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.
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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’Urbervillesby 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…
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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.
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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!