How To Make The Right Choices For Your Novel

    choices for your novel

    How do you know which choices are right for your novel?

    When you first start typing words onto the blank computer screen, you won’t always have a clear vision of the story you’re about to write.

    Your story could end up playing out in any number of ways, much like life itself.

    The decisions you make when beginning your novel could easily turn out to be the wrong decisions.

    The great thing about writing a book is that after finishing the first draft, you can always go back and correct all the mistakes. You’re at liberty to change your mind about almost any decision you might have made.

    The not-so-great thing about writing a book is that when it turns out you’ve made a few wrong decisions in the beginning, the work required to correct those mistakes can be overwhelming.

    That’s why it’s so important to identify the choices that will shape your stories—and to make the right decisions before you put words on the page.

    Consider five decisions that will dramatically affect the course of your first draft. Some of them will be specific to your story. But others apply to every novel.

    #1. Which Point of View Should You Use?

    Point of view (POV) is the perspective through which the narrative is filtered. You can tell your story in one of three different POVs:

    First-Person: “I was a curious child: quick with questions and eager to learn. With acrobats and actors as my teachers, it is little wonder that I never grew to dread lessons as most children do.” – The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

    Third-Person: In London, Nadine Waveney, startled from dull pre-dawn somnolence at the night desk, heard the distance-shrouded crumps and thought, for a stark, confused moment, Is it here? Zeppelins?My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young

    Second-Person: You are at the wheel of your car, waiting at a traffic light. You take the book out of the bag, rip off the transparent wrapping, start reading the first lines. A storm of honking breaks over you; the light is green, you’re blocking traffic. — If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

    Each POV will create an entirely different feel for your story. The intimacy of first-person, the practicality of third, and the eccentricity of second lend themselves to three very different types of story.

    Which is right for your story?

    Consider the pros and cons of each. Do you want to tell the story from the perspective of just one person? Does that person have a strong and interesting voice? If so, first-person may be the right choice.

    But if you want to use more than one narrator or to allow a little more distance between your protagonist and your readers, you’re probably better off with third-person.

    Second-person, an always tricky and usually unpopular choice, should be generally avoided.

    #2. Whose POV(s) Will Your Novel Present?

    Most stories will be confined to the specific perspectives of certain characters. Which POVs should your story include?

    The protagonist’s: as in Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.

    The protagonist’s and the antagonist’s: as in The Winner by David Baldacci.

    The love interest’s: as in Perdido Street Station by China Miéville.

    The sidekick’s: as in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

    The antagonist’s sidekick’s: as in Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows. 

    How many are too many?

    Which is right for your story?

    A general rule of thumb when choosing POVs is: less is more.

    The fewer POVs you have, the tighter your narrative will be.

    Consider your story:

    • What important moments in the plot will your protagonist not be present for?
    • Do you need to dramatize these scenes?
    • If so, is there another character who could be a narrator?
    • Is this character important to the story?
    • Can you sow his POV throughout the book, so that his perspective matters to the story as a whole, and isn’t just a choice made for your convenience, at the risk of jarring readers?
    • Which characters have the strongest character arcs?

    #3. Which Tense Should You Write In?

    For centuries, past tense has been the standard for written fiction, but present tense has gained a certain trendiness in recent years.

    Past Tense: They filed clumsily into the battleroom, like children in a swimming pool for the first time, clinging to the handholds along the side. Null gravity was frightening, disorienting; they soon found that things went better if they didn’t use their feet at all. —Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

    Present Tense: I turn to look at Clare and just for a moment I forget that she is young, and that this is long ago; I see Clare, my wife, superimposed on the face of this young girl, and I don’t know what to say to this Clare who is old and young and different from other girls, who knows that different might be hard. — The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

    Your choice of tense will affect every sentence of your story.

    Past tense brings both flexibility and solidity – most readers don’t even think about tense when reading it.

    Present tense has the ability to create both intimacy and distance, depending on how it’s used, while also lending speed, immediacy, and lyricism.

    Which is right for your story?

    Try writing a few paragraphs in both tenses.

