the National Book Award or the Booker Prize.
But you haven’t started writing.
You have nothing to show.
You’ve been playing it safe for years, prioritizing your family, your career, your material safety and comfort.
But you have a book inside you, and you know you can’t waste another minute.
You want more from your time, more from your life. You want to leave something behind, to build a legacy you can be proud of.
So, how do you begin? Where do you begin?
How do you bring that dream to life?
Read on to discover 8 stupid simple ways to start that novel today!
1. Start with a Scene
If you think about it, a novel is just a collection of scenes.
Start with a scene, any scene that piques your interest. To immerse yourself in the story, consider choosing an important scene: a turning point, a revelation, a climactic event that changes your protagonist—a scene that brings her closer (or further away) from her goal.
Choose a Setting
If you can’t choose a scene, start with the setting.
Where does your character find him or herself? Put your character in a specific setting, and begin building the world around her. Is she inside a home, an office building, a cavernous museum?
Maybe your character is outside, hiking a nature trail, navigating a rocky coastline to a favorite vacation spot.
Describe the action: what your character is doing, what your character is trying to achieve in the moment. Think about what the action reveals. What do you most want to reveal about your character?
Who else is part of the scene or setting? Does she speak to someone directly, or does she replay important dialogue in her mind? What could the dialogue reveal? What should the dialogue reveal?
Jumping straight into a scene will help you bypass any resistance: thoughts about perfection, thoughts about knowing where each turn will lead? Begin writing, and see where the scene takes you and your protagonist.
2. Borrow a Famous Plot or Storyline
Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”
While I don’t think Picasso was advocating outright theft or plagiarism, this quote speaks volumes.
Why reinvent the wheel?
If you study music, art, or literature, you’ll find common denominators everywhere. Themes repeat themselves. The best and worst attributes of human nature continue on–generation after generation.
This is good news for you…
You don’t have to do everything by yourself.
History repeats itself.
Stories repeat themselves.
Authors take the same stories and recycle them with different characters, settings, and time periods.
Author and journalist Christopher Booker says there are only 7 basic plots responsible for fictional stories everywhere:
Overcoming the Monster: Beowulf, Dracula, Jaws
Rags to Riches: Cinderella, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield
The Quest: The Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, Raiders of the Lost Ark
Voyage and Return: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Gone with the Wind, The Lion King
Comedy: Much Ado About Nothing, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Four Weddings and a Funeral
Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet, Madame Bovary, Citizen Kane
Rebirth: A Christmas Carol, Pride and Prejudice, Beaty and the Beast
So, stop wasting precious time trying to come up with a completely original idea. Choose a well-known, proven plot formula, and make it your own.
Change the gender of the characters; set the scene in your own hometown. Take what has worked throughout history, and adapt it to your needs.
3. Settle on a Theme
In literature, themes refer to enduring topics and issues, to their messages for humanity.
They teach lessons and point out flaws. The best themes explore the universal traits of humanity—how the same struggles appear and reappear throughout history.
Today’s news is full of viable themes: conservative and liberal politics, good vs. evil, racism, feminism, gender equality, wage gaps according to race and gender, love, sex, religion, health, wealth, and poverty.
Themes allow us to confront difficult topics.
The great thing about being as writer is the ability to take one of these contemporary themes and applying it to different times, cultures, and circumstances.
Consider the following questions:
- What’s your big issue?
- What issues keep recurring for you?
- What issue do you most want to solve?
- What issues move you to take action in your community, on social media, in conversation, in print?
- What would you change if you had the power, the opportunity?
- What issue is most important to you, to your country, to future generations?
Once you settle on a specific issue, take it up a level. Decide on an overarching theme that contains the issue. This will enable you to address multiple sides of the issue, to show the contrasting elements working against each other.
4. Create an Outline
Although many successful authors such as Stephen King and Margaret Atwood prefer to fly by the seat of their pants, others prefer an outline to help them evolve their stories.
If you’re struggling to get started, there’s nothing like a roadmap to help you navigate the early stages. It doesn’t hurt with the later stages, either.
Using one of the seven basic plots described above, come up with a basic outline to cover the narrative arc of your character.
Start with the basics: your main characters, the main setting, the goals/motivations of your characters, and the forces/obstacles holding them back.
Once you have a basic outline, choose a spot, and begin writing.
Your outline will show you where you’ve been and where you need to go. Knowing what’s around the corner will help you focus your energies, constructing scenes in a logical progression.Your outline will show you where you’ve been and where you need to go. Knowing what’s around the corner will help you focus your energies, constructing scenes in a logical progression. Click To Tweet
Like many writers, you’re probably drawn to the excitement of writing without a plan. It’s exhilarating when it works.
However, if you’re inexperienced or have trouble getting started, the structure of an outline will make all the difference.
