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.