Is this you?
You get super excited about an idea for a novel, write the first few chapters, and then get stuck. You wonder, where am I going with this? What’s going to happen now?
So you abandon the novel and start something new (perhaps only to abandon the new project a few chapters in.)
No judgment. I’ve gone through that cycle plenty of times.
Or maybe this is you: You slave away at a novel and finally finish, only to realize (or have someone else tell you) that the story is too small, too predictable, too confusing, or too boring.
Again, I’m not judging. I once finished writing a novel and had a friend read it. She told me it wasn’t exciting enough and there wasn’t much of a story. And she was my friend. (In hindsight, though, she was totally right.)
So what do we do? How do we write better novels? How do we finish them in the first place?
How to Write Better Novels: The Key Step Many Writers Skip
In her amazingly wonderful book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, agent Mary Kole says that many beginning writers think too small. Their attempted novels “lack multidimensional characters, tension, and stakes. The whole novel goes from Point A to Point B with only a few bumps in an otherwise straight line.”
To write better novels we need to build in more conflict and more tension. We need to create fully-realized characters who take action and deal with the consequences. But how exactly do we do that?
We spend more time in the prewriting phase.To write a better novel, spend more time prewriting. #amwriting #writingtipClick To Tweet
I know this is not a popular suggestion. I tutor middle and high school kids, and I often help them with their English papers. When I say, “let’s make a mindmap,” or “let’s spend some time brainstorming,” they roll their eyes at me.
They want to jump right in and start writing the paper. Which is why their papers are either rambling messes or deadly boring drivel.
I’m not necessarily saying your novel-in-progress is a rambling mess or deadly boring drivel. But I am saying you might need to spend more time in the prewriting stage. It’s the part many writers shirk because they’re so excited to dive into the “real writing.” I know I’m guilty of not brainstorming or planning enough at the beginning of a new project. And I pay for it later.
What Happens When You Skip the Prewriting Step
If you want to write better novels, you need to get serious about prewriting. It is “real writing,” and it’s just as important as adding chapters to your manuscript. There are so many people out there bragging about their daily word counts (and good for them!), or telling writers to hurry up and get words on the page. But before that, spend enough time developing your ideas.
In The Anatomy of Story: 22 Step to Becoming a Master Storyteller, John Truby says that “nine out of ten writers fail at the premise” because “they don’t know how to develop the idea, how to dig out the gold that’s buried within it.” They don’t “explore the full story, and the many forms it might take” before they sit down to write it.
When you skip the prewriting stage, you encounter a variety of problems:
1. Our first ideas are often not our best or most original ones. Ideas that come to mind first are the most obvious – the ones we’ve heard or read before. So when you jump into writing the novel without enough brainstorming, you might be cutting yourself off from discovering better, more original ones hidden under the surface
2. Once you’ve started writing chapters, it can be hard to change direction or see other options. We get married to the scenes we wrote and don’t want to let them go even if, as I said above, they aren’t our best or most original ideas.
3. If you start writing without a clear sense of where you’re going or how to get there, you’re more likely to experience writer’s block or a frustrated overwhelm that leads to abandoning your project. I’m not saying you need a comprehensive outline, but spending time planning will help you from getting stuck later on.Our first ideas are not always our best. Spend more time brainstorming! #amwriting #writingtipClick To Tweet
How to Use Brainstorming to Write Better Novels
The good news is that even if you’ve already started writing your novel, you can revisit the prewriting step at any stage. And if you haven’t started writing yet, great! Here’s step one to help you write better novels:
You have your idea or premise. Now brainstorm EVERY POSSIBILITY for this story – even ones you think are too crazy or silly. Ask yourself “what if?” questions and list:
- Things that could happen: actions the characters might take and consequences of their actions
- Things your characters might want and why
- Possible characters (major and minor, including the opponent and/or love interest)
- Character and setting details/descriptions
- Important scenes you might include
- Roadblocks or conflicts (brainstorm LOTS of these!)
- Mysteries and/or secrets
- If your story is a mystery novel, think of possible red herrings
- Possible climaxes and endings
- Possible themes
- World-building details (especially if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction)
- Possible B Plots and how they could intersect with the main story
- Challenges that may arise when writing your story and how to deal with them
- Lines of dialogue
- What you love about this story
- What you think readers will love and want in this story
- Any special storytelling devices or points of view you might want to use or try
- Descriptions, details, and anything else you might include
Try to list at least 50 different ideas. Even better, list 100. Then allow time for your story to marinate. You might get more ideas over the next week or two. In fact, this could be a great time to keep a dream journal.
And brainstorming possibilities is just the first part of the prewriting stage. Once you’ve got a pile of ideas, sift through them. Pick the best ones and start piecing them together into a plan for your novel.
Again, I’m not saying AT ALL that you need a detailed outline before you start writing, but having some sense of the plot before you start will help you write better novels. For more prewriting activities, check out my 10 Simple Plot Exercises You Need to Do BEFORE You Write Your Novel.
Spending more time in the prewriting stage is something I’m still learning how to do. I’m a type A person who wants to feel like I’m always making progress – and doing brainstorming and prewriting exercises doesn’t quite give me the same satisfaction as saying, “I wrote five thousand words today.”
But I’m realizing that I write better novels when I spend more time preparing and brainstorming first.
What about you? Do you spend much time prewriting or brainstorming? If so, what are your strategies?
And once you’re done with your novel, check out my tips for revising your first draft. Or, get one-on-one help with your novel from yours truly!
I really liked this. I write for fun and work with non-native speakers using reading + creative writing to help them find their voices in English. I’m looking forward to following you.
Thanks so much, Trisha! I’m going to have to check out your blog. I occasionally tutor ESL, and I work at an international school, so for some of my students, English is not their native language!
The first time someone I’ve seen mention the importance if the brainstorming and development stage.
This article just made big impact for me as I heard too overwhelmed by the pressure to have a first draft as soon as possible. “just write something!”
But what you write here gives me affirmation that it’s okay to spend more time in the planning stages for a smoother draft and end result.
Thanks so much! Good luck with your brainstorming! 🙂
Danette Howard says
Thank You, so much. I shall employ your suggestions!
You’re welcome! Let me know how it goes!
Thanks for the ideas! This is a great post! I really want to write a mystery novel but am always afraid I’ll run out of ideas halfway through the story. Thanks again!
You’re welcome! I’m actually trying to write a mystery novel, too. It’s so hard to leave clues but not give the ending away. Let me know how yours goes!