Understanding how to plan your novel can be tough. There are lots of different writing guides, tips and advice that suggest all manner of methods. This can only add to the confusion and make the task harder than it needs to be.
Today, we’re going to provide you with some solutions with a step-by-step guide on planning a novel like a pro.
Choose A Chapter
- How To Plan Your Novel
- #1: Start with Your Elevator Pitch
- #2: Brainstorm Your Story Synopsis
- #3: Prepare Your Characters
- #4: Build Your Story World
- #5: Explore Your Plot and Story Using High Concept & Genre Expectations
- #6: Discover Your Characters’ Worst Fears
- #7: Plot Using the Problem-Solution Tool
- A Bonus Way To Plan Your Novel
Guest Post by Beth Barany
If you’re struggling with writing your novel and don’t know where to begin, use this 7-step process to brainstorm your story. Then you’ll have a road map or outline from which to write your story with confidence.
It’s an accordion method and with you’ll start small and expand on your ideas as you go. Be sure that your stories are about change, either for your main character, external factors, or both.
An elevator pitch is another name for the book blurb. You see it on the back of books and online as the “Book Description” or “Overview.” At this stage, this exercise isn’t for marketing; it’s for brainstorming your story’s key elements in about 75-100 words, give or take.
To start, think about your genre or subgenre. Each genre has an expected ending, i.e., romance ends in a happily ever after or happily for now; fantasy ends with the balance of the world restored; mystery ends with the culprit being caught by the investigators and so on.
Elevator Pitch Formula
Brainstorm the following:
- Situation: (Also called the Initial Action or Premise, this is the beginning of the story.)
- Main Character(s)
- Primary Objective: (At first, what does your main character want?)
- Antagonist Or Opponent: (or Central Conflict. Who or what is keeping your main characters from getting what they want?)
- Disasters That Could Happen: (What’s the worst that could happen, and/or what does your character want next? Often phrased as a question.)
- Abandoned on his relatives’ doorstep as an infant,
- Harry Potter
- longs to understand where he came from and why he feels different.
- He discovers that he is a wizard and that his parents were killed by Voldemort, a powerful and evil wizard,
- who has been hunting for Harry, to kill him.
Here’s another example of an elevator pitch, a rough draft for a work-in-progress fantasy story:
Newly victorious in the biggest battle of her life, Henrietta the Dragon Slayer needs to figure out what to do next but doesn’t want to be her kingdom’s champion anymore. Should she return home to a boring life of pomp and circumstance or ride off with her friends into the dangerous uncharted lands to fight never-seen-before monsters and face possible death with no reward in sight? Some say foolishness! She says Huzzah! But is she making the right decision?
A synopsis is a short summary of your book. In the planning stages, a synopsis can help you think through the beginning, middle, and end of your story, as well as brainstorm the inner and outer changes your main character goes through.
For this step, use the online plug-and-play tool, Plot Spinner, designed by the award-winning romance author, Patricia Simpson, based on an exercise by writing teacher, Alicia Rasley.
Here’s my example, focused only on one character. You can run the Plot Spinner for as many characters and their relationships as you’d like.
Issue characters are dealing with: Fear of the next step
Theme of the story: You don’t have to figure out the future all by yourself.
Henrietta doesn’t want to go home, pisses off her king, and rushes headlong with her friends toward an unknown foe, putting them all in danger. Henrietta doesn’t want to face the next expected steps in being a champion. Sounds boring and fussy, so adventuring into the unknown seems easier.
Henrietta’s friend is captured by the unknown monster and could die. The friends risk it all to save him. Henrietta feels bad that her friends followed her into the dangerous situation and are now getting hurt.
By facing the unknown together, Henrietta and her friends manage to vanquish the strange monster. Henrietta realizes that she’s made an exciting life for herself and wants to explore more of that with her friends.
Characters are the heart of the story. Get to know your characters. Brainstorm these essential elements of your main characters to get you started:
- Goal, motivation, and conflict, for both the inner life and outer life
- Strengths, inherent and learned
- Important relationships
- Backstory as it relates to the story problem
- The things in their pockets, or backpack, or car, or satchel, etc.
- Habits, mannerisms, ticks
Your story world is unique. Here are some topics (not an exhaustive list) to get you started with your exploration. Interview your main character on these topics and/or other characters that may or may not show up in your story.
World Building Brainstorming Topics
- Origin Tales — How did the world come to be?
