How to Turn an Idea Into a Fully Fledged Novel

by WiseFool

Many of us will have ideas that seem to make a good premise for a story, but how do you take that spark of inspiration and create a full novel from it?

It is said that we all have a novel in us. I'm not sure if that's entirely true, but I do think lots of people have flashes of inspiration that could be turned into a good novel, as long as that idea is honed, shaped and crafted properly.

Now, of course, I'm not suggesting that the following is the only way to write a novel. In fact, I'm not even saying that it's the best way to write a novel. Every writer has to find a process that works for him or her. It's different strokes for different folks.

However, this is a method that has worked well for me, and if you're new to writing or have simply became stymied by a particular story, you might find this technique very helpful.

How to Write a Novel

How to write a novelAs I've already mentioned, there's no one way to write a novel; no right or wrong method. So, these are just a few tips and techniques that have worked well for me.

In my role as a ghostwriter, I'll often have clients come to me with an idea for a novel and not much else.

This has its advantages, in that it gives me some creative freedom, but it can also be intimidating, because I can never be absolutely sure that the way I expand upon the idea will create the result the client envisaged.

The method I'll explain below is helpful for both ghostwriting work and when penning my own novels, because it's about slowly building; adding layers and complexities.

For a ghostwriting gig, this gives a client the opportunity to see the gradual building process - and, hopefully, they'll point out anything they're unhappy with early on. When writing my own fiction, this steady approach helps to iron out any problems and ensure I've got the plot and characters 'down' before I even begin writing.

This preparation can be time consuming, but it makes the actual writing of the novel much quicker.

Write One Sentence That Sums up The Story

Your idea may well start like this, but, if it doesn't, try to simplify it, so that you can sum the main premise of the novel up in just one sentence.

This is a mini synopsis, a 'hook' or, as its known in the movie business, a logline.

For example:

  • An independent and strong-willed, young Regency woman finds herself wooed by a wealthy, arrogant man she cannot stand. Pride and Prejudice
  • After the suspicious death of his father, a grief-stricken Danish Prince vows vegence on his usurping uncle. Hamlet
  • An orphaned boy is spirited away to a school for magicians, where he learns about the Dark Lord who killed his parents and threatens the world. Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone

Keep it as simple as possible.

So, if you're going for a Stephen King Under The Dome-style cast of thousands, stick with just one or two characters, and, usually, you won't even name them at this stage.

Make sure that this one-sentence summary tells you, in a succinct way, what the story is about. And, most importantly, ensure that it's interesting. Ask yourself, does it sound like the kind of novel I'd want to read?

Turn That Sentence into a Paragraph

Now, you want to take that hook and flesh out a little of the detail...but not too much at this stage. What you're look for is one paragraph, of approximately three to five sentences. This paragraph should include:

  • The set-up
  • Major disasters (three possibly?)
  • Ending

Of course, the number of 'disasters' will depend on your book. If you want to create a story that conforms to the three-act structure, you'll be aiming to give your protagonist a problem toward the end of act one, another in the middle of act two and a final one at the end of the second act.

I feel the need to add here, this formulaic style is not everyone's cup of tea - so do not feel that these are fixed rules you must abide by. 

How Not to Write a Novel
How to Be a Boring, Bad Writer

Start Sketching the Main Characters

Sketching charactersMake a list of the main characters, or as many of them as are making themselves known at this point.

For example, you'll already have a protagonist and an antagonist. You might also have a foil and a few other characters floating around your imagination. 

Jot them down and give them a rough character sketch  At this point, it really can be very rough - they can be horribly 2D, mere caricatures. At this stage, it doesn't matter. What you do need to ascertain is a feel for who they are and what purpose they'll serve within the novel.

A rough character sketch could be something like this:

  • 20-year-old woman: Kate? Laura?
  • Is protagonist's best friend
  • Slim and pretty
  • Not very intelligent
  • Nail technician

That might be all you have on her for now, and that would be absolutely fine, because we're going to build on her later - not 'build on her' in the Mafia sense, you understand.

Take Your Summary Paragraph and Expand it Further

The best way to add layers to your summary is to take each sentence of the paragraph and turn that sentence into a brand new paragraph of its own.

