How to Start Writing a Book

Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

You're really going to do it! You are finally prepared to sit down with just your ideas and a blank screen and write a novel. In this lesson, we will go over a few effective ways to help get you started with the endeavor.

Taking the Plunge

Let's be honest. Writing a novel is not easy. Many have tried, most have failed. The first step, before you do anything else, is to prepare yourself for the ups and downs of the process. Writing a book takes time and discipline. You must treat your writing like you would a regular job. Decide what time and what days you are going to write at the beginning of every week. Schedule it like you would a doctor's appointment, and do not cancel that appointment unless there is a dire emergency. There will be days when you have the dreaded writer's block, when you won't feel like working on your story, but those are the days when you absolutely must grind it out.

Decide What Your Book Is Going to Be About

You've heard the cliché 'write what you know.' It's actually a pretty good piece of advice for a first time writer. For example, if you're a lawyer, think how much easier it would be for you to write a courtroom thriller as opposed to a novel about a chef. In the end, however, you need to write about what motivates and inspires you. It's important to write a book that you believe you would like to read.

It's All About the Plot

First thing you need to do is come up with a main plot, the major part of the narrative that drives the story forward. Essentially, a plot is what happens in the story, and the order that the events occur. A captivating plot is worth its weight in gold. No one who read Fifty Shades of Grey walked away from the experience thinking that EL James was going to win a Pulitzer Prize for her prose, but the plot of the novel kept its readers intrigued.

So how do you create a captivating plot? Think about it like this: what are you going to write that is going to make your readers want to turn the page? What is going to make them delay their bedtime and forgo needed sleep because they absolutely need to read the next chapter? Creating a great plot is all about conflict. There is no story without drama, and there is no drama without conflict. Conflict is created when bad things happen to characters. It's heartbreaking to see Tom Robinson, an innocent man accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird, stand trial for a crime he didn't commit and ultimately be murdered, but that conflict creates the drama that pulls the reader into the Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

Readers of To Kill a Mockingbird felt strong emotions when Atticus (left) did not win his case as lawyer defending Tom Robinson (right).
Atticus and Tom Robinson

Conflict can either be internal or external. An example of internal conflict occurs in The Catcher in the Rye. The protagonist in the story, Holden Caulfield, is suffering from depression due to the death of his little brother. Holden also has issues with mental illness. Prime examples of external conflict result from an outside force, weather/nature, or issues between characters. The ocean is a source of external conflict in The Old Man and the Sea.

Book cover art for The Old Man and the Sea, representing the main character, an ancient fisherman, and the plot, the grandest fishing adventure and catch of his life.
The Old Man and the Sea

Coming Up With Plot Ideas

Still not sure what your main plot is going to be about? Start with considering the genre. Is your story going to be about romance, horror, coming of age, true crime, murder, sports, or a revisionist look at a historical event? Knowing the genre you want to work in is immediately going to help you zone in on a main plot idea.

Also, think about your own life. Did something happen to you or someone you know that could be a seed for an idea? Is there a current event or news article that can be stretched into a plot? No matter what you decide to write about, you should always ask yourself, 'Is this a story worth telling?'

Follow the Plot

Okay, let's say that you've nailed down a main idea for a plot. Before you write anything, it's best to outline your story. If you have an idea of how the narrative is going to end, right from the beginning, it will help to provide a road map, so you're not wasting time with superfluous plot points that you're just going to delete in a later draft.

Here are the five main parts of plot:

1. Exposition: This will provide readers with any necessary background information that they may need to understand the story. Exposition can also help the reader get to know the characters and learn about the setting (where the story takes place.)

2. Rising action: This where a writer creates tension and suspense. Readers are introduced to conflicts and the obstacles that stand in the way of the hero achieving his goal.

3. Climax: This is the apex of the story, the place where there is the most tension and struggle. It is the point of no return, where it doesn't look like the hero will be able to overcome the great obstacles that the writer has created.

4. Falling action: This is the result of the climax.

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