    Which tense comes more naturally to you? Which feels more appropriate for your story?

    Some readers dislike reading the present tense. Are you willing to risk their dislike solely on account of the tense you use? What would present tense bring to your book that past tense can’t?

    #4. How Long Should Your Book Be?

    Here’s another decision that may be difficult to make beforehand, but which is absolutely worth thinking about.

    Although it’s often best to allow the story itself to determine its length, authors can’t afford to overlook genre guidelines for word count.

    If you can determine upfront how long you’d like your book to be, you can use a knowledge of story structure to approximate how long each section of your story needs to be — and to then keep track of your progress as you’re writing the first draft.

    Which is right for your story?

    What genre are you writing?

    • If you’re writing middle grade or young adult fiction, you’ll want to keep your book under 80,000 words.
    • Romance novels usually range from 55,000 to 100,000 words, depending on sub-genre.
    • Mysteries and thrillers should try to stay under 100,000 words.
    • Science fiction and fantasy novels usually range between 90,000 and 120,000 words.

     #5. How Long Should Your Scenes and Chapters Be?

    Unlike previous decisions, this one is more flexible, since changing scene and chapter lengths can sometimes be as easy as moving the chapter headings and scene break markers.

    But it’s still an important decision to keep in mind in the early stages, since scene and chapter length dramatically affect tone and pacing.

    Longer scenes and chapters will create a sense of leisure and gravitas, as in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

    Shorter scenes and chapters lend urgency and are often more effective at keeping readers turning the pages into the wee hours, as in Ruth Downie’s Gaius Petreius Ruso series.

    Which is right for your story?

    • What type of story are you writing—a quiet, generational exploration of human nature, or an adrenaline-laced race against the clock?
    • What’s your protagonist’s personality—introspective and mellow, or fast-talking and action-oriented?

    Match your story’s pacing to its tone by controlling the length of your scenes and chapters.

    Before you turn yourself loose on the page, take a few moments to consider the ramifications of these five choices.

    Once you know how to make the right choices for your novel, your first draft will be an enormous improvement over earlier first drafts. Making the right call now can save you hundreds of hours of work later.

    What decisions do you try to make before starting your book? Have you ever made the wrong decision and realized it too late? Let me know in the comments below!

    About the author

      K.M. Weiland

      Historical and speculative novelist K.M. Weiland is the author of Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

    • Hey I was wondering if anyone could tell me which universities are the best (anywhere) for creative writing? I’m not interested in any universities in ontario because they dont offer the type of courses I want. I was also wondering if maybe there are schools specifically for creative writing? Please help me out, I have to apply in Dec, and I have no idea where I’m going, I just know that I want to write, because writing is my life, and I cant see myself doing anything else. Thanks..

    • A great article. I would say ‘person’ and ‘tense’ are the key decisions that affect the whole story and are difficult to reverse at a later point in time without a major re-write. They need to be determined upfront.

      The POV for each scene also needs to be planned in advance, but it is not disastrous to rewrite the POV for an individual scene if you have to. Sometimes I will re-write the POV for a scene to balance out the POV’s elsewhere where I have more than one main character. I’ve also used minor characters POV at times to show a different perspective of the main character or antagonist.

      I don’t think a great deal about the length of chapters or scenes. I tend to write first in scenes and then decide on the chapter breaks when looking at the completed first draft. The length of the book I don’t think about until I’m finished. It’s only if it’s too long or too short that I am concerned at all.

      • Story length is probably the least important of all these considerations. It’s greatest value comes into play when an author is able to identify whether he’s more inclined to be long-winded or short-winded (if that’s a term!). When we recognize our own tendencies, monitoring word count during the first draft can help us curb bad habits and create a first draft that is all that much closer to the final draft.

    • dee says:

      I have never written a book before and I just started to write a poem. The poem changed into a short story and the short story into a longer one. I believe I have an idea for a book. I am going to continue to write and see where it takes me. I read this and I have three out of the five questions answered. The fourth and fifth questions have stumped me but I think I can answered them in a few more pages. This was a lot of help. Thanks.

