Award-winning playwright and fiction author, Christopher Mlalazi, shares his unique approach to writing a novel and making sure he reaches that last page.

It is easy to say I want to write a novel, but actually doing so, especially for writers who are still starting out with the craft, is a different ‘story’ altogether.

The problem – Your idea won’t stretch into a novel

Sometimes you have this amazing sounding idea that you think you can stretch into a ‘thick’ novel, but when you sit down and work up the first two or three chapters, it suddenly fizzles out.

Instead of a novel length idea, it begins to feel more like a sucked out and dry peach seed – you can’t crack the seed open to let the seedling grow. You have a short story which feels incomplete, but is not willing to become anything else.

The challenge always is; you have the core idea, but on its own, it only fits onto one page, or even a single paragraph.

And so then, the big question – how can that core idea stretch out into the novel-length work that can earn the aspiring writer the elation of seeing a creation of their imagination hit the bookshelves?

And so then, the big question – how can that core idea stretch out into the novel-length work that can earn the aspiring writer the elation of seeing a creation of their imagination hit the bookshelves?

The simple answer is stop trying to write a novel. When you start off, don’t even think about the the word novel, or visualize how thick your book will be when it’s done.

Start with three chapters

My aim when I start a novel project is to write three chapters. Just three chapters. I’m not concerned at first with how long it will be, how many chapters, plot, etc. I just want to spit out three chapters. Stick with me. There’s a method to the madness.

Here’s how it works.

I usually kick off my stories with a faint idea.  I might have a theme; e.g. I want to write a scary ghost story in the horror genre about something that is haunting people in the township, and based on a story I heard at the beer garden, but I don’t have a kick off point.

With every action there is a counteraction. That is the principle I go by.  Create an action, then the counteraction, and see if that will take you into another action, and on and on.

This is where the ‘faint idea’ strategy pops in.  I have an idea what this ‘ghost’ looks like based on my own understanding of how they manifest themselves.  And then so what?

The trick for the three chapter strategy is to just start writing – choose a character, and imagine, for instance, them encountering this ghost on the street, and the reaction that they might possibly have at seeing it.  With every action there is a counteraction. That is the principle I go by.  Create an action, then the counteraction, and see if that will take you into another action, and on and on.  That keeps the keyboard keys flying, the story line progressing, and gets us closer to our three chapter mark.

I have to keep on writing until I get them.  If they don’t come immediately, I have to step back from the manuscript and let my imagination fly without putting anything on paper. The mind will always come up with something. It could be that what is stopping me is that I created an action whose counteraction is not leading to a progression. So I have to think out of the box and think of alternative actions or incidents. An idea might sound good, but if it does not work, I have to ditch it and think of another one.

Once I manage to get the first three chapters, I now have the core of what will become my story. Like a pebble in a slingshot.

A slingshot poised to fire | Writing a novel - the Three Chapter Slingshot Method

Important points to remember

In order for this method of writing a novel to work, you need to remember the following:

  1. Start with three chapters
    Focus first on writing three chapters. Don’t think about where the bigger story is going. Use the initial spark of your story idea to set this in motion. 
  2. Put the big picture together
    Once you have your three chapters, use them to understand who your characters need to be to drive the story forward. Ditto for setting and other aspects of the story.
  3. There are little pictures too
    Subplots keep your story alive and add meaning to the main plot. They also help drive the story forward.
  4. Now write your novel
    If you do part one and two well, you will have enough fuel to not only start you writing your novel, but to keep you going till the end of your manuscript. But you have to write. At this first stage, don’t edit, don’t overthink. Just write.

Dig into the three chapters and let them guide you

From this core, I will establish who my main characters are. Who will be the protagonist and the villain? What are the quests of the main characters? Note, I did not even worry about a protagonist when I started writing. Many times, the protagonist reveals themselves in the unraveling of the story.

The core also gives me a good idea of what the setting of the novel must be for it to work, what the main story line will be, etc. I rework these three chapters over and over until they have given me these things. I do not even consider going on with the story until those three chapters have delivered the goods.

Establish an emotional bond

Most importantly, I must bond emotionally with this story environment that I have just created. Does it move me? Do the characters, even at this stage where they are not fully developed, make me feel things? Excitement? Anger? Hope? Fear? The emotional bond is the magic dust that will ensure that these characters come to life—both for me the creator, and the envisaged future reader.

The emotional bond is the magic dust that will ensure that these characters come to life—both for me the creator, and the envisaged future reader.

This process of continuously iterating these first three chapters is akin to someone whirling a pebble in our slingshot, or depending on the sort of slingshot you fancy, pulling it back towards you. You whirl or pull it to such an extent that when you let go, it launches on a trajectory with so much momentum that it is hard to stop it.

Fire the slingshot

If I do those first first three chapters right and let them guide the process of character creation, creation of initial plotlines, and setting, then by the time I’m done, I’m itching, trembling even, to launch further into manuscript. I am now ready to start writing my novel. I have become that pebble whizzing through the air.

