How to plan a novel in Milanote
Follow this step-by-step guide to learn the modern process of planning a novel in Milanote, a free tool used by top creatives.
Starting a novel can be an exciting but daunting experience. It's the beginning of the creative process—where your mind is overflowing with ideas, inspiration, and plans. This guide will help you organize everything in one place so you can begin writing with confidence. You'll brainstorm ideas, collect inspiration, research your topic, dream up unique characters and create an outline for your story. At the end you'll have a solid foundation that will speed up the entire writing process.
In this guide you'll learn how to plan and organize your novel...
- 1. Set up your plan Create a place to plan your novel
- 2. Research Collect articles and data
- 3. Brainstorm Generate ideas & characters
- 4. Moodboard Organize inspiration & references
- 5. Outline Map out the sequence of events
- 6. Character profile Create vivid, believable characters
1. Set up your plan
Traditionally, your ideas and plans might be scattered across various sticky notes, to-do lists, spreadsheets, and documents, making it hard to keep track of everything and get a bird's-eye view of your project. A central project plan combines these artifacts into one easy-to-access place. It will evolve over the lifespan of your novel but usually includes:
- Inspiration and moodboards
- Character profiles
- To-do lists
- Comments and feedback from others
Create a new board to plan your novel.
Create a new board
Drag a board out from the toolbar. Give it a name, then double click to open it.
Choose the Novel Plan template.
Choose a template
Each new board gives you the options to start with a beautiful template.
Whether you're writing a sci-fi thriller or historical fiction, research is a crucial step in the early writing process. It's a springboard for new ideas and can add substance and authenticity to your story. As author Robert McKee says "when you do enough research, the story almost writes itself. Lines of development spring loose and you'll have choices galore." When you bring your research into one place and see things side-by-side, new ideas and perspectives start to emerge.
First, open the Research board
You’ll find the board for collecting research on your Novel Plan board. Double click the Research board to open it and get started.
Double click the Research board to open it.
Save links to articles & news
Wikipedia, blogs, and news websites are a goldmine for researchers. It's here you'll find historical events and records, data, and opinions about your topic. We're in the 'collecting' phase so just save links to any relevant information you stumble across.
Drag a link card onto your board to save a website.
Install the Milanote Web Clipper
Save websites and articles straight to your board.
Save content from the web
With the Web Clipper installed, save a website, image or text. Choose the destination in Milanote. Return to your board and find the content in the "Unsorted" column on the right.
Collect video & audio
Video and movie clips can help you understand a mood or feeling in a way that words sometimes can't. Try searching for your topic or era on Vimeo , or Youtube . Podcasts are another great reference. Find conversations about your topic on Spotify or any podcast platform and add them into the mix.
Embed Youtube videos or audio in a board.
Embed Youtube videos or audio tracks in a board
Copy the share link from Youtube, Vimeo, Soundcloud or many other services. Drag a link card onto your board, paste your link and press enter.
Collect important images
Sometimes the quickest way to understand a topic is with an image. They can transport you to another time or place and can help you describe things in much more detail. They're also easier to scan when you return to your research. Try saving images from Google Images , Pinterest , or Milanote's built-in image library.
Use the built-in image library.
Use the built-in image library
Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.
Allow yourself the time to explore every corner of your topic. As author A.S. Byatt says "the more research you do, the more at ease you are in the world you're writing about. It doesn't encumber you, it makes you free".
Collect research on the go
You never know where or when you'll find inspiration—it could strike you in the shower, or as you're strolling the aisles of the grocery store. So make sure you have an easy way to capture things on the go. As creative director Grace Coddington said, "Always keep your eyes open. Keep watching. Because whatever you see can inspire you."
Download the Milanote mobile app
Save photos straight to your Research board.
Take photos on the go
Shoot or upload photos directly to your board. When you return to a bigger screen you'll find them in the "Unsorted" column of the board.
That's a great start!
Research is an ongoing process and you'll probably continue learning about your topic throughout your writing journey. Reference your research as you go to add a unique perspective to your story. Read the full guide on Organizing research for your novel to learn more.
You have an idea for a story. It's just a spark at the moment, but you can't stop thinking about it. Now is the time to harness your creative energy and turn your idea into something real. And brainstorming is the perfect technique for the job.
Brainstorming is a classic creative technique for generating new ideas quickly. You can use it to dream up new characters, settings, or even explore themes you want to include in your book.
First, open the Brainstorming board
You’ll find the board for brainstorming on your Novel Plan board. Double click the Brainstorming board to open it and get started.
Double click the Brainstorming board to open it.
Start with your central topic
What's the central idea or concept for your story? This is your starting point. It might be just a rough idea at the moment or a topic that you want to explore, but this process will help you see how far you can take it. Add a note that describes your concept in 1 to 2 sentences to get started.
Add a note to describe your central idea.
Drag a note card onto your board
Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.
Your initial idea doesn't need to be something groundbreaking, you'll transform it over time. As Steven Spielberg says "All good ideas start out as bad ideas, that's why it takes so long."
Add as many ideas as you can
Now it's time to get creative. Start adding any ideas that relate to your main concept. Think about different parts of your story, locations, characters, or even the history of your topic. Explore every thread until you fill the board. Don't worry about evaluating your ideas yet, that will come later.
Add a note for each idea.
Add inspiring imagery, motion & sound
Sometimes it's easier to communicate an idea with an image or video, especially if it's a mood or style you're trying to express. Gather reference imagery, videos, and sound and add them into the mix. Images can help define things like fashion, character attributes and emotions, scenes, and more.
Use the built-in image library.
Drag images from your computer onto the board.
Upload a image or document
Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.
Finally, organize your ideas into themes
Once you've explored tangents and shared feedback, the next step is to make connections. This is where you see the magic of brainstorming.
Start by grouping similar ideas to uncover patterns in your thinking. Add a title to each group so it's easy to scan. You might find your ideas fall into groups like story, location, characters, or scenes, but there are no rules about how you do it.
You're done brainstorming
Now that your brainstorming session is complete, you have some strong ideas and you should start to see your initial concept coming to life! Remember, just as creativity and inspiration is constantly evolving, so are ideas. Come back and add to the brainstorm when inspiration strikes. Read the full guide on brainstorming ideas for a novel to learn more.
During brainstorming, you imagined the different parts of your story. It's time to start collecting inspiration with a moodboard (or "inspiration" board). It's a technique used by designers, filmmakers, and photographers but works just as well for creative writing.
Moodboards can help you visualize any aspect of your project. You can use them to figure out how a character or location could look. Or they could be centered around the era or the emotion you want to capture. You can create a moodboard for each of these separately or mix them all into one board. There are no strict rules.
First, open the Moodboard
You’ll find the board to make your moodboard on the Novel Plan board. Double click on the Moodboard to open it and start adding your inspiration.
Double click the Moodboard to open it.
Collect existing material
Start by adding any existing material you have—this could include images you've saved to your computer as inspiration. Just drag and drop them onto your board.
Drag files from your computer.
Upload a file or document
Add inspiring imagery.
The imagery you bring into your moodboard is what helps you express the feel of your story. Images can help you define things like tone, emotion, or a feeling you might be struggling to capture as you're writing. Use Milanote's built-in image library or search for visual elements from around the web. Don't worry about organizing the images just yet, that step will come later.
Save images from other websites straight to your board.
Roll over an image (or highlight text), click Save, then choose the destination in Milanote. Return to your board and find the content in the "Unsorted" column on the right.
Transform your board from messy to organized
Once you have all your inspiration in one place, the next step is to arrange your ideas to create the perfect composition. Try combining different elements together. This is where you'll start to see new ideas appear. Perhaps the combination of two unrelated images will trigger an exciting new storyline.
Resize your images to add hierarchy.
Drag the corner of an image to resize it. Double-click the corner to return it to its original size.
Double-click an image and press edit to crop or rotate it.
You’ve finished the moodboard!
Now that your moodboard is complete, you have a powerful visual reference for your story and hopefully a bunch of new ideas. Remember, you can create multiple moodboards to explore different aspects of your story at any time. Read the full guide on making a moodboard to learn more.
Next, we'll start outlining your story.
A novel outline is often described as a roadmap or blueprint for your story. It helps you see the big picture and plan the sequence of scenes, characters, and ideas that will become your novel. It's a simple, flexible technique to help all types of writers stay organized.
This method is perfect for 'visual' writers—those who prefer to see the big picture as a sequence of events. Think of it as the modern, digital equivalent to the corkboard or wall of sticky notes, but much easier to manage.
First, open the Outline board
You’ll find the empty Outline board on the Novel Plan board. Double-click it to start adding the mapping out your story.
Double-click the Outline board to open it.
Map out the key scenes
Start by laying out the major scenes or events you know so far. These might be the key turning points, locations, or plot twists. Don't worry too much about the order or details yet, just get the main parts out of your head. This is a quick flexible way to brainstorm the centerpieces of your story.
Add a Column for each key scene.
Drag a column onto your board
Name it, then drag any relevant notes or images into your column
Add high-level details
Next, add a sentence or a short paragraph for each scene. There are no rules for how much detail to add, do what works best for you. Think about what's being communicated in this scene, the location, and the characters involved. This will help you consider where characters are introduced and how this scene connects with the next one.
Add a note to describe the plot points.
Get the sequence right
Seeing your story at this level lets you make connections between themes and concepts you might otherwise miss if you went straight into writing. Re-read your outline so far. Look for scenes that feel out of place. Perhaps your transitions need some tweaking or a character appears without a proper introduction. Highlight areas that need more work and move scenes or plot points around to get the sequence just right.
Drag plot points around to get the sequence right.
Add imagery or video
While imagery probably won't make an appearance in your novel, this is a great technique for kickstarting new ideas. Experiment by adding images or movie clips that relate to your scenes. If you're the type of writer who creates moodboards, now's the time to see if you've already got imagery that could help evoke the feeling you're trying to capture. Try saving images from Google Images , Pinterest , or Milanote's built-in image library.
Now that you've finished a draft outline, you can start writing, confident that your story has a strong foundation. If you want to learn more about this stage, read the full guide on how to outline a story or start with one of 5 outline templates .
6. Character profile
One of the most integral parts of any story is crafting relatable and vivid characters. As writer Ernest Hemingway said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
The character profile is a popular technique for developing genuine personas for your story. It will help to shape a narrative as well as provide a handy reference point for their personality traits, backstory, goals, flaws, and challenges.
First, open the Character profile board
You’ll find the first character profile board on the Novel Plan board. Double click on the Character board to open it and get started.
Double click the Character profile board to open it.
Start with basic characteristics
A character might start as a bundle of random ideas, traits and plot points from your game concept, so it’s important to bring everything together in one place. You can begin to shape the character and make them original. Consider the emotional connection between your audience and your character, and work towards the desired outcome. You may find that switching the age and gender of a character can lead to very different responses from your reader.
Add notes to describe your character.
Add an image to represent your character.
Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio, and much more.
Build their backstory
Your character's backstory describes the journey they have taken up to this point. It allows you to explore their fears, weaknesses, and motivations and to define their purpose. You can explain the character's methods and evaluations—why they act the way that they do, the choices they make, and how it drives the individual forward. Are they making progress towards their goal, or making things worse?
Add a note to describe their backstory.
Drag a note card into your board
Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left-hand toolbar.
Give them quirks, faults, and flaws
Your character should come from an authentic place. That means that the character probably has some contradictions that make them a little out of the ordinary. If a character is too simplistic, it can feel cliched. Character flaws such as overconfidence, impatience, or recklessness can add new dimensions to a hero and make them feel more relatable.
Add a note to describe their quirks and flaws.
Add visual references & examples
Even if you're writing a novel, visual references and inspiration can help bring your character to life. There are lots of fantastic sites where you can find great visual inspiration for free, like Pinterest or Google Images . You can also create a character moodboard at this stage to help explore all aspects of their appearance. See our guide on creating moodboards for a novel to learn more.
Organise & refine
Once you have everything you need, it's time to organize your content into logical topics. There's no right or wrong way to do this. The goal is to make your character profile easy to scan and reference as you're writing the story.
