Ah, the blank page. So full of promise, waiting only for your inspiration and hard work to become something unique and wonderful. Or, if you’re like many of us, it’s an intimidating void. How do you take that great idea for a book out of your head and put it on the page? Relax. Take a deep breath. It’s all going to work out fine.
There are as many different approaches and tips to writing novels together as there are kinds of books. But when planning a novel, there are certain steps that apply whether you’re writing a novel, a children’s story, a comic or any narrative form. Although nonfiction books share some similar steps with fiction (research and organization in particular), they’re quite different overall, so we’ll just focus on fiction story planning.
Refining your idea
When story planning for your novel, the first thing you absolutely must be able to do is to describe your concept clearly and succinctly. You probably have a lot of stuff floating around in your head right now: Some characters, a key scene, maybe a title. But when you strip all of that away, what is your story about? Can you state it in a single sentence?
If someone asked what your fictional story is about and you had only 30 seconds to explain it, what would you say? This is often called the “elevator pitch,” and it’s essential to have one. Boiling your idea down to its essence will give you a clear signpost to follow. This is the story you want to tell. If you ever get lost along the way, you can always use your “elevator pitch” to correct your course. Keep it in front of you, like the North Star, and you can’t go too far astray.
Many novel writing coaches will encourage you to get it down to a single sentence, but if you’re new at this, try three sentences first. Pretty much any story that can fit in a single book can be summed up in three sentences, though it isn’t always easy:
Frodo Baggins, a young hobbit with an innocent heart, receives a cursed ring and an impossible task: to destroy it. With the help of warriors, a wizard, and his friends, Frodo carries the ring from his peaceful Shire all the way to Mordor, stronghold of ancient evil. Along the way, he confronts terrifying enemies on all sides—armies of orcs, a backstabbing guide, and, worst of all, the darker aspects of human nature.
Okay, that stripped-down paragraph leaves out most of what makesThe Lord of the Rings a classic. But in just three sentences (73 words) we’ve captured our protagonist (Frodo Baggins), the central problem (destroy the ring), the obstacles to be overcome (terrifying enemies, etc.), and suggested the resolution (go to Mordor). It’s easy to determine the story’s genre and tone, and we’ve even hinted at an underlying message (confront the darkness of human nature). That’s a lot of information!
Try this exercise on a few of your own favorite novels to get the hang of it. Focus on those same elements: protagonist, problem, obstacles, resolution, genre, and tone. Who and what is this story really about?
When you apply this method when writing your own novel, you’ll discover you’re actually making lots of progress in defining and organizing your ideas. Once you’ve got your story boiled down to three sentences, see if you can carve it down to just one. Janice Hardy’s Fiction University blog has lots of great advice on developing your idea into a full-fledged story.
Plotting vs. pantsing
Now that you have your idea crystallized into a tight little pearl, you can start expanding it and filling in the details. This is where your individual writing style really starts to come into play.
If you follow writing discussions on the web, you might have encountered the terms “plotter” and “pantser.” These might sound like college pranks, but they’re actually two basic philosophies of story creation.
A “plotter” is someone who likes to plan everything out in advance: writing outlines, coming up with character biographies, researching locations, and figuring out the “beats” where key plot points will happen in the novel. The great thing about plotting is you’ll always know exactly where you’re going. The drawback is that it front-loads your work. If you don’t have the plotting temperament, you might get discouraged or so bogged down in details that you never actually start writing your novel.
A “pantser,” on the other hand, writes the novel by the seat of her pants, making it all up as she goes along, with just a few key scenes or other landmarks in mind. This approach gives free expression to your creativity. When it works, it’s like an adrenaline rush discovering where the story goes, backing your characters into corners and letting them find their way out. The drawback is that it’s easy to get lost. You’re also setting yourself up for an unfocused, cluttered first draft that will need lots of revision just to make sense.
It’s a good idea to try out both writing approaches at least once to see what works for you. And remember, you don’t have to choose a side. Maybe a middle path is best for you, writing a loose novel outline to give you a direction, but one that gets updated constantly as you go. Science fiction author Veronica Sicoe has some excellent thoughts about moving from idea to structure on her blog.
There are lots of different methods and tips for getting the ideas out of your head and into an outline, but always remember that nothing is set in stone. If you’re mid-chapter and you get a better idea than the one you put in your outline, you always have the power to change the outline!
Getting to know your characters and their world
No plot is good enough if you don’t have the characters to support it. Spend some time figuring out who your characters really are. They aren’t just names, and they aren’t just there to “do” the plot. They help to create the plot (Chuck Wendig has quite a bit to say on this topic, if you don’t mind a lot of coarse language).
Give the characters in your novel as much attention as you gave to your outline. You don’t have to write in-depth biographies for every incidental person who wanders into your story, but spend some alone time with each of your main characters. What’s their story? What do they look like? How do they talk? How do they think? What are their goals, their fears, and their annoying personal habits? Try letting the characters speak for themselves in a freeform novel writing exercise: write down some basic interview questions and let them answer in their own voices.
“Worldbuilding” is a frequent topic of discussion in science fiction and fantasy circles, but all fiction writers have to do it to some degree. This is when you think about settings.
If your story takes place on a fictional planet or just in a fictional neighborhood, remember that nobody else knows anything about the place, so it’s up to you to supply the information. Draw a map for yourself so you know how far apart things are from each other: that will help you figure out your timelines, whether it’s tracing a journey across a desert or determining a murderer’s alibi. Think about the settings of key scenes in your novel: what do they look like? Use all of your senses; the noise of a construction site or the smells of a marketplace can help to enrich your scenes, and even change their direction. If the characters in your novel aren’t human or live in a vastly different time, you may need to think about language, clothing, religion, and customs. Author Juliette Wade often dives deep into worldbuilding topics on her blog.
If your setting is in the real world, don’t forget to research. Look up maps, read other stories or watch movies set in those locations or eras to get a sense of what they are (or were) like. Travel guides and photo books are great sources of inspiration and information about exotic settings. Have fun exploring the world of your story!
When you have your plot, your characters, and your setting, it’s time to stop planning your novel and start doing. Remember that your outline, character profiles, and worldbuilding are all in the service of your story. That’s why you’re here; that’s what matters. You can always go back and add more material to your planning folder as you write your next novel. But by doing some of the hard work at the beginning, you’ll have a much easier time filling up all those blank pages.