20 Rules for Writing a Novel Pt. 1

20 Rules for Writing a Novel Pt. 1


Thanks to bensound.com for the intro and outro music!

ASK THE AUTHOR: From Carth via Firsts in Fiction page on Facebook: Hey, I’ve heard you guys say a couple of times not to “manipulate your reader”, and I’d like to hear about this, as someone who definitely writes with thematic and even political subtext in mind. How can one tastefully inject morality, criticisms of society, and that sort of thing into a story, and do it tastefully, like we’ve seen done in stuff by Orwell and others?

AARON: Super great question, Carth. When we talk about not “manipulating your reader,” what we generally mean is to not toy with them. That is to say, don’t deliberately mislead them so you can have that “twist” ending. In terms of interjecting morality, criticisms of society, etc. (a la Orwell or, one of my favorites, Vonnegut), there are several ways to go about it. If you want to make commentary as an author, you’ll need to be in 3rd person omniscient POV, which has fallen a little out of favor these days with many editors (they don’t like authorial intrusions the way Vonnegut did it in the 60s and 70s). The other way to do it is to simply present it in story form. Orwell wanted to warn of a government with too much unchecked power, and so he wrote 1984 which simply played the scenario out. He didn’t have to comment on how bad it was. The stark contrast between what we know of life and what we see in the novel is enough of a message for the reader. Even something as simple as The Hunger Games (or any other variety of dystopian fiction) does the same thing. Here’s the squalor we live in contrasted against the opulence of the government/wealthy/etc. Worried that America doesn’t read enough? Fahrenheit 451. I think what the greats do is simply present what our society would look like if we allow particular worrying trends to continue.

POPS: I can’t add much to what Aaron has said. He’s spot on. It’s fine for a character to have a point of view or an opinion about a matter, but that’s not toying with the reader. Toying with the reader is making them think one thing is true then switching it up. “It was all a dream.” “They made their escape in a spaceship and set a course for a new planet–a planet called Earth.” Aaron mentioned the right way to do be socially relevant in fiction and his examples of Bradbury, Vonnegut, Orwell is on the money. A more contemporary example might be Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (HarperCollins, 2004). That novel takes on global warming and he tells a good story. He also did what very few novelist do: he added an author’s message, two appendices and a massive bibliography. In the author’s message he lays out his views on global warming, but he didn’t let his views taint the novel.

MJ: I agree with what they said. I’d also like to add my two cents’ worth. For me, manipulating the reader is not just misleading them, but it also means telling them what to think. Subtly or overtly, treating your reader with less respect than they deserve. As an author, your story stands on its own. Of course there are subtexts and innuendo, but that still allows the reader to make up their own mind. If you’re writing a political thriller, for example, you can “slant” it toward a certain view, but that doesn’t mean you expect all your readers to be of one party. As Aaron said, just write the story.

HEATHER: The best thing to keep in mind in either case is that your reader is often more sophisticated than you give them credit for… meaning no matter what you’re doing on the page, if it isn’t credible, if it doesn’t treat your reader respectfully, they are going to know… and view you accordingly.

Firsts in Fiction

20 “Rules” For Writing Novels

Here at Firsts in Fiction, we love our “rules” episodes. We’ve examined all sorts of writers’ “rules,” and discussed, at length, their validity and importance. We’re often asked to create our own list, so here it is: 20 “rules” for writing novels. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. Remember, they’re rules because they’re proven to work (often).

  • Dress your story in facts. (Write what you know; learn what you don’t know.)


  1. The more facts you have, the more believable your story becomes. You want your story to feel true. This will take some research. That’s fine. Do the work ahead of time to have it pay off later in the end.
  2. You say “Learn what you don’t know.” I love this. For me, this is part of the adventure of writing. For the last several years, I’ve immersed myself in New Orleans culture. Research comes by way of internet, Google Maps/World, food, connecting with others who have been there and have local insights.
  3. As an editor, it’s also important. Even novels will read as true stories. We get involved, we care about the characters. So even if you’ve created a tenth-planet world that we know nothing about, make it believable. And add truth that we can relate to.
  4. My favorite is to say, “write what you want to find out.”


  • Your characters must be believable.


  1. Your characters must be flawed (we’re all flawed). This means they’re not perfect. They’ve got some hurdle to overcome. This makes their journey more important. It’s why we have character arcs.
  2. EDITOR’S NOTE: Don’t make them so flawed that the reader doesn’t care about them. Even wimps and bullies have some redeeming qualities.


  • Your characters must act in a believable fashion.


  1. They must act in a manner consistent to their character as you’ve constructed it. Remember to keep it simple. As yourself what anyone would do in a particular situation. Occam’s Razor suggests that most people will take the simplest solution to a problem. Don’t overthink it.
  2. Have reason for being the way they are.
  3. Have reason for speaking as they do.
  4. Have motivation for doing what they do.
  5. They should be authentic and compelling


  • The protagonist must face a conflict that requires a resolution.


  1. Make the conflict relevant to someone other than just your character. If it’s larger than your character, the stakes are higher. What happens if your character can’t fix the conflict? What’s on the line?


  • Characters must change, grow, step up, step down or get out of the story.


  1. Long story short, make your character an active part of the story. If they’re not, they’re just distracting from the main conflict and main characters.
  2. A word of caution about “characters must grow.” This idea is rooted in literary works. All protags need to adapt, but they don’t always have to have a life change. I have several protags that grow in the situation but they remain the same person. In Wounds, however, my protag must change dramatically.


  • “The strength of the protagonist is measured by the threat of the antagonist.” (Terry  Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works)


  1. No one cares about Rocky vs. a four-year-old. The more imposing the antagonist, the more endearing the protagonist.
  2. I would say that your antagonist must be “better than” your protagonist. Reader should believe there is no way the character can succeed. The worry this creates is your story engine.


  • Demonstrate, don’t lecture. (Show don’t tell.)


  1. Avoid writing stories to “make a point.” Don’t begin with “I’m writing a story about the evils of drunk driving!” Instead, begin with the story, then let the moral announce itself independent of your prompting. Later, when you know what the story is about, you can prune it.


  • Reveal information slowly.


  1. Don’t rush to action.
  2. Don’t contrive situations.
  3. Avoid laundry list descriptions.
  4. Pacing is key. Too slow, and the reader gets bored. Too fast, and the reader is overwhelmed (too much telling). Slow down where you need to slow down, speed up through the boring parts.
  5. These things often have an inverse relationship – meaning scenes of major conflict and action should slow down (or take up more pages), and scenes of backstory and context should speed up (or be covered in less pages.)


  • Don’t talk to the reader, tell the story.


  1. Authorial intrusions are a no-no. You’re not talking to your friend. If the reader is reminded that they’re reading, it will “take them out of the story.” Try to be invisible by making your prose as easy to sink into as it can be.
  2. Treat your reader like a fly on the wall. Resist the urge to explain everything.


  • Don’t prophesy, tell the story.


  1. Stay in your timeline. Sometimes we writers fear the reader will miss something or not see something coming, so we want to teach them. R.U.E = resist the urge to explain. “Little did our hero know what dangers lay in wait behind the worn, dark door of the haunted mansion.” (Avoid that.)


2 thoughts on “20 Rules for Writing a Novel Pt. 1”

  • Good post. And not manipulating your reader via lecturing or preaching is true even for children’s book authors.

  • This shit badasss, thanks for the help man. I was looking for a pro like you who can let me know how to write a novel

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