5. Build your Protagonist
I love the way Toni Morrison, author of Beloved, describes the origins of a character:
“I sat on the porch, rocking in a swing, looking at giant stones piled up to take the river’s occasional fist. Above the stones is a path through the lawn, but interrupted by an ironwood gazebo situated under a cluster of trees and in deep shade. She walked out of the water, climbed the rocks, and leaned against the gazebo. Nice hat.”
This character, walking out of the water to join Morrison on the edge of a lake, arrived fully-formed—larger than life. Morrison already knew her character’s past, her path, her ultimate journey.
Morrison’s hero already lived in her subconscious.
You, however, may be starting from scratch.
Imagine your character’s presence. What details stand out?
What features best tell her story?
Character building is immensely satisfying. You get to craft every nuance of your characters.
Start at the beginning, by building your protagonist.
Begin with the basics: age, gender, race, height, weight, eye color, hair color.
Branch out to include body type, dress, speech patterns. How does your protagonist carry herself?
How does she walk, talk, interact with others on the street? How does your protagonist change when alone?
If you’re still feeling blocked, build your protagonist from the raw materials of someone you already know. Think of the qualities you’d like your heroine to embody.If you’re still feeling blocked, build your protagonist from the raw materials of someone you already know. Think of the qualities you'd like your heroine to embody. Click To Tweet
What person in your life fits this model? Describe this person from your life. After completing this sketch, edit or embellish the details to fit your main character.
And, though it goes without saying, write everything down!
6. Tell Your Own Story
Who says fiction has to be fiction?
Every fictional situation or character relies on reality—something plausible.
Many of us write fiction to give voice to difficult periods of our own lives. Without the constraints of nonfiction or memoir, fiction allows us to dig deep, to get real, to tell the truth without harming anyone.
To begin mining your own stories for material, spend about 15-20 minutes capturing 10 pivotal moments in your life. Give each moment a meaningful title.
After capturing your top 10 list, write a few sentences about each entry. Record the who, what, when, where, how, and why of each event.
Do this quickly, without worrying about perfection (or complete accuracy).
Now, go back over your list, and circle the three events with the strongest emotional pull. You may want to look for common threads, common themes, ways you can connect them together. This will help you assess their potential.
After finding your top three stories, draft each scene as if it were happening to someone else. Include as much detail as you can from the original experience, but don’t limit yourself if you feel like embellishing.
Take a look at your scenes, and choose the one you could best develop into a story.
Here’s where things get interesting.
What did you really want to happen in that scene?
How could you improve upon this scene?
How could you change the scene to make it more meaningful?
How could you give your protagonist everything she wanted in the scene? How might this serve her and the story?
How might you take away everything your character wanted in this scene? What impact might this have on the character over the short term—over the long term?
Create a few alternate endings to the scenes; they can be positive or negative. Follow the potential.
7. Tell Someone Else’s Story
Part of the human condition is comparing ourselves to others.
From our own, limited perspective, other people’s lives look bigger, brighter, more exciting.
For better or worse, we often find substantially more meaning and purpose in other people’s dramas.
We have difficulty looking inward, a difficulty connecting the varied parts of our own experiences to find meaning and wisdom.
You can look to your friends and family, to your local community, to the world at large.
Compelling stories are everywhere.
Think about the winners and losers in today’s media, about the perpetrators and victims.
- What recent story captured your imagination?
- What story kept you up at night?
- What story kept finding its way into casual conversation?
- What’s the most intriguing true story of the past month, year, or decade?
More importantly, why does this story resonate with you?
How might it resonate with your readers?
To make another’s story your own, consider turning a tragedy into a triumph.
Take a happy story, and change the ending.
Think about the obstacles you could create, obstacles that would delay gratification or resolution, obstacles that would change your protagonist’s worldview.
Think about the perfect sequence of obstacles and trials. What combination would that add layers of depth to your character’s life story and circumstances?
8. Tackle an Important Issue
Earlier, we discussed using themes as a springboard for developing stories.
Consider limiting your focus to a single, compelling issue.
If nothing comes to mind, spend a few minutes on a popular news site. Go to CNN, Huffington Post, or BBC News. Look up the top stories from the last week or month.
What issues make you cringe?
For example, healthcare and its associated costs are constantly discussed in the news.
Read a few articles, and outline a story about one of the characters.
For example, imagine an elderly parent, relative, or friend, couldn’t afford the healthcare they needed. To address the situation, your protagonist takes this character into her home, deciding to provide for his or her physical and emotional needs.
The situation would likely derail your protagonist’s plans–rendering them impossible.
Consider the tension you could create, the tension between what one wants and what one can have.
Think about the sacrifices, about the possibilities for growth in unexpected areas.
There’s great potential here– potential for engagement, for empathy, for transcendence.
Again, it comes down to choosing something real, something compelling, something relatable. When you find the right story, edit it into something fresh.
Tell the story that needs to be told.
Decide whether tragedy or triumph best serves the story.
Or, perhaps, a combination of both realities serves the text—demonstrating the futility and frustration accompanying the issue.