Use Columns to group related content
Create the rest of your characters
It's important not to fall into the trap of giving just one character too much responsibility for the drama in your story. Work on additional characters that compliment and contrast the traits of your main character. You can repeat the above process to develop a whole cast of characters that help bring your novel to life.
Use the Character Relationship Map template
You're all done!
Hopefully, this guide has helped you stay organized while building a solid foundation for your novel. If you're just starting a new story, use the Novel Plan template below to get set up in minutes.
Start planning your novel
Get all 6 writers templates FREE and start planning in minutes.
Sign up for free with no time limit
How to Plan a Novel: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide
By Jarie Bolander
Download the Math of Storytelling Infographic
Before you can write a novel you need to know how to plan a novel.
Story Grid has many tools that can help you through the process. Follow along with this post as we walk you through it.
Writing a novel can be rewarding and a tremendous amount of fun. It can also be a struggle. For me, I like to avoid struggling by planning my novels so I have an anchor to what my goal for the novel is. I actually do this for all the writing I do.
I like to start with the plan instead of an outline since an outline is more of a micro-level detail and it can be challenging to know all the details before you start writing.
Here are the 9 steps to plan your novel:
- Brainstorm Things to Write About
- Figure Out the Length of Your Novel
- Decide on Your Global Genre
- Schedule Your Writing Time
- Decide on the Tools to Use
- Plan the Time and Place to Write
- Organize Your Writing Prompts
- Write Your Character Studies
- Create Public Accountability
Plan > Outline
For me, the plan on how to write a novel is the high-level guide to your detailed level work. For example, if you had a plan to write your novel during NaNoWriMo , then the logistics of writing 1,667 words a day (50,000 words / 30 days) has to be part of your plan — independent of what you write about.
The direction you might take with your novel, especially early on, will be in flux. If your plan accounts for that, then those adjustments will be a lot less disruptive. Plans are also a great way to focus on intent and give you a base in which to launch from.
How to Plan in a Novel
Generally, a high-level plan for your novel will consider the following aspects of the writing process as well as creating a plan of record. More on that later.
#1 Brainstorm Things to Write About
It’s always a good idea to have a list of things to write about. Even if these are not on theme for your novel. Brainstorming a few things will get you thinking about what your novel might be about. One of the best things to write about is a funny or sad part of your life. These life moments make great stories. They also provide some great ideas for characters.
For one of my novels, I created a character that was a mashup for three real-life people. I took the best of all three and made one super quirky person.
#2 Figure Out the Length of Your Novel
It’s good to have a general target for the number of words that your novel will be. Of course, this estimate might change once you start writing but it’s good to set a baseline for what you need to shoot for.
Novel lengths vary depending on the genre and the author. If you’re just starting out, then I’d suggest between 50,000 words. The sweet spot for a novel, according to Reedsy , is about 80,000 – 90,000 words. This length does depend on genre. Below is a list based on the Reedsy article. Note these are marketing genres and not content genres, which I know can be confusing:
- Commercial and literary novels: 80,000 – 100,000
- Science fiction and fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000
- Young adult: 55,000 – 70,000
- Middle grade: 20,000 – 55,000
- Romance: 80,000 – 100,000
- Mystery: 75,000 – 100,000
- Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000
- Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000
- Western: 45,000 – 75,000
Of course, these are only guidelines and you should follow the muse for what’s best for you.
#3 Decide on Your Global Genre
Far too often, authors have too many great ideas for a novel and then they try to pack it all into one book. The thinking being that if it’s a good story, why does it matter that I have six different stories going on?
Truth be told, it matters a lot to readers that a novel has a specific content genre that it’s being written in. This is different from the marketing genes above. This global genre is an important part of the plan since it will guide you in what scenes are required and what other masterworks in your genre you should study.
These masterworks are great resources for not only ideas but for inspirational writing prompts to help you when you’re stuck.
#4 Schedule Your Writing Time
If you’re in the NaNoWriMo crowd, then you got 30 days to write your first draft. For others, you might want to take a little longer. Regardless of your length of time, pick a time frame to a first draft. That way, you can plan your novel with nice micro milestones to keep you on track and motivated.
#5 Decide on the Tools to Use
Before you start to write, setup your writing toolbox. This could be your favorite program like Heminnway or Scrivener. It might even be buying a bunch of notebooks to free write in along with your favorite pens. Once you pick your tools, then set them up ahead of time so that there is little distraction dealing with tools.
The reason it’s important to get your tools right to write is that it removes distractions and excuses. I for one, have wasted hours picking the right font or template to write with because I did not want to write. Removing that form of resistance will help you achieve your writing plan and stay on track.
#6 Plan the Time and Place to Write
Researchers on habits suggest that in order to form a new one, it’s best to consistently perform the habit at a certain place and a certain time. They also recommend adding your new habit to an existing habit. The reasoning is that it’s easier to add something to an existing habit than to start from scratch.
As a writer, we all know what gives us the best changes of writing our novels is minimizing resistance. By being consistent with your writing time and place, you push resistance back into the shadows where it belongs. Better still if you attach your time and place to write to an already established habit like writing after you get home from the gym, you’ll have a better change of doing it.
#7 Organize Your Writing Prompts
When I wrote a novel during NaNoWriMo, I found it helpful to have snippets of beats and scenes in which to riff on. Some of these writing prompts were as simple as a scene type like Talking Over Coffee or Family at a Dinner Table or Boss Makes an Inappropriate Joke. All of these writing prompts I came up with ahead of time because I knew that when I got stuck, I did not want to have to think of them.
One of the reasons I use the Story Grid Framework for my novels and nonfiction, is because it has baked in writing prompts. For example, when you pick a genre in the Story Grid Framework, Obligatory Scenes and Conventions come along for the ride. These baked in writing prompts make it a lot easier to get unstuck. As an example, when I wrote a love story, one of the Obligatory Scenes is that The Lovers Breakup scene. This prompt helped me navigate a tricky transition by adding a breakup scene and then, a little later on, The Lovers Reunite scene — another love story Obligatory Scene.
#8 Write Your Character Studies
This one may seem a bit cart before the horse but I have found it tremendously valuable to write 150-500 word character studies about the characters in my novels. I know that sometimes you might not know all the characters but if you can write down a character study for the protagonist and the antagonist, you’re off to a good start.
#9 Create Public Accountability
All good plans have a method or metric that publically keeps you accountable to stay on plan. While the “public” part does not need to be a shout from the rooftops, your plan should be shared with others to keep you accountable. Ideally, you’d find an accountability partner that is also embarking on a project, so that both of you can help each other stay engaged and excited.
With the above answered, you can now write your plan of record, which sounds a bit corporate because that’s where I got it from. This short statement of your plan is a great way to solidify your novel writing plan into a tangible form that keeps you accountable and reminds you of your goal.
Before we do that, let’s go over some rules of thumb to help you plan.
Rules of Thumb
Like all rules of thumb, these are based on my experiences and those of my writer and editor friends. Mileage may vary but it’s always better to have some rough ideas as to how to plan your novel so you can complete it.
Since I’m a Certified Story Grid Editor, I also took a lot of these rules from this post from Shawn: How Many Scenes in a Nove l .
- 80,000-90,000: Number of words in the average novel.
- 250: Number of words on an average page.
- 3: Number of acts or parts of a novel. This is based on the classical 3 act play.
- 25%: Percent of the novel that’s Act 1 or the Beginning Hook.
- 50%: Percent of the novel that’s Act 2 or the Middle Build.
- 25%: Percent of the novel that’s Act 3 or the Ending Payoff.
- 15: Number of core scenes or beats in a novel.
- 1,500: Number of words in the average scene.
- 33: Number of scenes in a 50,000 word novel.
- 250: Average number of words a person reads a minute.
- 200: Average number of pages in a 50,000 word novel.
- 1,667: Number of words a day to write a 50,000 novel in 30 days.
I’m sure you’ll find more rules of thumb for your writing. As you do, keep a list of them so that the more plans you create, the better they become.
Plan of Record
Now that you have a good grasp of the answer to the questions above and some general rules of thumb for planning, it’s now time to pull it all together and write a plan of record.
A plan of record is a short paragraph or two that focuses on what you’re going to achieve. It’s like a high level goal narrative that should crisply and cleanly capture how you’re going to achieve writing your novel. Below I have written a couple of examples.
NaNoWriMo Plan of Record
In 30 days, I’m going to write a 50,000 word novel in the Love > Courtship content genre that is based on my first girlfriend in highschool. I’ll need to write 1,667 words a day, which is a little over a scene a day. I’ll have to write a total of 33 scenes with about 8 scenes being in the beginning and end and 16 scenes being in the middle. Before I start writing, I’m going to create five character studies and set up Scrivener with their standard novel template. I’m going to share my progress with the NaNoWriMo community to keep me on track and inspired.
Draft in a Year Plan of Record
My goal is to write a 125,000 word novel in the Action > Labyrinth content genre that is like Ready Player One. I’ll need to write 345 words a day, which is about a scene every 5 days. I’ll have to write 84 scenes with about 21 being in the beginning and end and about 42 in the middle. I’m going to use Google Docs to write so I can easily share my progress with my best friend Jim. Before I begin, I’m going to do ten character studies and outline the beginning hook so I won’t get stuck.
Trilogy Plan of Record
My goal is to write a three novel trilogy. Each novel will be 75,000 words. I want to complete the draft of the first one in six months. That means, I need to write 465 words a day, which is a scene about every 3 days. I’ll have to write 50 scenes with about 12 for the beginning and end as well as 26 for the middle. I’m going to use Hemmingway as my authoring tool (desktop version). Before I begin, I’ll write a high level outline of all three books so that I can build the world in book one.
Discipline Equals Freedom
Planning can feel like the resistance taking over to prevent you from writing. I know for me, when I’m stuck, I revert to doing mundane tasks like formatting text, messing with my tracking spreadsheet or reading blogs. That does not mean you should neglect planning.
Planning how you’re going to take on the massive undertaking of writing a novel is time well spent because it gives you a sense of the discipline required to get that first draft done. This discipline, surprisingly, will give you the freedom to create the novel you want. The reason being that when you work your plan, you’ll make progress. Incremental progress is the single biggest motivator to finishing a hard, long, and complex task. It’s the daily, little wins that make the daunting task manageable.
I have a plan. Now what?
Now that you have a plan of record on how you will write your novel, it’s time to take the next step and nail down some of the marco parts. The best method I have found and use is the Global Foolscap Method . This method is part of the Story Grid framework to create stories that work. For me, it makes a lot of sense to start macro then to focus on micro. That’s what the Foolscap does. Another method that seems promising, which I have not yet used, is the Beat Sheet from the book Save the Cat Writes a Novel . It’s based on the classic screenwriting book Save the Cat.
What’s interesting about both of these macro-level approaches, is that both the Global Foolscap and the Beat Sheet have 15 core scenes/beats that make up a novel. That’s encouraging since this shows the universal structure of story. So pick something that works for you and get going.
Whatever method you use or find, the important point is that you now have a plan of record in which to monitor your progress, stay motivated, and finish your novel. Good luck!
I’d love to see some of your plan of records. Feel free to share them in the comments.
If you want to connect with me directly, follow me on Twitter @TheDailyMBA or checkout my blog, thedailymba.com .
Share this Article:
🟢 Twitter — 🔵 Facebook — 🔴 Pinterest
Sign up below and we'll immediately send you a coupon code to get any Story Grid title - print, ebook or audiobook - for free.
About Jarie Bolander
Level up your craft newsletter.
Gift Vouchers available from £35.
How to plan your novel in ten steps
#5actfestivestory writing challenge, how to enter our festive social media competitions for writers 2023, by jennifer kerslake, 25th feb 2020.
Every author will ultimately develop their own approach to planning and writing a novel and there's certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. Nor is there a consensus among the professionals.
Ann Patchett will develop a novel in her head for months – ‘the happiest time’ in her writing process – before she must finally ‘reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air’ ( The Getaway Car ).
