After years of starting a novel and failing miserably, I’m finally making progress! I’m getting to know who my characters are and what makes them tick. Below are the steps I took to create my novel and finally get beyond Chapter 1.

  1. Write down where you love to hang out and where, specifically. Then create two characters who have issues with each other and are trying to settle them. These characters could be workers, writers, runners, cyclists, sweethearts, couples, midgets, acrobats, old, young, or somewhere in between. The important thing is to have two opposing characters. One of them is your main character.
  2. Think about who those characters are and what they’re doing in that location. Did they meet accidentally? Did one of them get hurt? Is one of them chasing the other, and if so, why? Are they just talking and find that their conversation is suddenly interrupted? Why? Do they intend to fight? Make up? Commit a crime? Meet someone? Trap someone? Write a page that answers these questions in more detail.
  3. Answer the question: What happens next?
  4. See another person listening or reading your story and quickly tell them what happened next. Make up anything and jot it down. Don’t worry about how logical or illogical it is. Decide how you would have handled a given situation and what would have happened as a result. Jot it down. If the third event happens after the second, number each event, using 2 and 3 respectively.
  5. Keep writing and numbering events as they occur to you. Don’t edit anything now. Save this draft for tomorrow.
  6. You may find that more details about your characters and possible events keep occurring to you. Jot those things down immediately.
  7. DAY TWO: Review your draft by checking the sequence of events. Is there anything that needs further clarification or explanation? Write that explanation down. If you’re using pen and paper, draw a circle around that explanation and a line from that circle to the place where it is needed in your outline.
  8. Keep expanding your outline by using separate sheets of paper to write down your characters’ backgrounds, the conflict between them, and all of the whys and wherefores. DO NOT RUSH THIS PROCESS! Really get to know your characters and who they are and how they reached this point. Use this time to research relevant settings, occupations, and jot down bits of relevant dialogue as it occurs to you.

Finally, wait until the next day to review and revise the sequence of events in your outline. Feel free to add details or delete stuff that doesn’t contribute to your plot. This will take time, but will help you to avoid scrapping your initial efforts to get that novel started. You will find that over time, everything works out and saves you huge amounts of time. For example, you won’t have to waste time writing chapters that don’t help to advance your plot.

Dorothy Zjawin has authored a number of Instructor articles that inspired her published book, Teaching Ideas for the Come-Alive Classroom (Parker/Prentice-Hall) and is working on a novel. For practical ideas on writing fiction and nonfiction, visit her blog at