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Neil Aitken, Writer in Residence November 12, 2021, 2:40 PM

3 Tips for Starting Your Novel Part 2

Read Part 1

Here is the second of three tips that might help you get started on your novel (and keep going).

Consider the importance of conflict and stakes 

In order for a story to be compelling, something has to drive characters to act rather than merely passively reacting to the events that unfold around them. It’s the extraordinary or unexpected lengths that characters go to in order to reach their goals that makes for a truly engaging story. The author’s task is to manipulate the character in such a way as to make the journey feel worthwhile and meaningful to the reader. 

Characters need to want something that they can't immediately acquire or achieve. And there have to be obstacles and challenges, often arising from the way different characters' desires will put them at tension due to some fundamental incompatibility of their chosen paths.

Conflict can also arise from internal and external forces: a blizzard, a sinking ship, societal or cultural expectations, racism, poverty, addiction, or groups. It’s the juxtaposition of the character whose goals put them at odds with others and/or the circumstances they find themselves in that creates tension and interest. We become invested in learning how they will find their way through this, what they will end up sacrificing, or how they will change and adapt to overcome (or merely survive). When conflict is clear, you help the reader understand the character’s motivations.

The existence of conflict isn’t enough though. In order for a character to act, there have to be high stakes. That is to say, there has to be consequences for their inaction. Otherwise, how will that character overcome the desire to simply stay put and ride the storm out? If the stakes are too low, the character might opt to pay the price or delay acting. When the stakes are high, there is an urgency that forces the character to make choices they might otherwise not make. 

Bonus Tip:

If you don’t know a character’s name, just put in a placeholder. If you don’t know enough about electrical wiring to describe a scene involving a partially dismantled fuse box, just stick a note to yourself in parentheses. If you can’t figure out how to close a scene or resolve an issue, just put a brief general note on the outcome or process in parentheses and move on. Skip ahead in the narrative if you need to. 


Make sure to check out our NaNoWriMo programs, going on all month long!

Read Part 3

About Author

Neil Aitken, Writer in Residence

Neil Aitken is a Chinese-Scottish Canadian writer, author, editor, and translator with a multi-genre MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing. His work appears in anthologies, magazines, and broadsides, and has been featured in animated film, arranged for contemporary art song, and translated into Dutch, Russian, and Chinese. In addition to writing poetry and fiction, he also works on literary translations of contemporary Chinese poetry and received the DJS Translation Prize for his efforts. A former computer games programmer, he maintains a deep love of interactive fiction, digital storytelling, and tabletop role playing games.

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