Stephen King famously doesn’t like to know what’s going to happen at the end of his books and went so far as to say that plotting is incompatible with ‘the spontaneity of real creation’ ( On Writing ).
I think it’s particularly important for debut writers to spend time thinking about their characters and developing an outline before setting pen to paper. A plan provides a roadmap – a clear route forwards, making it less likely you will get lost along the way.
If you’re wondering how to plan your own novel, here are ten steps to get you started:
1. What’s at the heart of your novel?
Start by asking yourself what story you’re trying to tell. This could be a one-line pitch or a question you’re trying to answer. For example, Romeo and Juliet could be pitched as ‘the tragic story of star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families.’ Or Great Expectations as ‘the tale of an orphan boy who receives wealth and status, only to realise that happiness must be found in friendship and love.’
2. Are you writing a particular genre or for a certain kind of reader?
It’s good to nail down the genre from the start as this could affect decisions about language, style, voice and plot. Readers will have different expectations of romance than of horror or crime fiction – and you don’t want to disappoint them!
3. Write the cover blurb.
You should have a strong sense of the shape of the story you want to tell before starting to write. Try to explain what happens in a few paragraphs. Think about how you would describe the story to a friend, or what you’d expect to see on the back cover of a book. Give your story a beginning, middle and end, and make sure to outline the main source of conflict and how this is resolved.
4. Get to know your characters.
Start by making a list of major and minor characters. For each one, note down their name, age, family history, physical appearance, political and religious beliefs, traits and quirks. What does your protagonist carry around with them in their handbag/pockets? What drink would your antagonist order in a bar? How did each spend their last birthday? What will they regret on their death beds? Then outline what their roles are in the book. What do they want and why do they want it? What’s stopping them from achieving their aims? What will they learn during the novel? Plotting will be much easier if you have a clear understanding of your characters, their perspectives and the journey you want to take them on.
5. Where is your novel set?
Make some general notes on the time and place, including the weather, landscape, architecture, interiors and smells, and think about what these reveal about character. Drawing a map might help to picture the locale and understand the distance between locations, and floor plans can be useful if you’re setting quite a bit of the main action in a house. E.g. it might be crucial that a character wouldn’t be able to hear a scream in the house from the bottom of the garden, so a suburban terrace wouldn’t do…
6. Do your research.
If you’ve given your character a job you don’t know much about or you’re writing about a place you’ve never been to, you might need to do some research before starting to write. Reading autobiographies, watching period dramas, taking a research trip or interviewing a friendly police office could all help to gain a deeper understanding of the subject and themes of your novel.
Make sure you are sufficiently informed to make key decisions about the story, but don’t get carried away – you can always supplement your knowledge as you write.
7. How will you structure your story?
Does it span one day or several years? Are you going to write it in first person or third? Will your narrator recall events from the future or is the story unravelling in the present? Do you need more than one voice?
Once you have a rough idea of the structure you can begin plotting out the events, e.g. what happens and when does it happen? If you’re working with a three-act structure you will want to set out the main conflict and what’s at stake in the beginning, use the middle to complicate the story and develop tension, and build towards an exciting climax before resolving any loose ends.
8. Write a chapter plan.
Once you have a good understanding of the narrative spine, you can start to plan what happens in each chapter and break down the action scene by scene. Include the big events – birth, death, sex and violence – as well as subtler anxieties and realisations, and don’t forget to track your flashbacks and sub plots through the book.
You’ll need to decide whose point of view the scenes are told from and how much is revealed in each one. What’s left unsaid? What will propel the reader to read on?
A detailed chapter plan will help to ensure enough happens in your story and that the flow and pacing of events works well. (Remember short scenes of action and dialogue tend to increase the pace while longer descriptive passages can slow the narrative down.) A thorough understanding of plot is particularly important for crime novels that seek to deceive the reader through misdirection and red herrings.
As an exercise, I’d encourage you to reread a favourite novel and note down what happens, chapter by chapter. How long are the scenes? How many scenes occur in each chapter? How are the flashbacks spaced? What’s the balance of dialogue, description and narrative?
9. Create a timeline.
Putting your scenes in chronological order, even if that’s not the way they will be told to the reader, can help to flag any issues you need to address before starting to write the novel. You might find that there’s a key scene missing or that you need to reorder the sequence or that your ages are askew. For example, if a character remembers watching the moon landing as a young child, you can’t consign them to a retirement home in 2020…
10. Don’t over plan!
It can be tempting to keep making notes but take care that this doesn’t become a form of procrastination. Your outline doesn’t have to be perfect before you begin to write. You can change your mind and revisit your ideas later, unpicking threads and weaving others into the fabric of the narrative. Or think about your novel as a piece of clay you can mould and re-form if you don’t like the shape it’s taking.
You don’t have to start with the opening either; one benefit of having a plan is that you can dive straight into a scene with lots of action or even write the end first.
And if you’re not a great planner, I don’t think you should force it. It can be freeing to write when you don’t know what comes next, to see what happens and where your characters take you. So, push on and write the next sentence, the next scene, the next chapter. Enjoy the process of bringing your story to life!
And for an extra eleventh tip...! Sign up for our Starting to Write Your Novel online course. From honing your idea to planning, creating vivid characters and writing a great first chapter, our six-week course will show you how. And with all teaching videos, resources, tasks and a student forum hosted on our online learning platform, you can take part at times to suit you, from wherever you are in the world.
- How to Write a Novel
- How to Write a Thriller Novel
- How to Write a Fantasy Novel
- How to Start a Novel
- How Many Chapters in a Novel?
- Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Novel
- Novel Ideas
- How to Plan a Novel
- How to Outline a Novel
- How to Write a Romance Novel
- Novel Structure
- How to Write a Mystery Novel
- Novel vs Book
- Round Character
- Flat Character
- How to Create a Character Profile
- Author Overview
- Types of Writers
- How to Become a Writer
- Document Manager Overview
- Screenplay Writer Overview
- Technical Writer Career Path
- Technical Writer Interview Questions
- Technical Writer Salary
- Google Technical Writer Interview Questions
- How to Become a Technical Writer
- UX Writer Career Path
- Google UX Writer
- UX Writer vs Copywriter
- UX Writer Resume Examples
- UX Writer Interview Questions
- UX Writer Skills
- How to Become a UX Writer
- UX Writer Salary
- Google UX Writer Overview
- Google UX Writer Interview Questions
- Technical Writing Certifications
- Grant Writing Certifications
- UX Writing Certifications
- Proposal Writing Certifications
- Content Design Certifications
- Knowledge Management Certifications
- Medical Writing Certifications
- Grant Writing Classes
- Business Writing Courses
- Technical Writing Courses
- Content Design Overview
- Documentation Overview
- User Documentation
- Process Documentation
- Technical Documentation
- Software Documentation
- Knowledge Base Documentation
- Product Documentation
- Process Documentation Overview
- Process Documentation Templates
- Product Documentation Overview
- Software Documentation Overview
- Technical Documentation Overview
- User Documentation Overview
- Knowledge Management Overview
- Knowledge Base Overview
- Publishing on Amazon
- Amazon Authoring Page
- Self-Publishing on Amazon
- How to Publish
- How to Publish Your Own Book
- Document Management Software Overview
- Engineering Document Management Software
- Healthcare Document Management Software
- Financial Services Document Management Software
- Technical Documentation Software
- Knowledge Management Tools
- Knowledge Management Software
- HR Document Management Software
- Enterprise Document Management Software
- Knowledge Base Software
- Process Documentation Software
- Documentation Software
- Internal Knowledge Base Software
- Grammarly Premium Free Trial
- Grammarly for Word
- Scrivener Templates
- Scrivener Review
- How to Use Scrivener
- Ulysses vs Scrivener
- Character Development Templates
- Screenplay Format Templates
- Book Writing Templates
- API Writing Overview
- How to Write a Book
- Writing a Book for the First Time
- How to Write an Autobiography
- How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?
- Do You Underline Book Titles?
- Snowflake Method
- Book Title Generator
- How to Write Nonfiction Book
- How to Write a Children's Book
- How to Write a Memoir
- Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Book
- How to Write a Book Title
- How to Write a Book Introduction
- How to Write a Dedication in a Book
- How to Write a Book Synopsis
- Business Writing Examples
- Business Writing Skills
- Types of Business Writing
- Dialogue Writing Overview
- Grant Writing Overview
- Medical Writing Overview
- Nanowrimo Overview
- How to Write 50,000 Words for Nanowrimo
- Camp Nanowrimo
- Nanowrimo YWP
- Nanowrimo Mistakes to Avoid
- Proposal Writing Overview
- Screenplay Overview
- How to Write a Screenplay
- Screenplay vs Script
- How to Structure a Screenplay
- How to Write a Screenplay Outline
- How to Format a Screenplay
- How to Write a Fight Scene
- How to Write Action Scenes
- How to Write a Monologue
- Short Story Writing Overview
- Technical Writing Overview
- UX Writing Overview
- Reddit Writing Prompts
- Romance Writing Prompts
- Flash Fiction Story Prompts
- Dialogue and Screenplay Writing Prompts
- Poetry Writing Prompts
- Tumblr Writing Prompts
- Creative Writing Prompts for Kids
- Creative Writing Prompts for Adults
- Fantasy Writing Prompts
- Horror Writing Prompts
- Book Writing Software
- Novel Writing Software
- Screenwriting Software
- ProWriting Aid
- Writing Tools
- Literature and Latte
- Hemingway App
- Final Draft
- Writing Apps
- Grammarly Premium
- Wattpad Inbox
- Microsoft OneNote
- Google Keep App
Home » Blog » How to Plan a Novel in 11 Simple Steps
How to Plan a Novel in 11 Simple Steps
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Writing a novel is a long process that involves a lot of hard work and planning. Planning a novel is one of the first steps in the novel-writing process. As a new writer (or even if you are experienced), you must know how to plan a novel so that you can keep it organized.
Not all writers plan a novel. For example, Ann Patchett doesn’t plan at all. On the other hand, some writers prefer planning a novel as it keeps them organized. J. K. Rowling , for instance, plans a lot and she uses many tools and varied techniques to plan her novels. The same is the case with Sophie Hannah who is a big fan of planning her books.
As a new writer or even if you are an experienced novelist, planning your novel is a great idea to start with. The best thing about planning is that you don’t forget anything important about your story or characters. Additionally, when you plan your novel, it saves time, resources, and simplifies the writing process. You can finish your novel quickly as you know everything about it in advance.
There isn’t a single best way to plan a novel. And there isn’t a one-size fit all. You can plan your novel in several ways based on your preferences and likes. There is no set planning pattern that every writer must follow. This gives you a lot of space and flexibility.
How to Plan a Novel in 11-Steps
Here is a detailed yet simple guide on how to plan a novel in 11-steps that is perfect for fiction writers, first-time novelists, and any type of novel writers who are struggling to organize and synthesize their ideas. It will provide you with a complete roadmap to planning your novel at zero cost.
Step #1: One-Sentence Summary
The very first step to plan your novel is to write its summary in a single sentence. It is known as a one-sentence summary, hook, logline, or pitch. It describes your novel in one single sentence. You don’t have to mention characters or any other specific details rather write a single line to describe your novel’s idea.
Here is a one-sentence summary of To Kill a Mockingbird :
“An attorney who hopelessly strives to prove the innocence of a black man unjustly accused of rape, and a mysterious neighbor who saves her and her brother from being killed.”
Here is another example from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone :
“A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.”
You might not have such specific details about the novel you are planning at this stage. You can write any details you have. You can throw in your idea and refine it later. Whatever your novel is, write its short summary so that you know what you are writing about.
Step #2: Genre
Ask yourself what type of novel you’ll write? The one-sentence summary will give you an idea of the novel genre such as non-fiction, romance, adventure, etc.
Defining the genre of the novel early in the planning stage helps you focus on the genre and it helps you select the right template (if you are using a novel writing software ). For example, Squibler offers you several novel writing templates based on the genre:
If you aren’t what type of novel you’ll write, it will get difficult to plan and write it. You need to identify (or pick) a genre based on your interest, story, plot, publisher expectations, reader expectations, etc.
