The Novel

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

—W. Somerset Maugham

The novel is an event in consciousness. Our aim is not to copy actuality, but to modify and recreate our sense of it. The novelist is inviting the reader to watch a performance in his own brain.

—George Buchanan

Expansion, that is the idea the novelist must cling to, not completion, not rounding off, but opening out.

I wrote a novel. I have started two more. Beyond that, I don't have much to say about it. That's almost a joke. The truth is that the process of writing a novel remains mysterious. I do not imagine that its mystery will lessen, although I hope repetition improves my understanding. Happily, I don't seem to be alone in my assessment. Many novelists use metaphors such as "going out to sea in a rowboat" to describe novel writing.

Now that I have scared you sufficiently, we can think about writing a novel without succumbing to the ethereal. I start a novel the way I begin a short story, with a sentence or an image. A character reveals herself. Often I begin with a set of circumstances or a premise, but rarely do I have a sequence of events or a plot in mind. Initially, as usual, the story emerges from the writing.

When I admit that I am writing a novel, and not a short story, my process alters. The shape of a short story seems finite. The gesture of a short story is precise. Writing a short story might be compared to taking a weekend trip—you leave home: the beginning; you go to your cabin or stay in a motel: the middle; you come home: the end. Writing a novel more closely resembles traveling to an unknown country. You may have a map and a dictionary, but you don't know where you're going and you don't understand the language. Your best hope for acclimation is to dive in, to absorb, and to let yourself be absorbed with, this new world. Similarly, you must dive into your novel. You must accept the discomfort of the novel's breadth. You must let yourself absorb the world you are creating.

Writing Practice

Brainstorm. Write 10 ideas for a novel. Maybe you have a short story that is really a novel, or a character from a story that you want to elaborate. Consider specific premises.

Writing a novel will require additional writing time each day. In the beginning, don't limit your writing by thinking too much about structure. Lose yourself in the emerging world of your novel. Use your journal time, as well, to map ideas as they occur to you. The world of your novel probably will not be contained by your writing schedule. That is, you will spend a lot of time thinking about your characters, your sentences, your setting. It is necessary, however, to give yourself dedicated time each day to occupy that world, your writing time.

Choose one of the ideas from your Brainstorm. Write a sentence. Write another. Freewrite for 15 minutes.

1. Read through your writing. Has anything like a story surfaced? Underline any interesting sentences or phrases. Choose one you like. Use it as the first line in another 15-minute freewrite.

2. Read your second freewrite and follow the same process. From both pieces of writing, identify anything that looks like a conflict. Write it out in one or two sentences.

Journal Time

Keep a novel log. Every day, use a portion of your journal time to write a scene. Use the exercises above if they generated anything useful. Alternatively, write about the process of embarking on a novel. Use this time to plan your strategy.

Freitag's Pyramid

Eventually, structure becomes an important aspect of creating a novel. The German dramatist, Gustav Freitag, established a way of thinking about narrative trajectory that became known as Freitag's Pyramid. You may be familiar with this standard plot model. According to Freitag, a plot will begin with exposition, in which the writer provides information necessary to understand the story's development. The plot then introduces a complication, which creates a conflict. This complication is sometimes referred to as the rising action, or the knotting up. The complication leads to a crisis or climax of action, followed by the falling action or the unknotting (denouement), which brings us to the resolution.


Complication/Conflict (Rising Action)


Falling Action (Denouement)


Burroway's Inverted Checkmark

Freitag's model has been criticized in recent years for various reasons. The writer, Janet Burroway, suggests that the pyramid gives too much time to the falling action. In most plots, according to Burroway, what follows the climax, if anything, is much shorter than the action leading up to it. She offers the following "inverted checkmark" as a model.

climax climax falling action, if any conflict and complications falling action, if any resolution

Narratologists (people who study narrative) have suggested that narrative is a model of desire. Freitag's Pyramid, and Burroway's Inverted Checkmark, are both models of a particularly male desire. Your garbage detector may be blinking now, but consider that this discussion does not have much to do with whether you are male or female; rather, the observation requires the acknowledgment that desire does not necessarily follow a male trajectory.

Alternative Models

Recently, writers have suggested alternative models for thinking about plot and structure. Some contemporary novels develop through contiguous scenes rather than linear sequences of events. Some begin the story after the major conflict has already occurred. Some end without a resolution. Instead of a novel having one line of rising action or conflict, there may be many moments of knotting up and unknotting, possibly without any one central crisis. A model for this plot structure might resemble the double helix of a strand of DNA, with two narrative strings crossing and arcing while remaining linked.

When you are ready to begin thinking about your novel's structure, using any one of these models can be useful.

Writing Practice

This exercise requires some equipment:

• A large posterboard

• Blank index cards

• A Sharpie marker

1. On the posterboard, reproduce Freitag's Pyramid or Burroway's Checkmark.

2. First, identify the moments in your novel that qualify as

• The background information, or the premise, of your story

• The central conflict

• The crisis or climax

• The resolution

3. Now, using the index cards, begin to plot your novel. Use the marker to suggest scenes in one or two phrases or sentences. Tape these scenes to the posterboard as you knot up your action. Use masking tape so you can add, remove, and rearrange scenes on your storyboard.

4. Try the storyboard using the double helix model or invent one of your own.


A storyboard is a good method for mapping the arc of your novel. Hang your storyboard in your writing space. When you get discouraged, the visual reminder of your plan can recharge you. If you're having trouble with a particular scene, your storyboard might remind you what needs to happen next, and offer you a way back into the scene.

You also might discover that you cannot write to a model. Don't. Find the method of writing that works for you. Imposing structure because you think you have to can disrupt your creativity. Instead, find other ways to think about structuring your novel.

Writing Practice

A professor of mine used this exercise in a novel workshop. Visual thinkers find it very useful.

1. Collect images of your characters and your novel's setting. You can create them in any medium or you can use images from magazines, the Internet, or your own photographs.

2. Collect and/or create objects that represent aspects of your novel—maybe a piece of jewelry or a watch fob. Use the actual object, if possible, or create a flat image from it.

3. Make a collage of these visual representations of your novel. Try developing your novel's arc through the arrangement of the images.

Demystifying Structure

Another way to think about structure is to demystify it completely. If you feel panicked about plotting your rising action or whether you have too much falling action, consider assigning yourself an arbitrary structure. Another professor suggested this idea and I found it quite liberating. I decided I would write a nine-chapter novel with a prologue and an epilogue. By breaking the book into discrete pieces, at least in my mind, the task seemed much more manageable. I eventually abandoned that structure, but it helped me finish the book.

Writing Practice

Use the ideas below to create an arbitrary structure for your novel. Write one to two paragraphs detailing that structure.

1. Assign your novel a specific number of words, pages, or chapters.

2. Assign each chapter a page length.

3. Write a title for each chapter.

4. Create a time frame within the novel, i.e., the novel will span three years. Consider what must transpire within that time frame.

5. Write the last sentence of your novel. Write toward it.

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