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Write Right: Novel Writing for Beginners

In the last Write Right blog, I asked you three questions:

  1. Who is your protagonist?

  2. What trouble is she or he facing?

  3. Where does the story take place?

Since we looked at the first question last time, it's time to consider the next steps on your novel-writing journey—your story conflict and setting.


Without a substantial problem in your book—the events will lead nowhere, offering little interest. Think of your favourite book. Why is it your favourite? What is the main problem in it? Chances are you couldn’t put the book down until you read how the problem was solved. The book was that gripping.

With the overarching problem in mind, picture your book as a series of causes and effects or actions and reactions. Your book needs both Action—which is plot or events—and Reaction to these events—which is emotion—to increase dramatic potential and sustain a reader’s interest.

The plot more than the emotion dominates action-packed books (or movies) such as Stranger Things (When a young boy disappears, his mother, a police chief, and his friends must confront terrifying forces to get him back); on the other hand, the emotion is stronger in books such as Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook. The book is more about Allie Nelson and Noah Calhoun’s enduring love, spanning decades, than the day-to-day events taking place in their lives in New Bern, North Carolina.

By balancing your story’s action and reaction, you can affect its pace. With action, the story speeds up, while with reaction the story slows down. Readers need a chance to press pause, which they’ll get when the pace decelerates. For example, if your story is full of car chases but has scant character development, think of how exhausting it would be to read.

Write Right Task 3

In one sentence, describe the main problem in your favourite book.

In my favourite book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the problem is racism: a white lawyer, living in a bigoted US town in the thirties, defends a Black man accused of rape.

Describe how your protagonist solves the story problem in your book.

The Setting

Choose your setting carefully before writing your novel, as you can pull from the setting to develop plot, mood, backstories, and more.

Consider how you could advance the plot from the following setting:

Under the sunny sky, you are sitting in a rowboat tucked in a cove on a quiet lake, fishing, when the wind picks up as dark clouds move overhead. As the waves swell, the boat heads towards the open water. Despite your family’s warning to take a lifejacket with you, you’ve left it behind. As you paddle feverishly against the current, a wave tosses the boat in the air, flipping it on its side.

Author Linwood Barclay, a master of suspense, has developed plot, mood, and suspense using this setting in A Tap on the Window:

“Can you swim?”

“Man, you’re crazy! Let me go!”

“Because even if you can, I don’t like your chances. We’re so close to the falls, the current’s unbelievably fierce. Before you know it, you’re swept over. And it’s a long way down.”

“Let me go!”

“You might grab onto one of the rocks just before the top, but the thing is, if you hit one, it’ll probably kill you. Like driving into a wall at a hundred miles per hour. If you were in a barrel, like some of those daredevils who’ve tried going over in one, you might have one chance in a hundred, which is pretty good odds, when you think about it.”

“I’m tellin’ you, mister, swear to God, it wasn’t me.”

“I don’t believe you. But if you’re honest with me, if you admit what you did, I won’t throw you over.”

“It wasn’t me! I swear!”

“If it wasn’t you, who was it?”

“I don’t know! If I had a name I’d give it to you. Please, please, I’m begging you, man.”

“You know what I think? I think when you go over, it’ll feel like flying.

(Linwood Barclay, A Tap On The Window, Canada: Double Day, 3)

Author Lisa Scottoline, also a master of the nail-biting book, depicts a harmonious scene in the following setting:

Christine followed Marcus inside the house, slid her laptop from her quilted tote, left her purse on the chair, and kicked off her flats. Her nausea had abated slightly, and the cool of the house came as a relief. They kept the central air on during the day since she’d gotten pregnant, and it was worth the money. Marcus went ahead of her into the kitchen, and she padded after him across the hardwood floor, patting their dog Murphy on the head when he came to greet them, wagging his thick comma of a tail. Murphy was a chubby yellow Lab, still hyperactive at six years old, so they’d finally given up waiting for him to mellow. His nature was gentle enough to ignore their cranky orange tabby Marmalade, nicknamed Lady, which they had rescued back in the days when they were practicing for the kids they couldn’t have.

(Lisa Scottoline, Most Wanted, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 23)

By using your senses, you can enhance the realism in your setting. When you imagine entering your favourite restaurant, what do you hear? What do you smell?

If I were to wander into my favourite diner, I’d hear plates and cutlery clinking as the waitstaff clears the countertop and tables and dumps items into bins. I’d smell roasted coffee beans—strong and fresh, they instantly remind me of sunny mornings after a good night sleep.

Often when imagining a scene, or place myself somewhere in reality, I shut my eyes. When I don’t rely on my sight, my other senses are heightened and then dominate my descriptions. The scenes become less trite.

While imagining the aftermath of a summer thunderstorm, I smell the roses that climb the trellis by my porch when I crack open a window from inside the house. The air is light, the sun is warm, not hot, as it pours onto the hardwood and across my bare feet.

Write Right Task 4

Use your senses to describe a can of pop you pulled from the fridge.

With your eyes shut (wear a blindfold to keep them shut), describe how the can feels? Is it sweating from the condensation in the air? Pull the tab off the top, and what do you hear? Take a sip, and what does it taste like?

Does the taste remind you of anything?

Your senses will help you to develop a backstory, a character, a plot, and more. You might be surprised!

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