Defining your novel genre helps you set the tone and voice of your novel. For example, if you are writing a romance novel, you’ll know your target audience, what language to use, what voice to use in the novel, and what your target readers expect.
It helps you meet (or even) exceed the expectations of your readers.
If you know what genre your novel will be, you are good to go. If not, you must rethink and revisit your plot and pitch – and choose a genre at this stage. Not doing so will create problems when you’ll start writing the novel or at the publishing stage.
Step #3: Story Description (Blurb)
A blurb is a short description of your story in a few paragraphs. It is normally used for promotional purposes and it includes a strong hook to make it appealing for the readers.
At this stage, you must have a clear idea of the novel in your mind and it is a perfect time to write its blurb. Think of how you’ll tell about your novel to a friend or how you’ll explain your novel idea to someone else. That’s all you have to do.
Don’t overthink. The blurb is tentative and will be edited several times throughout the creative writing process so don’t hesitate, you can always tweak it.
Here is an example of a blurb with a strong opening and impeccable word selection:
The idea of writing a short description at this stage is to fully understand the idea and story. Make sure you write an intro, middle, conflict-resolution, and ending. This description will keep you motivated and will be able to share it with your friends, readers, and colleagues so they know what you are writing about – and what to expect.
Here are a few things to consider when writing your novel’s blurb:
- Keep it simple, short, and concise. Avoid adding too many details even if you have a lot of details to add
- Add a hook (this is a must)
- Write the main selling point of your story that will persuade readers to go ahead and read the novel.
Step #4: Characters
Let’s jump to the characters, the soul of your novel. You need to develop a complete list of characters. You need to create character profiles for all the characters in your story. Here is what a character profile includes:
- Personality and traits
- Any other necessary details.
Check out this character profile guide and template for character development and polishing:
Depending on the novel genre and plot, you might have several characters including:
It is the main character of your novel who drives the story. The protagonist is usually the hero or the heroine of the novel who faces a conflict and looks for a resolution.
Think of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbits or Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series – they’re the protagonists and the entire novel or series revolve around them.
An antagonist is a villain in your story. He/she competes against your protagonist. You need to come up with the main antagonist in your novel and must develop his/her profile. Antagonists are equally important as they give meaning to your story and keep readers hooked.
Smaug in The Hobbit and Voldemort in Harry Potter are antagonists who oppose the main characters.
These are the characters who either positively or negatively impact your novel and have the power to change the plot or add a twist. If you have any power players, define them, and create their profiles.
A mentor in a novel is a character who mostly (not always) guides the protagonist and acts as his/her mentor. In some cases, a mentor acts otherwise and opposes your main character.
However, it isn’t necessary to have a mentor in your novel but if you have any, develop their profile too.
List all the minor characters and develop their character profiles too. These are the characters who act as supporting characters in your story. There could be a lot of minor characters in your novel depending on the plot and it is best to develop their profiles at this stage to avoid hiccups at a later stage.
Step #5: Plot
The events that happen to the characters in your novel develop the plot. You don’t have to necessarily have a full understanding of the plot at this stage as it mostly develops and evolves (in most cases). However, you must have a basic structure of the plot in your mind and you need to write it.
There are several ways to craft a novel plot such as three-act structure, five-act structure, or Freytag’s Pyramid. Here is how Freytag’s Pyramid works:
In a simpler form, your plot must consist of the following:
- Climax via increasing tension
- Resolution of the conflict
Here is a simple way to plan your novel’s plot:
- Plan the middle part first as it is easiest. You have to create conflict, tension, twist, climax, and move towards the resolution. There is a lot of scope in the middle part of the novel so it is best to plan its plot first with detailed specifications
- Figure out the ending of the novel. The novel must end with conflict resolution
- Plan the beginning. It is usually hard to write or even plan the beginning. You can skip it for now if you have no idea of where and how to begin the novel and how to write a catchy introduction that will keep readers hooked.
You can use a Squibler’s plot generator that comes with 500+ short story ideas that will do all the heavy lifting for you:
When planning your novel’s plot, you need to decide if it will be a part of a series or a standalone novel. If it is a standalone piece, you need to plot the ending accordingly.
In the case of a series, you need to plot for at least the next novel in the series. This will help you create a connection between the ending of this novel and the opening of the next novel in the series.
Step #6: Setting
The setting defines the when and where of your novel. Setting planning requires you to identify the place, time, environment, objects, ambiance, etc. where all or most of the events will take place:
The place and time in the novel play a significant role in how it will be perceived by the readers. For example, places help you set the tone and mood of the story. Think of a couple sitting at a shore in the sunset as opposed to a teen standing at the edge of the world’s tallest skyscraper thinking of jumping with an intention of suicide.
These two places develop two opposing tones and moods.
The same is the case with time. It improves readability, comprehension, and sets the mood and tone of the novel. For example, a person living in 1698 vs. 2018.
Having a clear plan for your novel’s setting is essential. And there is a lot of scope here. You can create a whole new world (called worldbuilding) with your own structures, places, climate, environment, maps, and more. The Lord of the Rings , for example, has developed a whole new world.
However, worldbuilding requires a lot of time, hard work, creativity, and research. If you can set your novel in an established world, it’ll work best.
Here are a few tips to plan the setting for your novel:
- Figure out the place where the main characters spend the most time
- Plan for the location, climate, environment, geography, resources, time, etc.
- Plan the farthest place your main character can go
- Ensure that the setting supports the plot.
Step #7: Voice and Style
Voice is your own that is derived from your personality, mood, character, traits, background, etc. As a writer, your voice separates you from other writers. Style is broader and adaptable. Some writers have a straightforward writing style with simple language, others have a sarcastic writing style, and so on.
As a writer, you have your unique writing style. The way you write the novel brings it to life – your unique writing style. However, style isn’t constant and should not be consistent across novels. You need to tweak your style based on the plot, genre, target readers, and other factors.
For example, the way you write science fiction will be much different than how you’ll write a romantic novel. Point of view (first, second, or third person) is another important variable. The first-person point of view isn’t as flexible while the third-person view gives you a lot of flexibility
Your target audience (readers) also impacts the voice and style. For example, if you are writing a romantic novel targeting teens, you’ll use different language and a soft style as opposed to writing a romance novel for adults.
You need to plan your novel’s voice and style early before you write the first line. You must have a clear understanding of the point of view that you’ll use and your target readers. Define an appropriate writing style accordingly.
Step #8: Background Details
This includes any research or brainstorming or backstory that you have in your mind about your plot or characters. Plan and organize all the details and research that you have already done so that:
- You don’t forget it
- You can easily refer back to it.
Here is an example of how to chart the background details:
Martin Luther is a single father of two who is living in the suburbs of New York City. He has been struggling at his job, had a weird last year both financially and emotionally, her daughter is suffering from a last stage tumor, and the son, 14, is used to having bad company…
The more details you have, the better.
Step #9: Chapter Outline
By this step, you must have a much clearer idea of the novel as you have planned pretty much everything about it except chapters. It is time to write chapter headings and descriptions.
Here is how to do it:
- Plan the total number of chapters your novel will have
- Give a name to each chapter
- Plan and write the description of each chapter with all important details such as conflict, climax, twist, etc.
- Decide the point of view for each chapter and important scene in the novel
- Overview chapter outline and see if something is missing
- Check the timeline and ensure that all the scenes, actions, and chapters are chronologically arranged.
Distributing your novel and plot into chapters gives a complete look to the novel and you know what exactly to write in each chapter. Here is an example of a chapter outline with details:
If you don’t have a lot of details about the plot and chapter details, it is the best time to plan it out. At least have a chapter outline for the most important chapters in your novel (e.g. conflict, climax, resolution, ending).
Step #10: Completion Time
When you plan to complete this novel? Do you have a turnaround time in mind?
One of the key aspects of planning a novel is to think about how and when you’ll start and finish the novel. Planning a novel isn’t the same as writing a novel . Having a plan doesn’t mean you’ll write and finish it.
To avoid delays, you need to create a detailed and step-by-step action plan on when you’ll finish writing it. Create a Gantt chart by allocating each section of the novel a specific completion time:
Check out these Gantt chart templates to get started.
Step #11: Start Writing
Finally, you are all set to start writing your novel.
Again, planning doesn’t mean you’ll start writing your novel and actually finish it. The number one reason why novelists don’t finish their novels is that they don’t have a plan. You are lucky if you have a plan and you know how to plan a novel.
What’s important is that you actually start writing your novel.
The best way to start with the writing process is to use a novel writing software . It will help you keep organized, you’ll be able to set writing goals, and you’ll be able to track your progress.
Start Planning Your Novel
I’m sure you’ll know the importance of planning your novel. Of course, you have the option to go without it but if you are writing a novel for the first time, it is strongly recommended to have a plan. It will give you a sense of accomplishment and motivate you to start writing.
The 11-step guide on how to plan a novel is all you need to plan any novel in any genre. It is all about filling the blanks and you’ll have the plan ready in no time. It will help you a lot in your writing career.
The best thing about planning a novel is that you can always go back and edit anything anytime as per need. There aren’t any hard and fast rules.
Let’s brainstorm your next novel and start planning it.
Published in What is Novel Writing?
Join 5000+ Technical Writers
Get our #1 industry rated weekly technical writing reads newsletter.
Everything You Need to Know About Planning Your Novel
So you want to write a novel? Well, you’ve come to the right place! This article is all about taking the first steps to planning your novel, and includes tips on everything including character , plot, setting , genre, voice and more…
Table Of Contents
1. Know what kind of book you want to write
The first step to planning your novel is figuring out what kind of book you want to write. Literary fiction, fantasy , thriller, romance , Young Adult , New Adult, science fiction… The genres go on and on, as do the possibilities of each.
The best way to figure this out is to have a think about what books you love reading. In all likelihood, the books you enjoy reading will be those you also enjoy writing.
Once you’ve got a general idea of the kind of book you want to write, you need to ask yourself these questions:
- Are you the best person to write this book?
- Can you see yourself working all those hours to finish it?
- Once you’ve finished it, is there a market for it?
While these are difficult questions to answer so early on in the process, you may find that the answers surprise you, and if so – you may need to reconsider your decision to write this book.
Don’t have time to read the whole post right now?
No problem. Let us send you a downloadable PDF so you can read it when it’s convenient for you…
2. Write down your existing ideas
We’re still at an incredibly early stage here, so the existing ideas you have might be very basic, and that’s fine.
Limit your notes to the essentials:
- Names of characters
- Aspects/traits of the setting(s)
- Any information you have about the storyline. These may be things like the beginning or the ending, or even the main conflict, but they may also be little details like snippets of dialogue or random scenes.
Use this point in the process as an ‘info dump’. Basically, you’re writing down everything and anything you know about the book so far.
In all likelihood, this will be the basic framework of your novel.
3. Work out your essentials
Here is where we get into the nitty-gritty essentials of the book: your characters, the plot, the genre and voice. It’s essential that all of these elements are worked out in detail if you want to produce a comprehensive and effective plan for your novel.
Characters are one of the most vital aspects of a novel to get right. It’s the characters and their actions who drive the narrative forward and compel the readers to keep turning the page.
Here’s the cast of characters your novel will need:
The main character or protagonist is the character that your novel is based around. Often the hero or the heroine, the main character generates the action of the story and gains the reader’s interest and empathy.
They are usually faced with a conflict that they must resolve or come to terms with.
- Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
- Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles by Kim Newman
An antagonist is someone who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with the protagonist/main character.
Often they’re the adversary of the hero or protagonist in the novel.
- Voldemort in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
- Smaug in The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
- Mr Darcy (for the most part) in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- President Snow in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Professor James Moriarty in The Hound of the D’Urbervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although this one is somewhat self-explanatory, it can be rule-breaking as well.
Traditionally, a mentor is someone older and wiser than the protagonist who guides them through their decision-making process in the narrative.
