Recipe for a Best-Selling Novel

PCWN is excited to welcome guest writer and editor 
to talk about how to write a best-selling novel. 
Take it away, Debra!

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Many writers struggle with plot, including me. We envision the end product and wonder how we’re going to get there. But much like a master chef preparing a three-course meal, our work has basic elements. The chef has meat, veggies, dairy, and spices. He combines these to create a delectable, unforgettable dish.
The writer has plot, characters, goals, conflict, and setbacks, and blends them to create a riveting (best-selling, we hope) novel. At its very basic, plot is characters attempting to reach goals, but who meet with conflict and setbacks along the way.
Whether you are a writer who works with or without an outline, if these elements are missing from your story, you don’t have a story. So let’s look at how these elements mix together to create a novel.

Characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, supporting characters, and minor characters.
Goals: The protagonist has a goal. The antagonist has a goal, which must somehow oppose the protagonist’s goal.
Conflict: The primary conflict of your story is the opposing goals of the protagonist and antagonist.
Setbacks happen when a character fails to meet a step in her plan to reach her goal.

These are the foundational elements you blend together as your create your story.
Marta wants to open a strip mall (story goal) and decides her first step is to procure investment capital (the scene goal). She arranges a meeting with four bank managers and presents her idea and business plan, then opens the floor to questions.
Each banker tosses out objection after objection that Marta attempts to answer (the conflict).
Finally, each banker says no, and the meeting ends. Marta has failed to meet her goal (setback).

Now Build Your Story Scene by Scene
A scene is a mini plot. The character(s) has a goal, but meets with conflict and setbacks, only a smaller scale.
Scenes require action, and action comes through your character’s attempts to meet her ultimate goal (aka objective). A setback occurs when the conflict encountered obstructs the character’s immediate goal (scene goal).
Moving from scene to scene can be accomplished with as simple a statement as “Later that day...” However, there are times when you want to provide your reader with more. Jack Bickham, in his book Scene and Structure, calls it sequel.
A sequel begins when a scene ends (not always, but usually), and like scenes, a sequel has specific elements. The sequel allows you to show your character’s emotions and thoughts as she analyzes her dilemma, makes a decision about her next step, and then takes action.
The elements of sequel—emotion, thought, decision, action—happen in that order. Why? Because that is the sequence of normal human response to trouble. (Drat, there are exceptions to rule. Read Bickham’s book to gain a command of sequel.)

When we last saw Marta, she had attempted to garner investment capital for her strip mall, but failed. Time to pull out some seasoning: the sequel.
Marta stood stoically as she watched her investment capital file out of the conference room door one by one. She waited until they had exited the building before she slammed her office door, cursed to the empty air and plopped down in a chair. How could I have so misjudged their response? Did I fail to show how this orphanage will fatten their coffers? She took several deep breaths in an effort to calm her emotions and mind.
She grabbed a piece of paper and jotted down the bankers’ objections while they were still fresh in her mind. She scanned her presentation again. Maybe my numbers are too high, but this is still a good investment. Time for Plan B.
Next she opened her “Investors” Excel file and entered “no” in the appropriate column next to each banker’s name. She scanned the document for regional business owners who could expand their business into the community, then reached for the phone.
This brief exchange shows Marta’s emotions and thoughts, her decision about the situation, and her renewed action toward her goal.

Let’s connect the pieces of plot and scene and sequel.
Plot at its most basic level is your lead character’s goal and the journey to reach that goal. That journey is played out in the scenes and sequels of your story.
Scenes show the reader the individual steps your character takes to reach his or her goal and the setbacks along the way. Sequels bridge your scenes and present the character’s reaction—emotions and thoughts—to the setbacks, and his or her subsequent decisions and renewed action toward the final goal.
A chef may add flavor by wrapping bacon around a filet mignon. The writer adds flavor by using active verbs, appealing to the five human senses, and utilizing other story elements such as dialogue, pacing, beats, tension, and suspense.

In your WIP, can you identify:
~ The beginning, middle, and end of each scene?
~ How each scene moves your plot forward?
~ Can you identify your sequels?
~ How do your sequels move your plot forward?

For practice, look for the scenes and sequels in your favorite novels.

Does some aspect of your WIP have you stumped? Share in the comments below. 

Debra L. Butterfield is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. Her work appears in the Miracles and Moments of Grace: Inspiring Stories of Survival (releasing 2014), 2014 Penned from the Heart, and The Benefit Package. Her articles have appeared in Live magazine,, The Vision, Susie, and On Course online. Her editorial credits include Yossel the Dreamer, Where Hope Starts, and This I Know. Visit her blog at


  1. Great post! Thanks for all the valuable insights.

    1. Hi, Julie! I'm so glad this was helpful for you! Thanks so much for stopping by and we hope you come again! :D

    2. Julie, glad you liked the post. As a contributor to the PCWN blog, my future posts will include more detail on each of this ingredients.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Great post Deb. We need to go over your recipe at writers guild.

    1. Since tomorrow is a writer's workshop, it would be a good time to use it, even though I can't be there.

    2. Thanks for these essential steps, Debra!

    3. You're welcome, Buffy. Glad it was helpful.

  4. Great post Deb. We need to go over your recipe at writers guild.

  5. Great article. I will print this, and keep on hand as I'm writing my novella, Lady on the Run.