- Folklore – What is your favorite childhood folktale or fairytale?
- Jobs/professions — What kind do people have? Do men and women divide work, or share it? What kind of training do people receive, if any? How are they trained and by whom?
- Gender roles – What are people’s attitudes about gender roles?
- Clothing/Costumes — How do people dress? What do people wear and why? Where does fabric come from? Who makes it?
- Flora & Fauna – What are some of the important or relevant animals and plants where you live?
- Food — How is it planted/harvested/hunted/gathered? What do people eat and when? How is it cooked? Who cooks? What’s poisonous?
- Geography – What are the main geographical regions of your land?
- Annual Rituals — What is important to your world and why? How do you celebrate weddings, funerals, birthdays, puberty, other?
- Technology – What kind of technology exists? How is it powered? Who creates it? What training do they need?
- Animals – Are there any special or magical animals in your world?
- Religion/Spirituality – What are your beliefs? How they might create conflict with others and why?
- Magic (if any) – What are the rules and boundaries around magic?
- Politics/Power – Who is in power and why? How is power transferred to the next generation? What is it people do or don’t do to get close to powerful people?
Further Reading – A Faster Way To Build A Fantasy World
To create your story’s High Concept, put two well-known movies, books, TV shows, or concepts to evoke the main problems in your story.
- The Jewish version of The Da Vinci Code
- Lara Croft meets Lord of the Rings
- Snakes on a Plane
- Die Hard on a Ship
Make a list of all the events that your readers most likely expect in your genre and type of story, then see how you can twist the plot events to surprise your readers without changing the genre.
Here’s a unique way to develop conflict in your story for pantsers – people who write by the seat of their pants.
Uncover Your Character’s Worst Fears to Discover Your Story Conflicts
In a moment, you’ll brainstorm your main character’s worst fears, and then think of the worst thing after that, and even further, think of the worst fear after that. Be prepared — you might freak yourself out. And that’s okay.
Exercise: “List of 20”
- On a piece of paper or on your computer/digital device, number down from 1 to 20.
- Set the timer for 15 minutes.
- Brainstorm your character’s 20 worst fears. Keep moving your hand across the page to uncover even worse possibilities.
You may be surprised at what you discover.
Review your work and if need be, organize the fears from bad to worse. You may also discover your character’s fears can be used to build the external challenges of your story.
This tool comes from The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray.
Here’s how it works:
- Write the starting problem of your story.
- What’s the solution to this immediate problem?
- What problem is caused by this solution?
- Create a new solution,
- which creates a new problem.
- This leads to a new solution,
- new problem…
- until you get to your story resolution.
Here’s a bonus way to plan your novel.
I want you to feel confident and ready to start writing your first draft. With a scene-by-scene outline, you can start writing your novel with a road map, as detailed or loose as you’d like.
Start Scene-by-Scene Outline
- Write the scene number and put in parentheses who the point of view character is.
- Draft the external and internal problems in relation to the character’s goal.
- Add what makes these problems worse.
- List the hard choice the character faces.
- Add sensory details, location, time, and who else is in the scene.
Move to the next scene. Write bits of dialogue if they occur and keep going until you have mapped out your entire story.
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Your turn! Go!
Let me know how your story planning goes!
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This article is adapted from Plan Your Novel Like A Pro: And Have Fun Doing It by Beth Barany and Ezra Barany and their annual 60-Day Novel course. [link: https://books2read.com/pynlap]
About Beth Barany
Beth Barany is an award-winning novelist, master neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, and certified creativity coach for writers. She specializes in helping writers experience clarity, so they can write, revise, and proudly publish their novels to the delight of their readers. Her courses are packed with useful hands-on information that you can implement right away. She runs an online school for fiction writers and a 12-month group coaching program to help them get published. More resources on publishing, book marketing, and novel writing are on her blog, Writer’s Fun Zone. When she’s not helping writers, Beth writes magical tales of romance, mystery, and adventure that empower women and girls to be the heroes of their own lives.
More Writing Tips And Guides
Check out these other writing tips and guides below:
- Writing tips
- Hated writing rules
- How to write romance scenes
- How to format a manuscript
- Mental health in fantasy books
- 8 ways to kickstart your writing career
- What is characterization?
- How to write strong female characters
- How to edit
- What is StoryOrigin?
- How to plot a story
- What is passive voice?
- 4 ways to begin writing a novel
- How to plan a story
If you’d like any more help with how to plan your novel, please get in touch.