However, this doesn’t necessarily always help the protagonist, and often is cause for conflict in the story.
Again, somewhat self-explanatory – power players are those in your novel, good or bad, who have the power to change the course of the story.
Think of your minor characters as the support cast for your leads. These characters are there to interact with your main characters and help propel the narrative forward with actions and reactions.
It’s important to remember that characters don’t need to be confined to just one role. For example, Dumbledore in Harry Potter is a mentor, but he’s also a power player. Similarly, Voldemort is an antagonist but also a power player.
Thinking about where your characters sit in these roles is important, but so is thinking outside the box and breaking the rules.
At this point, we’re not doing in-depth character profiles yet. This part of the process is about getting a sense of who will be playing what roles, and making sure your cast is well-rounded enough to see you through an entire novel.
For now, stick to names, ages, goals and anything else that comes to mind.
The plot is the events of the narrative – what happens and when it happens.
The three steps
Let’s look at this in three main steps:
Step One: Know the ending of your book.
Step Two: Know the beginning of your book.
Step Three: Fill in the middle with any conflicts, twists or scenes you’ve already thought of in your initial brainstorm.
When planning the plot of your novel, knowing the ending is incredibly important. Knowing the ending gives you a destination to work towards, and allows you to really focus on how you’re going to get there.
The beginning is also crucial, as this is the part you’ll be submitting to publishers when you’ve written your novel and perfected your manuscript.
It doesn’t have to be perfect right now, but it’s important that you think long and hard about where you want this book to begin, and why it needs to begin there.
We’ll get to filling in the gaps shortly…
Is it part of a series?
Now’s the time where you need to start considering if this novel is a standalone or part of a series .
If it’s a standalone, you have to make sure your ending reflects this, unless you’re leaving it open-ended.
If you’re planning a series , however, then we’re going to be here a little longer…
With a series you need individual plots for each book, as well as an overarching plot for all of them.
You’ll note with Harry Potter , each book has its own narrative filled with conflicts and resolutions, but the ultimate plot is Harry defeating Voldemort, and this spans across all seven books.
Genre & Voice
This may seem like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised at how many authors start writing before they have a clear idea of the genre and style they want to write in.
Think about genre for a moment: thriller, romance, sci-fi, literary fiction… The thing that all of these genres have in common is that they define your target readership .
Knowing your target audience means knowing what language to use, what themes are most relevant and effective etc.
If you don’t have a target readership in mind when you’re writing your novel, it’s going to make submitting your work to publishers incredibly difficult. Remember that your book can fall into multiple genres, as long as you know what they are.
You may already know this from your initial brainstorm, but if not – now’s the time to start thinking about this.
Deciding on a genre early on means you can work out the voice/tone of your novel a lot sooner and avoid having to rework it later.
Also try to work out at this point if you want to use first, second or third person . The perspective from which the reader views the story is incredibly important when it comes to the book’s success.
What will also help with getting your novel plan underway is refining your style. Take a short story or essay you have written in the past and examine its style. Practise the following:
- Using simple language.
- Cutting longer sentences down, or splitting them into two sentences.
- Eliminating excessive qualification such as ‘very many’.
- Not using unnecessary self-reference such as ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’.
- Opting for the active voice .
4. Fill in the gaps
Back when we discussed plot, we mentioned filling in the gaps. Well here we are, and here’s how to do it…
Stay up to date with the most popular posts on Writer's Edit.
Plot & Sub-plot
By now you may know the major events in the novel – the beginning, the middle and the end. But what about the rest?
There’s a lot more that goes into a novel than three simple events. Now’s the time where you should be ‘filling in the gaps’ and bulking out your story with more details.
Have a think about sub-plots. What else is happening in your novel besides your protagonist getting from point A to point B (for example)?
Is there an underlying love story? Is your protagonist’s lineage in question? Perhaps your protagonist’s best friend is harbouring a secret? All of these could act as sub-plots to your main, overarching narrative.
This is also where using your minor characters, mentors, power players etc. come into play. These are your support cast; they are there to support whatever aspects of your novel you need them to, so use them well.
After you’ve figured out where you’d like to go in terms of plots and sub-plots, you should start thinking about specific scenes that are going to help you achieve these goals.
You need scenes that reveal character and scenes that propel the story forward. Is this a physical journey? Or an emotional one?
Work out what scenes might help portray these aspects, and where in the novel they sit.
While this part of our guide is certainly about ‘filling in the gaps’, it doesn’t mean you can’t also make things up as you write later on, or change your mind further down the track.
These exercises are all about building a framework to help get your writing going. Framework can be taken down, and rearranged as you see fit.
You must know your characters inside out; from the way they walk to how they take their coffee. This is a lot to know, but what’s more is that you need to have this knowledge before you start writing .
Naturally, you’ll learn some things about your characters along the way (that’s half the fun), but knowing them well from the get-go will make getting to the end of your novel a lot easier.
Remember characters’ distinctive traits, and make sure they all have one or more. It’s easy for all characters to sound the same, but they need to have very different voices, appearances and backgrounds.
Here’s some character-related questions you’ll need to ask yourself:
Have you considered creating a character profile ?
For each of your main characters, creating a character profile could do wonders for discovering authentic details about them.
A character profile prompts you to answer specific questions from your character’s point of view. Although sometimes they seem a little out there, they often spark new ideas and help authors create much rounder characters .
Are all your characters essential to the story?
If you could remove someone from the story, and the story wouldn’t change – that tells you that this character is not needed.
Don’t over-complicate your novel with a huge cast. This will only cause headaches for you further down the track.
It will also mean that the more important characters aren’t as developed as they could be.
The reader will also get frustrated when the spotlight is turned onto the less relevant characters.
Get Your Free Fiction Writing Download Bundle Now
Containing over 20,000 words in total, the bundle is packed with advice on getting your novel planned, written, edited and published. Plus, join our email list to stay up-to-date.
How strong is your main character?
Be sure that you have an ample backstory worked out, and a good projection of where you intend to take this person.
This is the character that will be dragging your reader by their hand through your book, so you want them to have impact. Can the reader easily relate to them? Here are ten things a great character needs.
- Are your characters distinctive?
- Do they have different voices, appearances and backgrounds?
- What are their motivations ?
- Does your protagonist have a strong antagonist?
- Are your minor characters distinctive from one another?
- Do all you characters have the same pet-sayings?
World-building is for those of you who are writing fantasy, sci-fi or even post-apocalyptic novels. Here, you have to build a foreign world from scratch in enough detail that the reader can envision it for themselves.
This introduces a whole new ballgame of planning for your novel. Lucky for you, we’ve got an ultimate guide to world-building right here. It details how to build worlds that are imaginary and alternate, as well as actual locations.
Not to be confused with world-building, setting is relevant to every novel, short story, poem, play and film ever written.
The setting of your novel can be used as so much more than just a backdrop for the actions occurring.
Setting can be used to help propel the story forward; for example, something simple as the weather changing can put a chain of reactions in place.
To help plan, research the area you’re using for your setting, or at least somewhere similar. Take note of the flora and fauna, weather, and the distance between places.
You can also use maps. Whether these are actually used in your novel or not is up to you, but maps can be used for inspiration in terms of terrain, how land is set out and how vast settings can be.
Floor plans of houses can also be useful if you’ve got multiple scenes in the same house. Planning this out early on will avoid confusion when later on you find out you need a three-bedroom terrace house rather than a studio apartment.
History is also very relevant to setting, particularly if you’re using a place in real life. For example, are there any scars on the land from times past? How has the land changed over time, and were your characters there to witness it?
5. Make a timeline
Create a timeline of major events in the novel in chronological order. This not to say your narrative needs to be linear, but you do need to know how things happen before you can mix them up.
Create a scene list – that is, all the scenes you know so far – and put these in a chronological list as well. While you’re doing this, you may find that even more scenes come to you as a result.
Put the scenes into chapters. This should give you a rough idea of how long your chapters will be and what the pace of your novel will be like.
Shorter, sharper scenes and chapters make for a more fast-paced novel, while longer, more descriptive passages of text will result in a slower-paced novel.
Making a timeline will help reveal the pace of your novel, and will point out any issues you’ll need to address before proceeding to the writing stage.
6. Cater to your readers
This links us back to our earlier point of knowing your target readership. By now, you should know exactly what your readers wants from your novel, and going over your plan at this stage will enable you to satisfy them.
No matter your readership, though, you need to ensure your novel does NOT have the following:
- Boring bits
- Parts where logic of your world goes out the window (otherwise known as plot holes )
- Gaps where the reader won’t know why something has happened.
7. Start writing your novel
By now, you’ll have oodles of notes, timeframes and character profiles to use as reference material for when you decide you’re ready to start writing, so here’s some final advice:
- There is such a thing as too much planning. Don’t allow yourself to procrastinate from the actual writing for too long, and don’t plan so much that there’s no spontaneity in your writing – where would the fun be in that?
- Don’t be afraid to change your mind. As we mentioned earlier, this planning stage is just to help get your mind around the elements of a novel you’ll need to include. It doesn’t mean your ideas have to be set in stone.
- The most important thing is that you find out what methods work for you. Once you’ve got that down pat, you’ve got yourself a golden ticket.
So now what?
Once you’ve completed your planning, you may like to learn How to Write A Novel in 30 Minutes a Day .
Happy planning and writing!
Helen Scheuerer is a novelist from Sydney, and the Founding Editor of Writer's Edit. She has a Bachelor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong and a Masters in Publishing from The University of Sydney. Her #1 bestselling YA fantasy novel, Heart of Mist is available now. You can grab your copy here . She also chronicles her writing process and current work over at www.helenscheuerer.com .
How To Create A Fictional Language For Your Fantasy Novel In 8 Steps
I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae, a han noston ned 'wilith. If you're an avid conlanger, you might recognise the above as Sindarin Elvish. To everyone else, it's simply...
7 Tips For Describing Hands In Your Writing
Hands are intimate things. Like eyes, they can be windows into our souls. They can reveal our inner thoughts and feelings, even when we’re trying to hide them. Our histories can be revealed by...
🎉 Our next novel writing master class starts in – ! Claim your spot →
Looking to publish? Meet your dream editor on Reedsy.
Find the perfect editor for your next book
1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy, come meet them.
Posted on Jul 17, 2020
How to Plan a Novel: From Idea to First Draft in 7 Tips
Jumping headfirst into writing a novel without any planning is possibly the biggest mistake an author can make. That said, a good plan doesn’t have to be a chapter-by-chapter outline , or a massive document describing every character and setting. Everyone has their own approach to crafting stories, so rather than giving you a specific guide on how to plan a novel , we’re going to share seven universal tips to help you form a solid foundation for your next writing endeavor. Let’s dive in!
If you're not writing fiction, you might want to check out our guide on how to outline a nonfiction book.
1. Pick a planning method that works for you
Before we jump into the details of your story, let's discuss the planning approaches available to you. As mentioned before, there isn't a tried-and-true way to plan a novel — the process is specific to both the author and the story that's being told. Some authors type up bullet-point lists, some draw mind maps, some even sketch their characters. Here are just a few methods you may wish to try out.
Book development exercises 📖
Sometimes, all you need to do is ask the right questions, and amazing ideas will present themselves to you! If you’re wondering what those questions might be, check out the following template provided by Shaelin from our Youtube channel, and follow her video series on how to develop a book to see how she puts it to good use.
Get our Book Development Template
Use this template to go from a vague idea to a solid plan for a first draft.
We also have some writing exercises that might help you flesh out your plot and characters, if you need more inspiration!
The Snowflake Method ❄️
Picture a snowflake, starting at the center and then fanning out to all sides in an intricate design — that’s what your planning process would look like if you use this method . You begin with a simple one-sentence summary of your plot and then branch out to characters, setting, and other details from there.
And just as a snowflake is almost round in shape, the process for this kind of planning is also somewhat circular. You may start with character development, switch to worldbuilding, and then turn back to characters when you feel inspired to do so. Remember, growth in one area can create sparks for another — don’t feel like you have to plan in a particular order, just do what works for you!
