How to Write a Novel, Part 1: Turning an idea into a story

Last night I began teaching my first creative writing class at a local college. The course helps participants launch their first novel, from the germ idea through the first chapters. While I don’t claim to be an expert in the discipline—Ernest Hemingway famously said that writing is a craft where no one ever becomes a master—I gained a great deal of practical knowledge in the years it took me to produce my debut novel, Blue Karma. That book took over a decade from inspiration to publication. Why? Because none of my creative writing classes had equipped me with the specific tools for novel-craft.

Being a good writer is not the same as being a good storyteller. They are complementary but discrete skills. Few traditional creative writing classes deal with long-form storytelling in a comprehensive way. The internet brims with advice on novel-craft, but first-timers may find it overwhelming. Story ideas are daunting enough without a thousand disembodied voices telling us how to manage them! So I designed the course I wish I’d had thirteen years ago: a complete guide for developing one’s nebulous story idea into a functional novel-in-progress. I’ve condensed the advice from my class into a blog series designed to help you:

  1. evolve your nascent story concept into a complete, executable form;
  2. examine and develop the unique mechanics of novel-craft; and
  3. create a manageable production plan to eliminate excuses and finally write your book.

Ready? Lasso that idea that’s been lurking in your brain for years and let’s get started.

Session 1: Developing An Idea Into A Story

F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped that “character is plot, plot is character.” I agree, but few story ideas start with a fully realized protagonist. Most writers operate on much vaguer beginnings: “I want to write a story about the Oregon Trail,” or “what would life be like on Earth if the air was too polluted to breathe?” Nebulous ideas are wonderful and inspiring, but they are not stories. Not yet. They need a little refinement to reveal their promise. For refining scattered ideas into a viable story starters, I use an exercise I call fiction fractals. It’s based on Randy Ingermanson’s  popular “snowflake method,” with some adaptations of my own.

Math and geometry geeks know fractals as simple processes that repeat in patterns of potentially infinite complexity. (Run an image search for fractals; some are stunningly beautiful.) We can approach story development in a similar way. Viewing a novel as small component parts rather than an unwieldy whole makes it much easier to work with, and much less intimidating. Most novels, regardless of genre, contain five key events: inciting incident, point of no return, raising the stakes, climax/crisis, and dénouement. These elements often appear crammed onto a scalene triangle in the notorious “rising action” plot diagram:


While it’s easy to identify those elements in a story you know well, teasing them out of your own vague idea can be daunting. Luckily, you don’t have to write the whole novel right away, or even the whole outline. You only have to write a sentence. Yes, a single sentence.

 Summarize your story in one line

Imagine your book’s blurb in the New York Times book section and gently corral that wild idea into a line that captures its essence.

  • An orphaned boy discovers he possesses magical ability and defeats an evil wizard (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone)
  • A girl witnesses racial inequality when her lawyer father defends a black client in 1930s Alabama. (To Kill A Mockingbird)

Well, that wasn’t so scary. Now you’ve got a seed crammed with your story’s DNA. You’ve identified your protagonist, antagonist, and the main trajectory of action. Since writing one sentence was pretty easy, let’s write five more.

Expand one sentence into five

Turn that seminal sentence into a quintet, with each line corresponding to one of the five fundamental novel elements:

  • Orphaned Harry Potter receives a letter of admission to a wizardry school [inciting incident].
  • Harry gives up “normal” life to embrace his magical heritage and attend Hogwarts [point of no return].
  • Harry and his new friends investigate events concerning the Sorcerer’s Stone, the evil wizard Voldemort, and Harry’s own past [raising the stakes].
  • Harry discovers Voldemort wants the Stone to restore himself [climax/crisis].
  • Harry thwarts Voldemort’s effort to obtain the Stone [denouement].

This five-line “fractal” provides the skeleton of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If you want an even more detailed overview, expand each of those five sentences into a short paragraph. You’ll end up with a one-page narrative snapshot of your novel. Below is an illustration of the entire process, using the movie Shrek.

Shrek fractal

From one humble sentence, the story branches out in increasing detail.

The Fractal Effect

Here’s where my approach differs from Ingermanson’s. While his snowflake analogy encourages writers to keep expanding in granularity, I prefer to keep using the five-point structure to develop different aspects of the story. Combining multiple quintets creates complexity, like the repeating process of a fractal. The Hunger Games, for example, presents readers a concurrent political story and love story:

HG fractal

Each of these storylines has its own independent logic and integrity. Told as a tale of rebellion or as a dedicated romance, the story mechanics of The Hunger Games would still function, but the result would be a very different book. Weaving “fractals” together adds dimension. This is one way to cultivate subplots in your novel idea. After all, subplots are really just side stories, and should follow the same five-point structure as any other story.

Are all stories that simple?

“Okay,” you’re probably thinking. “That’s great for straightforward books, but what about more complex ones? My novel involves multiple protagonists and an intricate web of events–there’s no way to distill such an epic into a five-line summary!” Maybe not, but a sequence of them might do the trick. To demonstrate, I tackled Anthony Trollope’s classic satire The Way We Live Now.

Originally printed in serialized form, The Way We Live Now follows the intrigues of about a dozen major characters in the course of almost 350,000 words, parsed into more than one hundred chapters. And guess what? We can distill it into component parts. I created the following chart for just three of the major players: the scheming entrepreneur Augustus Melmotte, his stubborn daughter Marie, and the cad Felix Carbury.  Color-coded cells show where characters’ events combine and collide.

Trollope example

Creating multiple character timelines like is also a good way to explore different angles of your story. In a few minutes, you can jot down an outline from each character’s perspective and determine which one (or ones) best suit your novel, instead of writing thousands of words before discovering your story is really about someone else. After all, “plot is character”. Once you’ve determined the basic arc of your novel, finding its true protagonist is critical to the story’s success. We’ll talk about this next week, in the workshop on character. 

7 thoughts on “How to Write a Novel, Part 1: Turning an idea into a story

  1. I love the idea of using a timeline/storyline for each character – it can be hard to nail down just who your main character is 🙂


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