In my experience, writers massively underestimate the danger of over-complexity in their novel projects. People don't realise how overwhelming it can get to manage multiple protagonists, multiple locations…

This is why I strongly advise you to write a four or five "one" novel for this course. 

It's not that a "five one" novel is better. 

But they are easier to plan, write, and finish.

It's always possible to write a sequel to a popular novel, and include the things you originally planned for book one.  

Use this worksheet to calculate your ones.

PS Credit to Clay Collins for the idea of "five ones." I stole it from his business talk and adapted it for fiction writing.

  • Hi Daniel,
    I fully appreciate the practicalities of the five ones – makes perfect sense. However: in the novel I’m developing, the plot arises from a complex crime that took place twenty years ago.

    The protagonist, the daughter of one of those involved in the crime, is the one living through the events that happen in the present. I had considered dual POV characters to allow the father to narrate past events, but that sounds like it could end up being four ‘twos’ and one ‘one’ (the main mystery). His younger character/actions/responses etc are integral to understanding and solving the mystery.

    Any suggestions on how to think about structure in a novel like this?

    • Hi Lin,

      This is a great question. My thought is that a range of options could work. If you pick the dual POVs, just be aware that you are taking on a lot and try to keep the book streamlined, focused on the mystery, with a limited number of supporting characters in both timelines.

      Now I’m going to move beyond your question a little and talk as the creator of the course. With that hat on, I would add, however — I hope it is okay to say this, and remember all I know about your story is the few sentences you shared, so take this with a pinch of salt: I get a little nervous when writers say they need a second POV / timeline to help explain or help readers “understand” a mystery. I don’t really think we should focus on helping a reader understand the context or situation of our story.

      Rather, our goal is to give the reader the experience of someone discovering, resisting, and then solving a mystery. That’s the daughter. If something remains opaque to her, that’s fine. It’s part of the experience.

      If the father’s full POV is available to us whenever the writer desires to switch to him, then either this is because he has left behind letters, blogs, a diary etc that the daughter can find and read (great!), or, alternatively, because the uncovering of the mystery isn’t actually centred on the daughter at all — the writer will present key elements to us directly by shifting POV (not so great in my opinion…)

      E.g. she has a question in chapter one; we see the answer in chapter two — but she hasn’t come with us or learned it — we’ve just switched back in time to show the reader what happened.

      This is not what I would usually recommend — in that case, I would probably advise removing the daughter and design a different kind of story (historical thriller more than mystery??) purely around the father.

  • Hi Daniel,
    I feel like I have four ones, but I don’t have a single, continuous duration. And maybe that’s okay! But maybe I should rethink and make it continuous, so I’d like to get your thoughts. My novel is set in mid-19th century Ireland. The “true” (aka local legend, so may or may not have a kernel of truth to it) detail that started me on this journey is about a woman during the Great Hunger. But I don’t want her story to be all about the Famine–it’s a character-driven story with strong coming-of-age elements and I don’t want it to become all about the trauma of the times. I’ve been laying this out in two parts–one a year or two before the Famine, one a year or two into the Famine. So she’s on one path, and building a set of skills and a life, and then the Famine interrupts everything and gives her a new use for those skills and a new purpose for her life. Does this seem feasible, and an okay time to only have four ones?

    • Hi Sarita,

      Just to say the obvious first: the five ones are, of course, intended purely as a craft guideline. Lots of great novels do not have five ones. And a “four ones” novel is definitely feasible, for sure. As you say, it’s all about one character’s life — just over a longer time period than might be the standard choice.

      My real question is a bigger one, about the plot. The long duration isn’t really an issue in itself, but rather what it suggests to me about the story’s structure. It’s (of course) fine to tell a coming of age story, and a character-driven story, but I am still left wondering what the *story* is in this novel. If the story is “a character with special skills must use them to survive a famine” — then the story begins with the famine, not with the skills, I would suggest. I’m just going off what you shared, of course, but I’m not completely sure if you need the pre-famine section.

      To me, the story seems to begin with the arrival of the famine. That’s where the character is confronted with new challenges and is forced to adapt and change. That’s when the dramatic question seems to be posed: “Can this character adapt to an awful new reality?”

      How she developed those skills seems interesting, but it also seems a little like backstory. I don’t know if you need to devote a lot of the book to that process. Could you have a prologue where her old life and learning process, prior to the pandemic, was presented quickly, and where society seems on average to be a survivable, thriving place (even if she is struggling) — and then chapter one begins with horrible scenes of suffering?

