The Secret Novel Writing Formula
Updated: Jul 8, 2019
People have often asked how you write a novel. Stephen King famously said you write a novel one word at a time. True, but there’s clearly more to this. What you need to understand is how stories are constructed. It’s important to understand the three act structure of beginning, middle and end. I'm about to give you the secret formula to novel writing.
The secret writing formula is 25 50 25. What does this mean? A beginning is 25% of your novel, the middle 50%, the ending 25%. If you stray from that and have a beginning that lasts a lot more than 25%, people will get bored as they feel the story isn’t going anywhere. If you write an ending that’s a lot less than 25%, you won’t have a satisfactory conclusion. In a 100,000 word novel, you’ll have 25,000 words to write your beginning and 25,000 words to conclude. With this in mind, you have a map of where you need to be in the plot.
The beginning section of a novel has to set the scene, introduce all the characters and setup the main story with an inciting incident. This incident is the thing that kicks off the main plot, the problem the main character has to resolve for the rest of the story. The middle part then develops the story, includes all your twists and turns, dramas and conflicts. If your story doesn’t have any conflicts, it’s not a story. You need to have a protagonist and an antagonist; in other words, a hero and a villain.
Wax On Wax Off
To highlight what I mean, I’m going to discuss one of my favourite movies: The Karate Kid. I could use a novel, but it most likely will be one you haven’t all read. A lot of people my age have seen the Karate Kid, so it’s easier to relate to. There are also all the main story elements within the movie. Once you spot these, you’ll be able to do it for every movie and novel.
The Karate Kid tells the story of Daniel LaRusso who moves to a town and gets mixed up with a bully. He’s then taught Karate by Mr Miyagi and finally defeats the bully at the end in a Karate tournament.
The beginning of the movie, the first 25%, introduces Daniel and his situation: moving to a new town. We then meet Johnny Lawrence who sees Daniel trying to make a move on his ex girlfriend, Ali. Daniel and Johnny get into a fight and Daniel is beaten because Johnny is a black belt in Karate. This has now set up the movie. The incident with Johnny is what really kicks the story off and Daniel realises he needs to learn Karate.
The next 50% of the movie shows Johnny bullying Daniel who then meets Mr Miyagi who lays down the challenge of fighting Johnny in the tournament at the end of the year. Daniel is then taught how to fight and the plot develops towards the ending.
25% of the end of the movie begins when Daniel arrives at the tournament and fights his way to the final where he faces Johnny. Spoilers: Daniel wins. This structure also highlights you need to move to a climax, a big fight at the end. Imagine if the movie ended with Johnny apologising to Daniel and there’s no fight? How boring would that be? Imagine Star Wars a New Hope without the Death Star battle? They'll rescue the princess and head home. People would rightly ask, 'Is that it?'
This is a very simplistic approach to structure, but I find it works well. It’s what I use to write. Until I fully understood this structure, I never finished a novel, getting to around 20,000 words and running out of steam. This was because I had no idea where I was supposed to be, or how many words I wanted to write. If you don’t know the ending of your novel as you write, then at least know how many words it’s going to be. Some people plan their entire novel out before writing. I only know how many words I’m aiming for and a rough idea of an ending which likely changes as I go. This is because I like my writing to surprise me. We all work differently, though, so only take my advice as a guide.
Hopefully this has given the secret formula for writing to anyone who wants to try their hand at novel writing and doesn’t want to stall on 20,000 words. I’ve a stack of unfinished novels because I didn’t understand structure. Aside from structure, you’ll need an idea, but that’s something I can’t help you with!
Kevin Grover is an indie author of supernatural thrillers. His books are on Amazon and his website, Indie Bookshelf, shares various tips and experiences about his indie career.