The classic free-writing method ✍️
You can’t go wrong with free-writing — it lets you spill out all the thoughts you have about your story and can even help you make connections you’ve never noticed before. Our only advice to you if you intend to use this method is to organize your ideas under these headings: characters, setting, and plot. That way, you’ll be able to find and edit details easily, and you won’t become overwhelmed by your own notes.
2. Zero in on your protagonist
Now we get to the meat of the planning. Every single story follows at least one protagonist — so if you want a foolproof start to your plan, kick things off with your main character(s). But don’t just think about their names and what they’ll look like, as fun as that might be! Instead, to ensure that your novel has strong character development , you should delve into your main character’s core by doing the following.
Choose a goal 🎯
A goal is not just something a character has to work toward. Rather, it embodies that character’s greatest desire: the thing that they care about the most. This ties directly into other parts of their profile , such as temperament and backstory, and informs all of their choices throughout the story.
Let’s take a look at a popular example: The Hunger Games . Katniss Everdeen’s goal to survive the deadly Hunger Games stems from her desire to provide for and protect her family (temperament), a role she’d taken on since her father died (backstory).
A character's goal is the driving force behind every action they take, contributing to their character arc and the book's overall narrative arc. By teaming up with her competitors to try and survive, Katniss learns of the extent of the suffering created by the government. Subsequently, her goal extends from merely surviving to leading her family and countrymen in their fight against tyranny.
Reedsy’s Character Profile Template
A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.
Outline a belief system ☯
Having nailed down your character’s primary goal, temperament, and backstory, let’s dig a little deeper into their psyche — the parts of your character that may be less obvious on the page. Your protagonist should be a round character with a complex belief system which may include details about:
- How they see themselves in contrast to others;
- What they believe to be their rights; and
- Whether or not they agree with the reigning values of their society.
Not only will this deepen your understanding of your character, but also your plot! Perhaps even more so than their immediate goal, a character’s belief system can give you some great ideas about which kinds of situations you can construct to increase the stakes throughout your book.
For instance, Katniss has always trusted in herself more than the systems that were established around her; she starts out believing that laying low and living a simple life is how she can keep her mother and sister safe. By creating situations where surviving also means defying the state, the book strengthens the former belief while also challenging the latter.
If you’d like to dig deeper into your characters, here are some resources you might find useful:
- Dynamic Characters vs. Static Characters
- 12 Types of Characters Featured In Almost All Stories
- 8 Character Development Exercises to Help You Nail Your Character
3. Create a challenge
If your character’s biggest goal is one side of the storytelling coin, then the central conflict is the other — you need to have both in a novel. Only when there’s something to impede the protagonist in their quest can there be the rising stakes that readers so desire and enjoy.
This obstacle (or series of obstacles) can be a physical antagonist, a status quo, a disruption in the protagonist’s environment, or all of the above. There are plenty of different types of conflict you can use, even in conjunction with one another! However, we suggest you choose a central, impactful conflict when you’re planning your novel. Everything that happens in the story should either add to or resolve this central conflict.
Consider an internal conflict
Not every story needs a strong internal conflict — for example, Sherlock Holmes is more concerned about solving mysteries than searching his soul. But for most genres, a personal struggle can make the character more multi-layered and believable, and the story more compelling as a result.
This internal plight may come from a challenge to the character’s belief system, or a memory from the past that they can’t shake. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice prominently features internal conflicts. Both Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy let their pride and assumptions about one another's backgrounds stand in the way of their romance and, by extension, their happiness. Only by overcoming their prejudices and learning to see past each others' status could they begin to ease the tension and allow their romance to flourish.
Sometimes, internal and external conflicts play off each other and tie the character and narrative arcs together. In this way, sussing out an internal conflict may help you shape the central conflict itself.
4. Find a setting that suits the story
As you’d expect, the setting of a story varies wildly depending on your genre. Say you’re writing historical fiction about soldiers on the Western Front during World War II (think Atonement ) — the setting is part and parcel with the story concept. But even if your setting isn’t quite so intertwined with your novel’s plot, you should still put a good amount of thought into it.
Indeed, whether you’re building an elaborate mythical world or basing your narrative in a real location, it’s important to make sure that this environment helps you tell the story. Not quite sure how to do that? We’ve got a couple of suggestions for you.
Use the setting to enhance your conflict
If you’re choosing from several potential settings, ask yourself which one will most effectively heighten the central conflict. For instance, if your character is trying to find themselves, you might want to set the story in a big city full of exciting opportunities. A small, down-to-earth town may pop up as a stark contrast to that (for example, if your main character goes home for the holidays), but it probably won’t be ideal as your main setting.
One thing to note: though it doesn’t necessarily have to increase the conflict, your setting should never undermine the obstacles in the story. If you’re writing a horror that relies on the main character being utterly isolated, setting it in a theme park with free phone-charging points and maximum 4G signal might not be ideal.
Do some research (if needed)
🧭 For fantasy and sci-fi novels with complex invented social systems, you can look into both lore and existing scientific developments to strike a balance between what’s most interesting and what makes sense. This comprehensive worldbuilding guide , complete with a thorough template, might be of assistance to you.
🌎 For settings based on actual locations, especially those that you haven’t spent much (or any) time exploring yourself, find out more about the general living conditions and common lifestyles there. You don’t have to visit the place to get to know it — use blogs, books, or even Google Street View to construct a convincing image of life in this setting.
5. Decide on an ending
If you’ve written any kind of story before, you’ll know that it’s usually easy to start one, but finishing it can feel like a Herculean feat. Sometimes you lose direction of where the story’s going, sometimes you stumble into a creative cul-de-sac — both are incredibly frustrating. The good news is, you can let the story's ending inspire what happens in the lead-up. In other words, you can reverse-engineer from the finale to create a solid outline for the entire plot!
Pro-tip: Reverse-engineering from the ending is especially useful when planning for a mystery .
By far, the most common, organic way to end a story is to simply resolve the central conflict, giving characters closure and providing readers with answers to all their questions. Star-crossed lovers should get together for the finale, detective stories should end with the solving of a mystery. This is the type of ending you should aim for unless you’re writing a series , in which cliffhangers and open endings may be appropriate.
Follow a character arc
If you’re really struggling to come up with a satisfying finale, let your protagonist’s arc lead the way. After all, the story is about them; if you know where they will end up, that should give you a rough indication of where your story ends. For instance, if your character struggles in a toxic relationship throughout the story, a logical ending might be for them to move out and start up a new, independent life.
Be careful with ambiguous and twist endings
Unclear endings and plot twists have their places in literature — when done correctly, they thrive in literary fiction and mystery novels, respectively. But they’re also challenging to pull off. Writing a twist is often walking the line between not being surprising enough and being overly dramatic to the point where it's unconvincing. As for ambiguities, most readers don’t enjoy being left on the edge — they want a solid, conclusive ending (think "happy ever after" in a romance novel, or the villain's defeat in fantasy stories). So unless you can build onto it well enough, it’s probably safer to avoid twists and open endings.
How to Write a Novel
Author and ghostwriter Tom Bromley will guide you from page 1 to the finish line.
6. Consider your novel’s style and structure
Now let’s take a break from the story-based aspects of planning a novel and look at some technicalities. When it comes to style and structure, you may feel inclined to just go with the flow and see what happens. But to help you maintain consistency and avoid tedious revisions, here are a few elements to think about as you plan a novel.
Point of view
Most writers choose between the first and the third person POV. First person gives readers direct access to the mind of the protagonist. Third person, while less intimate, gives you the chance to explore a wider range of events and perspectives in the story.
A middle ground between first and third person is a multiple-POV book, often used for stories with an ensemble cast of characters. Use this breakdown of the benefits of each viewpoint to gauge which one’s the best for your novel. (To be clear, we don’t recommend writing a whole book in second person unless you have an extremely good reason for doing so.)
Note that each POV also comes with its own voice . With first person, the narrator voice is the voice of the protagonist. Using third person POV, not only can you explore the voices of your characters, you can also set the tone for the story. Whether the story is eerie or humorous, whether it's cynical or light-hearted — third person viewpoint can play a big part in determining these.
Most stories will follow a linear timeline, although some might not. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl , a domestic mystery about the disappearance of Amy Dunne, is a good example of a non-linear story. The chapters don't just switch between Amy's and her husband Nick's viewpoints — they also jump back and forth in time. Nick’s narration tells the story that’s happening now , while Amy’s narration, at least in the first section of the novel, gives the backstory of their marriage. This adds to the suspense, although it might be too complicated a structure for other genres.
Pro-tip: If you do want to follow multiple timelines, it’s best to map everything out onto one big chronology first, so as not to lose track when you write.
Present vs. past tense
Again, there is a trend here: past tense tends to be the go-to for most genres, especially fantasy and science fiction . But that’s not to say that you don’t have a choice.
Present tense gives a sense of intimacy and immediacy to your story, and makes it easy to stage flashbacks. If you want to focus on the “now,” you will likely lean toward using present tense. Just be absolutely sure before you start writing, because editing the tense of several chapters (or a whole manuscript) won’t be easy.
7. Know when to start writing
Some people prefer to have a detailed outline to guide their writing, while others want to discover the story as they write. The decision of when to stop planning and start writing relies entirely on how you work best as an author.
However, before moving on, you should make sure you have at least developed:
✅ A narrative arc with a beginning, midpoint , and end ✅ Character profiles for your main characters ✅ A clear setting
These elements will come up again and again as you write, so having a firm grasp on them should help you immensely, saving you from excessive rewriting down the line.
Pro-tip: When you think you’ve done all the planning you need, leave it for a week before you start writing. That week’s reserved for mulling things over and seeing if you want to change anything.
Once you’ve nailed all those elements down — in other words, once you’ve created a good foundation — you’re ready to start writing that novel !
Recommended posts from the Reedsy Blog
What is Pathos? Definition and Examples in Literature
Pathos is a literary device that uses language to evoke an emotional response, typically to connect readers with the characters in a story.
How to Start a Children’s Book: Coming Up with Your Big Idea
If you've ever dreamed of writing a children's book but aren't sure where to start, check out this post to learn more about how you can create the perfect story for kids.
How to Become a Travel Writer in 5 Steps: A Guide for Travel Bugs
If you want to get paid to share your adventures, learn how to become a travel writer with these five tips.
How to Write a Biography: A 7-Step Guide [+Template]
Portraying someone’s life on paper in a comprehensive and engaging way requires solid preparation. Here are 7 steps you can follow.
When to Use Semicolons: 4 Rules and Examples
Confused about when to use a semicolon and how it's different from other punctuations? Here's a breakdown, with plenty of examples.
Alright vs All Right: What is the Difference? [+ Examples]
Wondering what the difference is between alright and all right? Or which spelling is correct? This posts breaks it down using plenty of examples.
Join a community of over 1 million authors
Reedsy is more than just a blog. Become a member today to discover how we can help you publish a beautiful book.
1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy, come meet them.
Enter your email or get started with a social account:
The ultimate app for outlining
Structure your story with the free Reedsy Book Editor.
Detail from Untitled (Entry) ( c 1917) by Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso. Courtesy Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr
How to plan your novel
Inspiration rarely comes as a mysterious visitation from the muse. far better to learn the techniques and habits of the craft.
by Jason Whittaker + BIO
is head of English and journalism at the University of Lincoln, UK. His books include Magazine Production (2nd ed, 2016) and Tech Giants, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of Journalism (2018). He blogs at Zoamorphosis .
Edited by Lucy Foulkes
Need to know
In his memoir On Writing (2010), Stephen King observes: ‘If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.’ King’s advice is about developing the habit of being a writer: writing every day will turn you into a writer. But in order to be a novelist, you need to know more than this, such as how to create compelling characters and structure your plot.
In my experience, two factors tend to hold back writers from completing their novel. The first is that, as King says, writing isn’t yet a habit: because we all have to write at some point (even if it’s no more than a text or social media post about our day), there is an assumption that knocking out 80,000 words or so is just like our regular writing activities – just more so. It is not. In this guide, I’ll show you some of the extra things you need to take into account when planning your book.
