News room: How to Plan Your Next Novel

How to Plan Your Next Novel by Jessica Barrah

It’s the start of October, and as the nights draw in, it’s an ideal time to start planning a fresh new book project. You’ve got a whole month before NaNoWriMo starts, where you can blast ahead and get the bulk of your story written in double quick time. So why not get ahead of the game and properly plan the whole thing?

What’s The Big Idea?

What’s your novel going to be about? Think about the sort of books you like to read best, as you’ll be most accustomed to the way the genre works in terms of plot, structure and characterisation.

Or perhaps you’d like to slightly blend the genres of books you like instead of sticking just to one. For example, you might particularly like stories with a female heroine, a period setting, an element of suspense and mystery and an element of romance, as well as a quirky sense of humour. As Toni Morrison said,

‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

If this isn’t your first novel, are you going to continue the story you started in your previous book?
You could develop the story of a minor character, leap forward or backward in time from your first installment. Or would you rather make a clean break from your first book – totally different characters, perhaps a different style or genre?

If you don’t have a germ of an idea that you’d like to develop, then inspiration can come from many places: a news article, an unusual name, a snatch of intriguing conversation or a character on the bus. Lots of stories can develop from a ‘What if..?’ scenario. What if your very first boyfriend, and the love of your life contacted you from our of the blue? What if you found out that your next door neighbour was actually a spy? What if one day you started hearing the private thoughts of everyone around you? What if your poodle started talking to you – but in French?

Try and find an idea that you can express in one sentence – this is also going to be very useful in the future, when pitching your book to agents or publishers, as the hook to sell your novel. If you’re self publishing it will also be invaluable for marketing it. For example:

A social awkward teenage boy finds that he can time-travel by sneezing.

An obese middle-aged woman transforms her body and her love life with flamenco dancing.

Take a long walk in the autumn sunshine (or rain) to think about possible scenarios.

Shape Your Story

Every story has to have a beginning, middle and end – but there are various ways you can roughly plot your novel. In its simplest ‘three act structure’ form:

1. The beginning is where your hook your readers, introduce your main characters, and set up the
scenario – the main conflict of the book. For example, in a crime novel, you would usually have a murder that needs to be investigated. In a romance, you’d usually have a female character and a potential love interest that for one reason or another is extremely unsuitable.

2. In the middle section you need to develop your themes and reveal more about the main characters.

3. In final section the story needs to reach a climax, with the main conflicts resolved.

However, the three act structure can be overly simplistic, as explained in this blog.
A murder mystery might have a four or five act structure – allowing for twists and turns, a second murder, a reversal of assumptions and an act where the detective/protagonist themselves get into a difficult and potentially fatal situation before resolution and redemption.

To start with, map out your story in five or six sentences, to trace the main arc of the story – it doesn’t need to be detailed at this stage. Study different story structures (as ever there are lots of different articles about story structures on the internet) and you can amend your basic plan to add more interest as you wish.

For example:

1. A recently widowed man meets an attractive stranger in a cafe.
2. They quickly fall in love, but friends and his children warn him that she seems a little strange.
3. The man finds an old picture of his late wife with this woman, and finds out that his new girlfriend is actually his late wife’s long lost psychotic half sister
4. He discovers his new girlfriend was the driver of the hit and run car that killed his wife.
5. Just before he confronts her, she kidnaps his children.
6. He manages to rescue his children just in time, but the girlfriend drives her car off a cliff.

Now it’s time to get more detailed.

Make A Chapter Plan

There are lots of books and guides out there on the internet that can help you structure your stories in a more detailed way.For example The Story Grid and Fool Proof Outline: A No-Nonsense System for Productive Brainstorming, Outlining, & Drafting Novels – but have a look around for one that suits you best.

If you are aiming for a book of around 90,000 words, you can divide it up into chapters of between 3000-5000 words, so 18-30 chapters.

You can make your chapter plan as detailed as you like. Some people create a spreadsheet, with separate columns for a timeline, main plot points, subplot, which character is being focused on, note on how this chapter affects the main characters, or moves the plot on. A detailed plan like this can be very useful for involved story lines with chapters from different characters’ points of view, or stories with flashbacks to previous times (either recently or different eras) or keeping tabs on clues in a murder mystery.

Other authors prefer to stick post-it notes all over their walls, make a large chart on a pinboard or keep file cards. Some just know the vague direction they are going in, start writing and see what happens. It’s up to you – and you don’t actually have to write the detailed chapter plan before you start writing if it’s not your style. You can do it later after you’ve started – it can be a good way to figure out if your plot actually hangs together, and whether you’ve got enough tension and interest in your story at the right points.

Develop Your Characters

You might be a writer who likes to leave their characters to reveal themselves to you during the process of writing, but if you’re more of a planner, you can work out more details about your characters in advance. Again, you could work this into a detailed spreadsheet chapter plan, or separate file cards – or whatever takes your fancy. Your plans could include:

1.Their name
2.Their story line
3.Their main goals and motivation
4.What is stopping them from attaining their goal(s)?
5.What will they learn or how will they evolve as characters?

And then… it’s time to actually get down to writing your next novel! Good luck, and do let us know if you have any tips that you find useful.

Further reading:

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Written by
Jessica Barrah
Published on
Books, Authors, Writing, Self-publishing, Planning, Plot, and Nanowrimo