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The Elements of a Solid Novel, Plus Steps to Take Before You Even Start Writing

Writing a novel is a big deal.

It’s soul-consuming, and creating a feature-length work of fiction takes a great deal of time as well as dedication. 

But, you probably already knew that, right?

One of the most haunting thoughts for any budding novelist (the kind that wakes you up at night) is: will my idea support a lengthy work of fiction? Is it even worth writing at all?

You could argue that with the right level of care and development any acorn of an idea could flourish into a mighty work of fiction. But, in reality — some novel ideas are more viable than others.

While starting something that will eventually implode right in front of you on the screen after months of work is a daunting prospect, there are things you can do to test run your novel idea. And, we’re going to look at them here.

The core elements of a solid novel

Before you start to test run your story idea, it’s vital that you take some time to consider the very core elements of a solid novel.

Your novel should include:

A strong protagonist

Every great novel idea should accommodate a protagonist—or main character—that will compel people to keep reading as the story develops.

Check out these three tips for crafting a protagonist that will make your novel work.

A notable antagonist

In addition to an epic protagonist, almost every accomplished story features a notable antagonist or character that creates a sense of conflict at key moments in the plot.

Our guide to creating a compelling villain for your next story will help you get started. 

A clearcut goal or mission

For your plot to flourish from start to finish, it’s important to establish a clearcut goal or mission for your lead protagonist. Without a meaningful end goal, your idea might need a little more development. 

Naturally, all characters have abstract goals (journies or self-discovery or reaching dawning existential realizations, for example)—but if your story is armed with a physical goal or mission, it will go the distance.

Physical character goals include:

  • Getting something physical.
  • Causing something physical.
  • Escaping something physical.
  • Resolving something physical.
  • Surviving something physical.

A strong setting

It’s no secret that a setting is pivotal to any successful story. But, when you’re writing a novella or novel, your setting must, almost, be a living, breathing entity that helps to bond the plot.

When you’re crafting your novel’s setting, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can my characters physically and emotionally interact with the space around them throughout the course of the story?
  • Does my setting help to enhance my novel idea and give it direction?
  • Are there elements or features that are likely to make my story stand out in its niche?
  • Do I care about the story’s potential setting and will it motivate me to keep writing with pace and conviction?

If you’ve answered a staunch ‘no’ to any of these questions, it might be time to go back to the drawing board.

What to do before writing your novel

We’ve established the core elements of a successful novel idea (concepts that will give your plot meaning and direction). Now it’s time to look at the practical ways you can test run your novel idea before putting pen to paper or fingers to keys.

Create your storyline synopsis

If you’ve explored the core elements of a solid novel and you believe you’ve passed the test—good for you, it’s time to create your storyline synopsis.

For this exercise, your storyline synopsis is not a detailed account of the plot (you may not have fully developed your plot at this point, after all), but merely a one to two sentence summary of what your story is about. The who, where, what, and why, as it were.

Here’s an example of a synopsis for your reference:

The Silence of the Lambs: A young, ambitious F.B.I. agent must work alongside a manipulative, cannibalistic killer to help catch an active serial killer that is plaguing the nation with his heinous crimes.

Action: Write your storyline synopsis, taking the core elements of a solid novel into account. Once you’re happy with the outcome, step away for a day or so and read it again. Does it sound interesting and compelling to you? 

If the answer is no, you should go back and revisit your idea. You should also ask trusted friends or colleagues for their opinions on your synopsis—feedback is always invaluable to the creative process.

Research your niche

Does your synopsis jump off the page? Excellent, it’s time to start thinking about your niche or genre.

Looking at your synopsis and core elements, decide if you feel your idea fits into a particular niche or genre. Your idea could work as a sci-fi novel or a hard-hitting romantic tale for young adults—the choice is yours.

If your theme or subject does fit into a broad niche, conduct web-based research to understand your target audience and the scope of your potential novel category.

Here are tools and ideas to help you conduct valuable research:

  • Use Google Trends and punch in key terms surrounding your novel’s potential genre to see what readers are searching for around the world. Here you will be able to see writers and novelists within a particular niche that are making waves and connecting with their audience. Read their stories and decide what you feel drives their success.
  • Explore targeted hashtags across social media channels to see what books, stories, and authors are trending in your niche. #Bookstagram and #Bookish are good places to start.
  • Visit independent bookstores or examine various book charts within your niche to see if your potential niche, genre or theme is an avenue you feel is worth pursuing.

Action: Take time to explore, research, and read. Document your discoveries to paint a clearcut picture of how people are interacting with novels and authors in your prospective niche or genre. 

Armed with this newfound information, pick a handful of books that are either performing well or that you respect within your niche. Decide whether your idea is too similar to these books and if so, search for an original angle that will offer a fresh perspective on a beloved or well-trodden theme. 

If you can place your story idea into a niche or genre and you have a unique angle to explore—you’re probably onto a winner.

Craft your elevator pitch

If you’ve reached this point, it’s likely that your novel idea is worth taking to the next level. But, before you give it the official green writing light, you should craft an elevator pitch.

Your elevator pitch is essentially a slightly longer, more detailed synopsis of your story that covers to the tale’s main protagonist, the primary conflict, what’s at stake, and a nod to the setting.

Here is the elevator pitch for my novella, ‘Not Every Room Has a View’:

“Samuel Jacks floats through his days venting a deep hatred for his industrial hometown to no one but himself, looking after his sick Aunty Mags, smoking endless piles of roll-ups, and making token efforts to write a novel that he’s probably never going to start, let alone finish. But then he meets an old flame and things start to unravel, fast. Can Sam make sense of the world around him and find inner peace or will he fall deeper into oblivion?

A mind-bending misadventure of love, lust, death, drugs, abandonment, and blurred realities, told through the eyes of a frustrated, fragile, bright, angry, and emotionally trapped young British male from the working classes.”

Action: Consolidating all of the discoveries and creative information from the previous steps, set aside ample time to craft a compelling elevator pitch. Again, step away and revisit it a day or so later.

Is your detailed synopsis enough to make you want to put pen to paper and explore your idea? Are your friends, colleagues or relatives intrigued? Great, go for it.

Writing a novel is a huge commitment but if you have faith in yourself and your idea, you will create something with depth and meaning. Test run your idea before writing your novel and you will know that it’s an avenue worth exploring.

Photo via GuadiLab / Shutterstock 

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