The second factor is confidence. This is usually a lack of confidence, but occasionally an excess of it as well: one phenomenon among would-be writers is that talking about a project can give as much satisfaction as actually doing it. The book is written in their head without the need to commit a single word to the page. More often, however, authors lack confidence, and worry about whether they are doing things ‘right’, which is why I’ll cover the essentials here to get you started.
The most important point to start from is that while there are a number of things you should consider when planning your book – such as characterisation, plotting or the style and voice of your work – there is no single golden rule for how to write a novel. Some authors will sit down in their study – or even hire an office where they go to work every day – and work 9 to 5, while others will grab an hour or two at the end of the day after the children have gone to bed. Some writers like to plot out every event meticulously before they begin the first sentence; others get bored if they know everything in advance, and instead treat fiction as a kind of experiment to see how characters will react. However, while every author will write a novel differently, there are some common themes that occur again and again.
Even for those who launch straight into a novel, ploughing through a first draft in an attempt to ‘get something down’, these are the four main factors you need to consider for your major project: character, plot, place, and voice or style. While I am distinguishing the four essential elements of a novel that you need to consider when planning, it is important that these are developed together in parallel.
What’s more, you’ll need to find the ways to cultivate your own writing habits – the times and places you work best, whether you’re a morning writer or an evening one, or the kind of person who needs absolute quiet or background activity.
1. Character: The first step to consider is who your characters are going to be. For many people setting out to write for the first time, this might feel counterintuitive. After all, the plot or narrative is what many people talk about when they want to indicate that a book is compelling. Yet we care about a story only when it affects characters that touch us deeply in some way. Readers might have only a vague sense of some of the events that happen in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) but, once read, figures such as Pip, Miss Havisham and Magwitch are rarely forgotten. Likewise, when we follow Lyra through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000), Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), or Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), we are drawn into the storytelling because these are people we care about.
The British novelist Ross Raisin describes characters as ‘the lifeblood of fiction’, and observes that because they are the story, they need to be as unique as the work of fiction they inhabit. We want to believe in such people, no matter how fantastical they appear. To make them compelling, you will need to work out what your main character desires – what they want, how are they frustrated (because without this there is no drama) and how they will change to get what they need, which is not always the same as what they want.
2. Plot: If characters are the essential components of a novel, then the events that happen to them form the plot. As we have already seen, knowing all aspects of the plot is not necessary when you begin to write, but in practice most authors will want to have some sense of the overarching structure of their plot. Indeed, so important can plotting be that I’ll cover this in more detail in the ‘Learn more’ section.
Although it is by no means an absolute requirement, a useful technique for beginning to plan your novel is to distinguish between the story (the series of events that occur in a chronological fashion) and the narrative (how that story is told). In a thriller such as Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon (1981), the chronological story is the events that lead to the transformation of Francis Dolarhyde into the serial killer ‘The Tooth Fairy’, but the novel’s narrative tells much of this in flashback. A story’s beginning can be quite tedious, so narratives tend to start in the middle of things: launching into a story nearer to the climactic action gives us an impetus to care about the characters.
High modernist and postmodernist fiction often eschews conventional narrative structure, but the majority of writers tend to use a variant of what’s known as the three-act or five-act structure. In the simplest of these, the story breaks down into the setup, the confrontation and resolution. This is extremely popular with blockbuster formats such as Star Wars or Die Hard , where the protagonist is introduced, faces potentially disastrous complications, but comes through at the end. The five-act structure – beloved by William Shakespeare and many writers since – complicates the simpler version by following the initial exposition with rising action or conflict, the climax, a period of falling action and the dénouement which resolves the action at the end. This is now the standard format for many plots. For additional help on narrative structures, see the blog by the British writer John Yorke, who focuses in particular on how inciting incidents lead to a journey, during which the hero experiences a crisis and climax before the story is resolved.
3. Place: The events of your novel need to take place in a particular location. When it comes to worldbuilding, as this part of the process gets called, the assumption is often that writing about what you know will be easier than creating something entirely from scratch. In fact, over many years working with creative writers, I’ve discovered that they can find it more difficult to see familiar locations with fresh eyes in order to make them vivid.
Worldbuilding often comes into its own – indeed, overtakes all other aspects of fiction writing – with science fiction and fantasy. J R R Tolkien invented complete languages and complex histories for the races of Middle Earth, and much of this wasn’t intended for publication but instead to ground his own vision of this alternative reality. Likewise, any form of historical fiction can involve considerable amounts of research to flesh out the place for a reader.
A sense of place can be immensely important to the development of a character, and two simple tricks will help you establish this. First, describe a location where your protagonist spends a great deal of time. List 10 things in the room where they sleep, for example, and one thing that the character wishes to keep hidden (such as a photograph or childhood toy) – this can help to describe their motivation. Second, sketch out the furthest location that they will travel to in the story: this might be a far-flung planet or it could be the next village across a valley, but in both cases it will help to establish the scale of the world in which these fictional characters live.
4. Voice and style: A writer’s style is very often the component that brings a novel to life, and provides it with its unique DNA. The cerebral voice of David Foster Wallace, for example, is a world apart from the tough-talking erudition of Raymond Chandler’s characters or the gleeful spikiness of Angela Carter. Sometimes, a particular voice gives rise to an entire work of fiction: Gail Honeyman began writing her bestselling novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (2017) to capture the voice of an isolated woman who began speaking to her after reading an article.
The factors that go into creating a writer’s style are manifold, but I’ll highlight a few of them here. First, is the voice of the narrator distinctive – a separate character in the novel, such as Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or the three women who recount the events of The Girl on the Train (2016)? This decision often leads to the second immediate choice for a novelist, concerning whether the narrator is unreliable – such as the split protagonist in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996).
Third, authors must choose the point of view from which the story will be told. First-person point of view limits the text to the thoughts and experiences of the narrator, typically a distinct character in the novel. Third-person is more flexible, and can be omniscient – knowing everything in the story – or close, as though following around one person with a camera to view everything through their perspective. Omniscient third-person was very popular in 19th-century novels, whereby the narrator had access to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters. During the 20th century, however, close third-person has become much more popular, limiting the perspective to one person at a time, allowing information to be hidden and revealed more slowly to the reader.
Although you need to make some decisions early on, such as the point of view and who the narrator will be, be prepared for many elements of your own style to emerge through the actual process of writing. As you progress with your novel, make sure the voice and style are consistent and coherent throughout.
Key points – How to plan your novel
- Cultivate a writing habit. Consider the times and places you work best, whether you’re a morning writer or an evening one, or the kind of person who needs absolute quiet or background activity. Then work out your preferred writing schedule and try to stick to it.
- Start with the characters. More than anything, a successful novel is about characterisation, so try making some notes about who your main characters are, what motivates them, and what challenges lie ahead of them.
- Work out the plot. A helpful starting point is to distinguish between the story you want to tell (the series of events that will occur in a chronological fashion) and the narrative (how you plan to tell that story, such as by starting in the middle or via flashbacks).
- Think about where the events in your novel will take place. Whether it’s far-flung fantasy or contemporary drama, you need to cultivate a sense of place for your readers that will bring the action to life and situate characters in a world in which readers can immerse themselves.
- Experiment with voice and style. Who will be the narrator of your story? Will they be reliable? Will you write in the first-person or from a third-person perspective? There is no such thing as the correct style or voice, so explore how different tenses and perspectives can make your writing more vivid.
In 1928, the Russian folklorist and scholar Vladimir Propp argued that there were only a few underlying narratives that made up the majority of folk tales. Analysing a large number of individual tales, he made note of the different events that occurred, such as a wizard giving a hero a potion to slip past the guards, or an acrobat providing a talking eagle that can carry the protagonist wherever they want to go. Based on this, Propp suggested that there were 31 types of action (‘narrative functions’) that could take place within a story, such as the Departure, when the hero leaves to start his quest, or the Task, where a difficult assignment is given. He also found that there were seven types of character: the hero, the villain, the donor, the helper, the princess (or ‘sought-for person’), the despatcher, and the false hero.
At first glance, Propp’s categorisation – written up in his book Morphology of the Folk Tale (1928) – might seem extremely limiting, but he provided an important insight into the notion of underlying narrative structures. The idea is that there are fundamental patterns to storytelling, or archetypes, that provide us with a deep sense of fulfilment when we hear them repeated. Like cadences in music (which often follow familiar movements from one chord to another), these structures bring with them that often-overused word, closure.
Trying to follow a formula too rigidly is likely to render the plot of your novel stiff and uninspiring, but Yorke provides a basic framework that will work for most stories. First, there is the inciting incident : the ‘What will happen?’ moment. We ask this question, for example, when the corpse appears at the beginning of a crime novel, instigating the search for the killer. After the plot has been initiated, the protagonist will undergo some kind of journey . In many cases, this is a literal quest, as in Frodo’s travels to destroy the Ring but, more importantly, it involves internal change on the part of the main character, who should not be the same at the end of the book as at the beginning. The crisis is the pivotal point where the hero reaches rock bottom, where all hope seems to be lost and the journey is in danger of being abandoned. It is the moment when a character is put most to the test. As observed by the Earl of Salisbury in Shakespeare’s Henry V the night before the battle of Agincourt, it is the moment of the most ‘fearful odds’.
The crisis is followed by the climax , the final moment, which might indeed be a literal fight between protagonist and antagonist, hero and villain. As Yorke observes, if the inciting incident asks, ‘What will happen?’, the climax answers: ‘This.’ Finally, the resolution brings about a sense of closure. Sometimes there are rewards for good behaviour; sometimes, as with tragedies, the tying up of loose ends provides anything but a happy ending.
Yorke describes these elements of a narrative as the ‘building blocks’ that form the ‘primary colours’ of a story. They are not there to be followed as a slavish formula, but by asking yourself what the inciting incident of your narrative is, what journey the protagonist undergoes, how the crisis takes place and how that is different from the climax, and how the story is to be resolved, you will go a long way to satisfying the demands of your readers.
Of course, if you want to write literary fiction, you might deliberately seek to subvert a lot of these building blocks, but knowing how the general rules of narratives work can make such subversion much more effective. Indeed, if you want to be really playful with the rules, as in reverse narratives such as Sarah Waters’s novel The Night Watch (2006) or Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991), then plotting and planning the structure of your narrative becomes more important than ever. This is why engaging in some preparation for a novel becomes so important: rather than just launching into writing and seeing what emerges, knowing something about the direction of the narrative and motivations of your character will make for a more compelling final story.
Links & books
- The John Yorke Story blog is a useful site for advice on the craft of storytelling.
- The National Centre for Writing has free resources for aspiring writers, as well as events and courses.
There are many guides and memoirs by novelists on their craft, and the following are some of the best introductions to the art of writing a novel:
- Margaret Atwood, On Writers and Writing (2015)
- James Frey, How to Write Damn Good Fiction: Advanced Techniques for Dramatic Storytelling (1994)
- Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966)
- Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
- Robert Cohen and Jay Parini (eds), The Writer’s Reader: Vocation, Preparation, Creation (2017). This is an anthology of essays about the art of writing by famous authors, including Zadie Smith, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf and Henry James.
- Ross Raisin, Read This if You Want to Be a Great Writer (2018)
- Karen Stevens, Writing a First Novel: Reflections on the Journey (2014)
- John Yorke, Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (2013)
How to write a love poem
Flirtatious texts are soon forgotten. Learn to express your feelings in a beautiful way that will make a lasting impression
by Dan Simpson
Sleep and dreams
How to embrace being a lark or an owl
Skip the advice about training yourself to rise early or burn the midnight oil. Your natural rhythms are your best guide
by Shayla Love
How to discover new music
In a musical rut? Whatever your age or existing tastes, you can find surprise and enjoyment beyond the streaming algorithms
by James Hadfield
How to Plan a Novel That Rocks
It's not easy to plan a novel. In the eternal battle of pantsers vs. plotters (spoiler, almost all the folks reading this are somewhere in the gray area between the two), the former might spend months planning the perfect book, while the latter will write first, figure out the plot holes later.