So, for instance, you had one sentence that explained the set-up: make that set-up a whole paragraph, filling in small details  which have, in all likelihood, been coming to you, while you've been focusing on the smaller summaries and creating a feel for your main characters. 

Write a Description of Major Characters

Writing character descriptionsThis may seem like we're flitting back and forth between plot and characters, and that's because we are.

On one level, this is helpful, as it will enable fresh ideas to come to you when you're not expecting them - your brain will be making links, so while you're filling out the summary, be sure to make notes for any character developments that strikes you and vice versa.

Now, as we move back to the main characters, what you should be aiming to do is create a one page description of each in turn. 

Some authors find it useful to create a sort of survey; containing information such as shoe size, eye color, childhood pet, etc., etc. This can then be filled in for each character - of course, some of this information will never find its way into the novel and that's fine.

What you're doing is creating a full picture of each character in your head. That way, when you come to write them, they seem more like 'real' people.

More Advice on Creating Rounded Characters
In most cases, characters are the heart and soul of your story. Despite the fact that they only exist in a make believe world, they must be ‘real’ to you and to your readers.

Build on The Summary Again

Build on your novel's summaryThis time, you're aiming to turn each paragraph of your summary, which will now be approximately five paragraphs in length, into a page.

Your paragraph-long set-up should be lengthened to one page; each of your problems or disasters should also be extended to a page in length and, likewise, the details on how the novel will end.

This might come easy - you may already have had whole pages of the plot in mind before you even began. However, you might also find that you're beginning to spot little issues and problems you'll meet later on: How will 'A' get hold of the guitar? If 'B' had the knife in his chest, how can I bring it back into the final scene? I want to move the action to Hawaii, but how can I do that?

You get the idea. Now is an excellent opportunity to begin ironing out some of these little details. The answers may be obvious, or they might need some chewing over.

Turn Your Character Descriptions into Character Charts

How to create character chartsBe sure to keep hold of the long detailed description you wrote for each character  but what you're about to do now will create the 'bible' that helps you craft the character's moves throughout the novel.

How you go about creating a character chart is entirely up to you, I like to use a large sheet of paper, or even a flip chart. I make notes, draw sketches (though I'm certainly no artist) and even graphs that plot their emotional states, because I find that easier to reference at a glance, rather than reams of text. However, it really is a case of whatever works for you.

The important thing to remember when creating a character chart is to know the motivators and drivers within your character, the external forces that affect them throughout the novel and how these will change that person along the way.

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Make a List of Scenes

Make a list of scenesOkay, so you've got a fairly detailed idea of what happens within the story - some five to eight pages, I'd imagine. So, now's the time to start breaking the events up into scenes.

Again, the manner in which you do this is entirely up to you. I know one author who favors a spreadsheet. This, for me, is far too clinical and technical. So, I either use a dry erase board - and split it up into sections (one for each scene) or I use storyboards.

I don't find it necessary to have the list of scenes particularly text-heavy. Instead, I'll use perhaps one sentence to sum up the action of each scene or I'll draw a little sketch - sometimes of an object that looms large in that scene.

What I invariably discover by doing this, is that, if I can't think of anything to draw or a snappy one line summary, then the scene probably doesn't need to be there at all. If there's no action - either literal or in terms of conflict within a character, then the scene is a waste of space.

Write a Description of Each Scene

This is an optional step, as it's not one I always use - but it is something I depend on when I'm ghostwriting.

Take your list of scenes, and really start thinking clearly about not only the who and the what, but also the how and the why.

By this point, you may well have snippets of dialogue or narrative floating around in your head; if that's the case, be sure to get them down on paper.

The length of the description for each chapter is entirely up to you, as is how you choose to write it: bullet points, whole sentences, sketches,  graphs and/or notes.

Sometimes, while I'm fleshing out the scenes, I'll realize that they might need reordering, or something that I'd assumed would happen in scene two, should actually happen in scene five - or whatever.

So keep a flexible approach even at this late stage.  

Start Writing The First Draft

How to start writing your novelThere you have it, you're now ready to rock 'n' roll. Naturally, this is not to suggest that the writing of the first draft will be completely plain sailing 

You may still come across some blips; things that need altering and character's that need tweaking. However, you now have a really solid grounding for your novel.