      • Three out of five isn’t bad! The thing about all these questions is that the answers can absolutely change as we’re writing. We may think we’ve made the right decisions for our books, only realize we weren’t seeing the entire picture.

    • I can’t thank you enough for this post. Yes, it took me a while to get to it but I’m so glad I didn’t skim through it. I’m on my 1st draft of my first novel/novelette/short story. At this point, it looks more like going for a full-blown novel.

      I’ll be bookmarking this post in my folder for resources.

      I’m actually using two characters in my narratives plus another character for a second story within the main one. This means I have three main characters. In your opinion, do you think this is too much?

      • Not necessarily. That’s the approach I took in my last WIP. I used two POVs, but the story featured one other character who was just as major as either of the POV characters. It worked out well.

    • K.M. What you say is valuable to any writer sitting down to compose a narrative. But I would add that the other great take-away from your post is how it can aid writers as readers. Every novel we read is, or should be a teaching moment, a whole bunch of them. By absorbing your five questions-to-self, writers can greatly expand the value in their reading. How has the novel on my Kindle or in my hands approached the five issues? What would happen to the story, had the writer made other choices?

      • Couldn’t agree more! As writers, we have to be students the craft, and the absolute best place to study that craft is in the midst of the books we ourselves enjoy – or don’t enjoy, as the case may be.

    • Joy says:

      This is a helpful for me especially that you talked about POVs. I’m afraid I may have committed a mistake by including too much narrators. The good news is, I’m still writing the first draft so I think it’s not a lot of work to edit those parts.

      Thanks for writing this! 🙂

      • When in doubt, fewer narrators are almost always the better choice. But it’s also true that some stories require more POVs than others.

    • I think these are all crucial questions that must be answered.

      I think it’s also very important to have a detailed outline of the book. A good outline helps all writers, whether it’s for a magazine article, a nonfiction book, or a novel.

      And K.M., I know you wrote the book on the subject of outlining a novel!

      • Yes, you’ll get no arguments from me on the worth of outlining!

    • Michael W. Perry says:

      My normal style is to write in the past tense but unconsciously slip into the present when I want more intensity. On one hand I feel bad being inconsistent. On the other, I’d rather my readers sometimes feel they were watching it happen. In practice, I typically turn every sentence I notice into the past tense and call it artistic license for those I don’t catch.

      –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer (Mostly first-person past tense for the story itself, with third person for objective medical facts.)

      • Inconsistency in a novel is rarely a good thing, but this approach is actually something I’ve seen work before. The idea, of course, is to create a transition between tenses so subtle that readers never notice it. We’re just wanting to use that brief lapse into present tense to create a more urgent feel for certain passages. It’s a technique to be used only with caution, but if beta readers seem to like it, you’re probably pulling it off.

    • When I’ve sat down to write a novel I haven’t spent much time weighing these choices. Each project has its own flow and what hits the page is what feels right.

      • A writer’s instincts should never be discounted. Particularly if we’ve managed to keep the infernal internal editor from making us doubt ourselves, our instincts are usually wiser than our conscious brains.

    • Alicia says:

      Excellent post! I think these elements are so simple yet often overlooked as important. I think people jump into these decisions without giving them much thought (if any at all). Thanks for reminding us that they require thought, too.

      • Writers largely operate on instinct, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s good to try to balance our instincts with a little conscious forethought as well.

        • I agree! I usually have to stop at the 20k mark and ask if instinct was right or if I need to change things.

          • I do the same thing, as a matter of fact. I call it a “fifty-page edit,” and I’ll stop and do it after each of the three major plot points. It does wonders for keeping me oriented in the actual flow of the story.

    • On my last novel I changed both the POV *and* tense, *twice* before it felt right. The amount of time required by revisions convinced me to pre-think more carefully on the next one. But it was difficult to know which would be the most effective until the story was well underway.

      • I had to change tense on a recent WIP. Once you’ve done that once, you definitely have incentive to make better decisions upfront next time.

    • Thanks so much for having me today, Mary and Vinita!

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