For those who are writing their first novel or just want to spend less time working on your characters after the first draft, this article is for you. We are going to look at:
- Different structures you can use to plan a novel
- How to come up with great characters and conflicts to fuel your novel
- Coming up with a great climax and working backwards from it
- Planning a great setting
- How to take tips from other books in your genre
- Goal setting to turn your plan into a first draft
Okay, let’s plan a novel.
Choose a Method to Plan Your Novel
First things first, there is no single right way to plan a novel. There isn’t even a best way to plan a novel, just like most other aspects of writing.
That said, there are a number of methods to make planning a novel not only easier, but more effective at creating a great book. These are called deals with elder gods story structures.
Story structures are, at their core, just ways that modern stories are told. They identify key aspects and events in a story that make a tale work well. There are a bunch of different structures, but we’ve done all the legwork to break them down for you in this article here .
If you hate planning, you can just skim those structures so you have an idea of what key elements, or beats, you should be including. It’s okay, no one is going to take away your title of “pantser” if you give a bit of thought to your story before you start writing.
For the planning aficionados, choose a story structure that resonates with your writing. If you’re starting out on your first book, might I suggest the tried and true Three-Act Structure?
Planning with the Three-Act Structure
Most fiction books these days, at least in Western storytelling , follow the Three-Act Structure or a more specific version of it. That’s because this method of outlining and telling a story is broad enough to accommodate basically anything, but contains the right elements to make it worth reading.
I’m not going to dive too deep into the exact nature of the Three-Act Structure, but you can read all about it here .
For the purposes of outlining, the Three-Act Structure is broken up into… three acts. I’ll wait while you take that potentially surprising idea in. Those three acts each contain three specific story beats— defining or critical moments that ensure your story is satisfying for the reader.
Act One is the Setup. This is where you establish and then shatter the ordinary world of your main character. The beats included in Act One are:
- Exposition: The introduction to your protagonist and their world.
- Inciting Incident: An event that sets the whole story into motion, shattering the ordinary world of the protagonist.
- Plot Point One: When the protagonist decides to embrace the opportunity presented by the inciting incident.
Act Two is the Confrontation. The second act normally takes up about half of your book and continues to raise the stakes for your main character. The three beats included in this act are:
- Rising Action: A series of scenes that introduces friends and enemies, raises obstacles, and promotes growth in your protagonist.
- The Midpoint: Something big and bad that makes your protagonist pivot (hello, buzzword from 2020), pushing them towards great danger. Most of the time, your characters fail to overcome this challenge, and that should threaten their goal.
- Plot Point Two: The biggest challenge yet, which your protagonist fails to overcome. In the fallout, your main character finds new resolve and might change their mind about what their initial goal was in the first place.
Act Three is the Resolution. In this act, everything comes together and, as you might expect, is resolved. The three beats of Act Three are:
- The Pre-Climax: Despite their growth and new resolve, your protagonist’s bold march towards their goal appears to be failing, and they seem to be losing. Here we see the full power of the antagonist. Every time I write about this, I have to mention this beat is sometimes called the “Dark Night of the Soul” because that’s exactly what I would have called it back when I was in high school.
- The Climax: The big payoff. This is usually a single scene where we see the protagonist take everything they’ve learned and achieve their bigger goal (vanquishing the villain, toppling the dystopian government, getting into business school, etc.)
- The Denouement: The falling action that follows the climax. Don’t spend too much time on this beat; a few scenes are generally all you need to establish what life is like after the protagonist has achieved their goal.
Those are the basics of the Three-Act Structure. Understanding them will help you in both planning a novel and writing it, even if you ultimately go with another story structure or don your rebel cap and decree, “I’m not using a story structure!”
For those of you who are extreme plotters (aka the most cultured of writers), I have another method you can use that will help you get to know your stories and characters better than any living, breathing people you happen to know in real life.
Planning a Novel with the Snowflake Method
Pantsers beware, this might give you heart palpitations. The Snowflake Method is a very detailed way to outline and plan a novel. It takes a long time–like, over a month–but leaves you with an outline that virtually ensures you have a near-inhuman understanding of your characters, no plot holes to be found, and a story that is ready to be written pretty dang quickly.
The Snowflake Method takes your one-sentence idea for a story and gets you to expand it, first into multiple sentences, then paragraphs. It also gets you to really get to know your characters, including their flaws, goals, conflicts, and more. Add in entire summaries from the perspective of major characters and a detailed breakdown of every. single. scene. in your story.
It sounds tedious, and for many, it will be way too much. But you’ll struggle to find a more effective and renowned way to plan a novel.If this method of planning sounds right for you, click here to read our complete walkthrough, including how easy it is to use the Snowflake Method in Dabble.
Start with Character and Conflict
Alright, so you’ve figured out the framework you want to use to plan your novel. Next up, you’re going to want to think about your characters.
Characters are the lifeblood of your story. So we’re going to start planning your story with them. Makes sense, right?
Most importantly, you want to focus on your main characters: your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). You can plan out your other characters–in fact, I insist that you do–but these are the big ones that you have to nail down when you plan a novel.
Planning your characters means more than just surface level details like hair color, height, etc. Yes, those are important, but your characters need more than those details. This is especially true for your main characters.
When planning your characters, what:
- Is their ultimate goal?
- Motivates them towards that goal?
- Are their flaws ?
- Do they want and what do they need?
- Arc will they experience?
You might also want to conduct a character interview with your protagonist and antagonist. And guess what? We created one that actually helps out that you can read here .
Characters are Driven by Conflict
Once you have a decent idea of who you want your characters to be, it’s time to think about the conflicts they’re going to experience.
Just as characters are the driving force of your story, conflicts are what push characters. In your story, you’ll have a primary conflict–the bigger one that is linked to your larger plot–and smaller conflicts that help promote growth and change in your characters.
There are four types of conflicts you can use to create those that you’ll use in your book.
Person vs. person conflict is just as it sounds. In this type of conflict, your protagonist faces off against your antagonist, or other characters will be up against each other.
Person vs. self is when the conflict is internal. This includes trying to overcome trauma, wrestling with morals, questioning one’s identity or faith, or rising to meet a challenge.
Person vs. society involves a conflict against a larger power. A character might rebel against a corrupt government, facing off against a cult, or act as a spy.
Person vs. nature conflict pits a human (or a non-human character, if that is what you’re writing about) against the forces of nature. They might use their resourcefulness, determination, or survival skills in the face of a natural disaster or wild animals.
There is a lot of wiggle room in these conflicts to make them suit your needs, but these are the broad categories you’ll be looking at. So think about which conflicts you’ll use for your plot and for each of the character arcs your precious creations will experience.
If you’re up for more info about conflicts, hop on over to our blog on the different types of conflicts , including some that combine more than one type!
Plan Your Novel’s Plot
Okay, so we have the structure we’re going to use, we’ve outlined some amazing characters, and we know the conflicts our characters are going to experience.
But, just as an amazing plot is nothing without strong characters, your characters need an amazing story. Otherwise, your book is going to end up on the top of everyone’s DNF pile.
So, next up, it’s time to figure out your story.
Start With the End
One of the easiest ways to plan a novel is to start at the end. When you were originally dreaming up this amazing tale you’re about to write, odds are you thought about how it ends. You thought about the big battle, the protagonist’s triumph–or defeat!–that will make your future readers tell their friends they must read your book.
Getting to that end can be difficult, though, even for experienced writers. That’s why some writers start with their climax and work backwards to plan a novel.
Plan a Novel Backwards
Since you already figured out your central conflict, write down how it ends. From there, you can work your way backwards to map the rest of the story. One of the easiest ways to do this is to follow your protagonist’s character arc backwards. You know how they finish their tale, but how do they get there from the content, unadventurous hobbit they were at the beginning?
If you’re following the Three-Act Structure or any other story structure, you can also use the story beats to retrace your steps from the climax all the way back to the exposition. Remember, some beats contain multiple scenes, while others contain just one.
Something else to keep in mind: outline your novel as much or as little as you want to.
You can choose to outline every single scene from the exposition to the denouement of your story, like you would in the Snowflake Method. You can choose to write down one sentence for each story beat so you just have a guiding light to help you in your journey.
The latter is too wild, too adventurous, for me personally, but it is perfectly valid. No matter which route you choose, you’ll find your story will experience some organic growth along the way. Plotters will have less of it, while pantsers can have a lot more of it.
Do what works best for you.
Choose an Interesting Setting
Characters and conflict? Double check.
Plot? Mega check.
There are a lot more things you can do to plan a novel, like think about themes, build an entire world or language, create timelines and religions, and more, but the last thing I’d encourage you to do before you start is to choose an interesting setting.
Your setting is where your story takes place. It’s where your awesome characters face their conflicts and experience the plot you’ve created. Setting might not be as critical as character or plot, but it still plays a large role in your story.
When planning your book, make your setting serve your story. It should complement the tone of your writing and be suitable for the conflicts taking place. The heart of a volcano is a strange place for two advertising executives to fall in love.
Think about how your setting can improve your overall story. An isolated forest spanning hundreds of miles is a great setting for something spooky. An undiscovered island is perfect for an action-adventure story. A middle-of-nowhere town with a rundown inn inherited by a city slicker is exactly what you need for a fun romance.
If you’re using a real-world setting or a setting that could feasibly exist in the real world, you might need to do some research as you’re planning. I know that might sound boring, but your readers are savvy and smart; they will catch lazy worldbuilding and happily call you out on it.
Take Tips from your Genre
Lastly, take a gander at your favorite books in the genre you’re writing in. This should be easy, since writers love using reading as an excuse to “research” for their book.
When looking at other books, keep some of these questions in mind:
- What point of view do they use? Is the book in past or present tense?
- Can you identify the story beats throughout the narrative?
- Which archetypes and conflicts work with your genre?
- What elements of your favorite stories do you want to incorporate into your own style of writing?
- What didn’t work in your favorite books?
There is nothing wrong with using other works, especially works you love, to inspire your own story. That said, don’t plagiarize other books. Make your story your own and make it awesome.
Some hard truth time: you can’t plan forever. There comes a point where you have to realize you’ve planned your novel to the best of your abilities (or as much as you want to), and now the fun part begins.
Take everything you’ve pulled together to make an awesome story. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing worth doing is, right?
One of the best ways to put your novel plan into action is to set a deadline, hold yourself accountable, and make writing a regular part of your day. We make that as easy as possible with Dabble’s goal tracking.
With Dabble, you can set a deadline for when you want to finish your first draft and determine how long you want your book to be. You can even mark some days off from writing if you know you won’t be able to write. With all that, Dabble crunches the numbers for you and lets you know how many words you should be aiming for each day and then congratulates you with a tasteful explosion of confetti when you reach that goal.
That feature, along with easy access to Dabble’s Plot Grid and all the other notes you’ve made while planning your novel, is free for you to try with a 14-day free trial of Dabble Premium , no credit card required. So what are you waiting for?
Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. learn. create..
Book marketing. Those two innocuous words instill fear and loathing into the hearts of so many writers. You just want to write your books and have them sell themselves. Why do you have to tell people about it? Well, Susan, because you do. I know you want to write, but if your goal is to write, publish, and make money from your books, then you’re going to have to find a way to make them visible. Thousands of new titles are uploaded to Amazon every single day. Millions of books are being published every year, and no matter how good your story is, without marketing, there’s not much chance very many people will find it.
What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train? Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear. Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh? There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
Dystopian fiction is one of the darker subgenres of science fiction and fantasy. It takes us into dark, foreboding worlds, where oppression and bleak landscapes are the norm. Books like 1984 by George Orwell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley have become classics that shine a light on political corruption, environmental disaster, and societal collapse.Why do we love these stories? Maybe it's because dystopian fiction allows us to explore worst-case scenarios, to grapple with the idea that the world we know and love could be lost forever. It's a way for us to confront our fears and anxieties about the future, to see what could happen if we continue down a certain path.