You're initial idea is well on the way to becoming a fully fledged story, and any problems you do encounter now are likely to be fewer and much further between. 

More Fiction Tips
Do you want to write a novel or short story with suspense, action, intrigue and realistic drama?
The first line of a piece of fiction is important, right? It hooks your readers and urges them to keep reading.
There are many ways that a good story can be ruined, bad dialogue is one of them. So, what are the secrets to writing natural, captivating speech?
Updated: 03/21/2013, WiseFool
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WiseFool on 05/13/2014

Thanks, Mira. I really think that if a story is bursting to get out of you, you should definitely do it - even if that means not taking a methodical approach, because it won't necessarily work for everyone or for every type of novel. The really important thing is to write.

Mira on 05/13/2014

You were so right about my novel calling me siren-like :). I have decided to do something with it, after all. Your approach is so methodical, I can see why it yields results in a timely fashion. I can also see it working plot-wise. I am terrible when it comes to imagining a plot. I tend to write in scenes that are loosely interconnected and do build to something; I can't imagine a real plot. I don't know enough about how to hone that skill. Reading does help, and I do take mental notes. And, in fact, this article helps a lot. I've read it carefully a second time and it was worth it.

CSMcClellan on 05/01/2014

I'm glad I came across this. I work more or less the way you do, adding layers and complexity, but I'm pretty haphazard about it. I think it would help if I worked with the summary and characters in a more formal way. A novel I'm just beginning to work on has a basic idea and the characters, but nothing inbetween.

WiseFool on 12/04/2013

Thank you for your very kind words, Frank

And thanks to you too, Jennifer. It's definitely a take-the-bits-you-like;-leave-what-you-don't kind of plan, I don't think it's a method that will work for everybody or for every novel. But I'm really glad there are some things here you've found of value. I certainly find character sketches helpful, but I can't promise they still won't go off on their own merry way! Sometimes it's good to just let them do whatever it is they seem to want to. They might take you somewhere you never thought of and improve the story. If not, you can always, as you say, rein 'em back in. Good luck with it!

jptanabe on 12/04/2013

Fascinating! I've been working on my first novel for several months. Can't say I've followed your plan, but some of the points (list of characters, ideas for scenes, pieces of dialog) are things I wrote down. I didn't try a character sketch - maybe I should have, mine keep going off in unexpected directions! Of course I'm happy that they seem to be alive, but sometimes I think I should rein them in a bit.

frankbeswick on 11/28/2013

This article is excellent. I have read it once and got ideas already. I will be re-reading tomorrow.

WiseFool on 11/28/2013

Hello, Mira. Thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad you found some of the suggestions useful.

You might find, after letting it sit for a while, that you come back to your novel - something may suddenly click into place and you realize what needs to be changed or done differently. After working on it (albeit sporadically) for that long, my sense is that it's going to keep calling to you Siren-like. Maybe the initial idea will morph into a new novel.

When I'm ghostwriting, it varies depending on how firm the client's ideas and plots are in the first place. Typically though, it's a month or two to get the first draft ready. From there, the client may want to edit it himself/herself, or we might spend a fortnight or so tweaking and revising.

Mira on 11/28/2013

Wow, there are some great suggestions in here for getting organized. I particularly liked the idea of making a map of the scenes. That way you can see how interlinked they are, which to drop, etc.
I've been working on a novel, on and off, for 4 years now. I've learned a lot but decided not to write this one after all. How long does it take you to ghostwrite a novel in the way you described??

WiseFool on 03/22/2013

Thanks Dustytoes. I'm glad it's been interesting to you.

I say, if you have an idea, go ahead and write it. You don't have to follow the process above, if it doesn't suit your style - but, as long as you've got the time, you're not losing anything by getting it down. It might not end up quite as you'd hoped, but you'll be learning. Or it might end up better than you'd imagined!

dustytoes on 03/22/2013

Like many people I have occasionally thought - I should write a book! However, also like many people I have no idea about all the actual work that goes into it. Now I have a glimpse and I found this page most interesting.

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