Keep the pebble flying, now write your novel

The complete draft from that point is written as fast as I can. I do not look back to make any corrections. I might pause to align something here and there, or to check on names and other facts. Momentum is key here. I try as much as I can to write on without any corrections of spelling, grammar, and repetitions. This will come later when I start revising. In creative writing manuals this is called the ‘vomiting’ stage of writing a novel, where you get it all out.

The complete draft from that point is written as fast as I can, and without looking back to make any corrections…. This will come later when I start revising.

Progressing into the complete draft comes with its own challenges. Sometimes you don’t know where the story is taking you to, especially if you start with a vague idea. That should not worry you much, just keep writing.

The general outline of the plot is that good wins over evil at the end of the story. Or opposing forces must reconcile (think romance).

If your plot is of the ‘good wins over evil’ type at the resolution, that on its own cannot meet the eighty thousand word count that publishers consider as a respectable sized novel manuscript.

The power of the subplot

This is where subplotting comes in. Subplots are the ‘fillers’ that will stretch the story line, like little jet engines for your pebble.

Character A wants to expose the evil machinations of Character B. Meanwhile, as we see Character A going about his plan on how he/she can achieve this, we dig deeper into their life and investigate their relationships with friends, family, or any other dimension that also has conflict.

A slingshot poised to fire | Writing a novel - the Three Chapter Slingshot Method

Subplot Example

An example of a subplot in my ghost story above would be something like this:

Themba (the protagonist) is a sangoma (i.e. he has powers of healing and divination). He has been contracted to tame a very troublesome ghost in the township, and has acquired the most powerful juju for that. 

As he is on his way there, he gets a call. His wife is on the line. She heard that he has a girlfriend and she is on her way to confront this supposed mistress of his. She wants him to come there to witness it. 

This ties in nicely with the main plot because here is this supposedly super powerful diviner and healer, but he still has to deal with everyday things like relationships.

How does he get out of this jam? Will his knowledge of magic help him with that? Something like this can also be used to build the suspense of the main plotline because he is mid-exorcizing this ghost but now has to stop and deal with his domestic issues. What’s happening with the ghost in the meantime? What’s happening with his reputation as a man of magic?

When writing a novel, subplots must be established carefully. As their name suggests, they are sub to the main plot. They run along with it, but at a lower level.  They must also not distract from the main plot but must help move it along in some way, even if it’s subtle. Your reader is intelligent and will pick up the parallels, contrasts, and juxtapositions.

The pebble must find its target. Sit down and write

Even if you have all this in place, if you do not put your behind down onto a chair and do the time, you will not finish your book. Sit down and write. The pebble cannot land until it has struck its target.

Even if you have all this in place, if you do not put your behind down onto a chair and do the time, you will not finish your book. Sit down and write.

If you did the first part well; the three chapter exercise, you will find you have enough momentum to see you through to the end of the story.

Eventually, with a carefully maintained main plot and its subplots, and consistent writing, you will arrive at the promised land; the end of the story.

There you have it; three chapters, a slingshot – and a few jet engines. All the best!

INFOGRAPHIC: Write a novel using Christopher Mlalazi's Three Chapter Slingshot Method - Valley of Writers

Need help writing your novel? Check out some of the plotting, character development, and writing tools in our Links for Writers section.

Christopher Mlalazi
Author: Christopher Mlalazi

Christopher Mlalazi is the author of the three novels, 'Running With Mother' (2012) which has been translated into German, Italian, and Spanish, 'They Are Coming' (2014), 'The Border Jumper' (2019) , and of the short story collection, 'Dancing With Life: Tales From the Township' (2008). He is the co-winner of the 2008 Oxfam/Novib PEN Freedom of Expression Award for the play The Crocodile Of Zambezi, and an alumni of the Caine Prize Workshop, Iowa Writers Program (IWP), Feuchtwanger fellow(USA), Nordik-Africa Institute(Sweden), Hannah-Ardent Scholarship(Germany), Casa Refugio(Mexico City). His forthcoming speculative fiction novel, LANGABI, will be published by Jacana Media(South Africa) at the end of 2022.

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Gene White

This is genius. Christopher, you have broken it down so well. I feel motivated again to go back to my novel. The problem is I haven’t known what to focus on. I was just writing and writing and got stuck. Thank you for this! Lifesaver!

Candice May

Focus on three chapters. Great advice! This is like a genius combination of the “pantser” and “planner” ways of approaching a novel! The best of both worlds. Absolutely genius! Do you have a suggestion on how to come up with really good subplots? How do you know that a subplot will help carry the story and not distract from it?

Sipho

Thank you for sharing your method Chris. This is a godsend. I’m going to try this for the book I’m writing right now. Seems like such common sense that before you do a lot of planning you see if you even have a story. This approach takes care of that. I like! I like! I like!