      Prologue: “For a woman with no family or prospects, ___ had developed a reliable approach to paying her rent each month. Every few weeks, she…

      That night, she walked among the market as people bought and sold… Everywhere someone was heading home with food for the table… But she had come there with a different purpose…”

      The point is just to show:

      1. What she knows and how she puts it to use
      2. What society was like pre-famine

      Could all that be shown in a prologue or opening “frame narrative”?

  • Hi Daniel,
    I enjoyed the Rule of Five Ones lesson. I’m looking forward to incorporating all of them into my next story. I have a question for you – I have been obsessed with an old, now-defunct boarding school in Florida for years. The family who ran it was bizarre. My grandfather went there as a child and was mistreated, as were many others. I want to write a story based on fact but in a fictional way. Do you have any suggestions that would help me achieve this? I appreciate any help you can provide. Thank you.

  • If you’ve already planned a novel that doesn’t have all five ones, you can make it a manageable project by plotting an outline as you go and breaking it into sections for each act and point of view. If you have a final word count goal you can calculate how long each section needs to be. That’s what worked for me while writing a draft with multiple settings and points of view, and enabled me to finish it in six months.
    Writing the sequel is much easier, now that I’ve established the characters and the setting. So if you’re planning a series, setting your books in the same world will save you time and make the task more manageable. You can spread POVs and settings across different books, and sticking to the five ones will streamline the process.

  • The handout was helpful: graphics make things clearer for me.

    Question on setting: if a scene happens in 1 place in the town, Valleyview, and another scene happens in another place in Valleyview, is that considered 2 settings or 1??? Please help me understand the math 🙂

  • Hi Daniel, re 5 ones, I’ve already got most of my novel written but this course is helping me tighten it up plot wise. It is however structurally complex in the sense that it takes place in two summers 20 years apart – the first when the main protagonist falls in love, the second when she’s planning to leave him. I’ve changed my mind a lot about which time frame to start in and whether or how to interleave. In a sense they are two discreet stories about the same characters, but at present I have an opening section (first chap or prologue?) from the later story, with the P in conflict having left home but not yet left the country (his not hers). Then I tell most of the early story with its own narrative arc which ends badly, then there’s how they got together again a year later, then the story of why she feels she has to leave, when really it’s a love story overcoming obstacles inner and outer with a happy ending.Now I realise there are either two time frames and a transition period, part of which is in flashbacks, part in a diary. No, I haven’t made it easy for myself, that’s why I’m still working on it after 4 years, but is it viable? Suggestions please!

    • Hi Cora, this sounds like a story that really could work well but it seems to have acquired a lot of extra elements that are making things complicated. That’s what the Five Ones are meant to tell you — not that you cannot have two timelines, but that if you do, you likely need to simplify in other areas because two timelines is already complex enough.

      To me, one option would be to have the two timelines, but to make that the whole novel. No diary, no flashbacks. She is meeting him in year one and leaving him in year twenty. Chapter one is in year twenty; chapter two is in year one; chapter three goes back to year one.

      If I have understood you correctly, what I like about this concept is how far apart in years they are. Many marriages fail before the 20 year mark, so if this were simply an unstable relationship, they would have just broken up before then. Something new has happened for her to want out, 20 years in — the later story sounds like it really could be a story.

      Now… what follows might be trickier to work out… this is more of a challenging question… you tell me… when I hear about a writer surrounding a story (“a young woman meets a man in a foreign country”) with a second timeline, flashbacks, diary entries… then I start to worry that really, this extra content is just obscuring the story, like the “fake plot” I talk about in this course. We sometimes aren’t sure how to tell the story so we add all these parallel layers in.

      Of course — this is just a question. I’m just going on what you wrote — curious what you think!

  • Hi Daniel,
    This lesson has made me rethink what I have planned out so far. As you pointed out in the video, some writers spend months/years trying to finish a novel only to get mired down. This has been me, for sure. This time, as I start again, I have lucked out in finding your course as I am in the early stages, and can easily change and simplify my premise and idea so far. I’d originally thought I’d have the story take place over one year, but after your advice here, I am seriously wanting to shorten this. Also, I had originally planned two protagonists, but I’m going to rewrite my initial premise and make it one instead. With all this in mind, could you suggest some examples of a novel or two that use all five ones? I’d particularly like to see a young adult novel or two if you have any that come to mind. Thank you for this fantastic information!

    • I’d like to study some suggested texts, too. Thanks for asking.

  • Quick question: In the Pre-writing Manual you include “one desire – the character wants one thing” instead of “one frame.” Should we ignore the “one desire” then? I was wondering how that would fit with the idea of a Project, where the character starts out wanting one thing and then shifts to something else.

    • Yes that is an older version of the five ones — I will edit it. I found the contradiction between what I was trying to say here and the idea of the project to be too confusing.

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