How to plan a novel

‘But I don’t need to plan!’… we’ll wait for you to realise your horrible mistake.

Planning is compulsory. Without a clear plan plots, can disappear and reappear a character personality will change at random at most important the blessed three act structure will be a mess. So no ‘I can do better without plans,’ or ‘I know the entire story so I’ll just skip planning. No, you don’t, sit down and listen.

Or read, given this is a blog but the phrase doesn’t sound as good so shut up.

Before we get into this I probably should say I plan WAY too much like…if I don’t know how many hairs are on a character’s face I feel uncomfortable writing about them. It’s strange I know but it’s kind of my disclaimer for don’t do everything I’m about to list…please, for your sake.

So, where to start? What’s the story? Good question! Usually I start brainstorming ideas and working towards creating a one sentence summary about your story. Essentially, the one sentence summary is not necessarily the entire story in one sentence more a vague idea for the driving point of the story.

For example:

  • A boy wizard is sent to a wizarding school and hunted down by the most powerful wizard alive.
  • A teenager girl is sent to fight to the death for the entertainment of the rich.
  • A politician with a transgender mistress tries to decide on which is more important; his public image and career or his lover.

But if you are literally starting from scratch then brainstorming anything and everything is the first thing you need to do. Even if it sounds stupid. Even if you’ll never use it you need to get something down. And hey, these notes will probably form the basis of your story so keep them handy!

Now we move on to planning technique. I prefer to use the snowflake method, though I know a lot of people like a plot backwards so I’ll also talk about that for a second. Plotting backwards means starting with the conflict then working out the resolution and then planning each event back from there. I have heard that this can work but I just don’t see from you can do this without having the rewrite the plot several times over afterwards. So, I prefer the snowflake method.

The snow flake method is about expanding in detail about your storyline in small chunks going between expanding on the story and expanding on the characters.

  1. We start out with our one sentence summary which we’ve already discussed. We then move onto describing the story by expanding the sentence about your story you have written into about five sentences, aiming to write one or two for each act of your story, following the three-act structure.

(This means writing the beginning to the story where you introduce the characters and main conflicts. The middle act should normally be where you develop the themes of your story and get into the conflicts before the final act where the climax and resolution takes place.)

  1. Now we finally move on to writing about the characters. you may still not have a clear idea about who your characters are but this is where you should start to work out those details. Of course, you can come back later to change anything. For each major character write bullet points about their purpose in the story:
  • name
  • storyline – what part will they play in the plot
  • goal – what do they want
  • motivation – why do they want it
  • conflict – what stops them from getting it
  • epiphany – what will they learn or how will they change
  • Any additional information – anything you think is going to be important to the character’s arc or life, make sure to write it down!

(At this stage you can also include anything about their backstory and storyline in the book to help develop them further.)

  1. Now we’ve got the base characters, go back to the story summary paragraph and expand on it further until it roughly is one page long which of course will still only be the barebones of the story but now you can go into more detail and focus on the characters and what they individual achieve in the story.
  2. It’s here I’ll start using character sheets to help flesh out my characters. This is a questionnaire of sorts about everything possible about your characters.

This is the character-outline I use.

Obviously, you don’t need to have an answer for every question and they can be as simple as yes or no, but I feel it’s useful to use it for every character who has the smallest speaking role.

And this flipflopping method is something I use until I’m fully satisfied I know my characters as well as my closest friends and the story is meticulously detailed to the point I know the exact times each of the tiniest event happens. At this point I will normally a separate out my story essay (which it practically is at this point) into scenes. I find this incredibly useful when writing from several different POVs and color-coding accordingly. Of course, these scenes themselves also need to be fleshed out.

When writing, scenes think about:

  • What characters are in the scene?
  • Who is the viewpoint character/s?
  • Where does the scene happen?
  • What happens?
  • What does the scene accomplish in the novel?

Make sure these scenes are in the right order and make sense when all placed together.

Now, of course, you’re finished and can immediately jump into writing, right?

Nope!

We’re not done yet, while the planning maybe finished, we haven’t even started our research. You may believe that you don’t need to research anything, possible because it’s a fantasy or set in the future. But what of clothes to your character’s wear? What are their fighting styles? What exactly is the science around that laser gun you really want to write about? What kind of architect do your cities have? What kind of culture is closest to that in your book? Sure, these questions maybe irreverent and insignificant and perhaps they are in your story but at least about them.

And there you have it (hopefully) that’s how to plan story. Obviously, this maybe too detailed for you or not detailed enough so it’s important to develop your own style.

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