How I Plot A Novel in 5 Steps
By Rachel Aaron
By popular request (ok, 1 person, but they’re populace, so that makes it popular, right?) I’ve put together a step by step process for how I go from “Hey I should write a novel” to “Ok, let’s get writing!” Though I managed to get things grouped into steps, what I’ve really done is labeled and applied order to the phases I go through as I work toward the point where I feel I know enough about a book to start writing. Some parts of my process may seem a bit obsessive, but the most important part of writing fast is knowing as much as you can about what you’re writing before you write it, and that means lots and lots of planning.
Planning a novel takes me anywhere from a few days to weeks. Usually I plan while I’m working on other things, like editing, but I’ve also had whole weeks where I did nothing but put a story together. I should say that I plan far more novels than I actually end up writing. My computer is littered with the cast off husks of half started worlds. I consider this a normal part of the process. If you do it right, planning is where you uncover all the things that are wrong with that idea you thought was so amazing last week. Sometimes these faults are workable, other times it’s better to just move on. Even so, it’s way better to discover a novel isn’t as strong as you thought at the planning stage instead of 3 chapters in. Not every idea deserves to be a novel.
Well, enough of that. You came to see how I plan novels. So, best as I can articulate something that changes for every book, here is my general process. I really hope everyone finds something useful they can take away to help organize and speed up their own writing system.
Disclaimer: Unlike my other posts, which I think will work for anyone, parts of this method are personal and might not be right for your books. Feel free to cut, expand, or add steps to my process where ever you feel you should.
Step 0: Decide what book to write!
This is one of those decisions that seems obvious but can get you into a lot of trouble if you don’t give it the respect it deserves. When you sit down to write a book, you are embarking upon a very large project. As such, the first question you should be asking yourself is “Is this actually the story I want to spend my time on?” You don’t need to have the plot or characters set up at this stage, but you do need a certainty that the book idea floating in your head is something that will not only interest you for the time it takes to write, edit, and polish a manuscript, but will, once finished, do whatever it is you want your book to do (i.e., get an agent, please your editor, sell
fantastically, etc.). Your time is precious, don’t waste it on a project you’re not excited about or doesn’t work toward your goals.
While not actually part of the planning process, this step is really, really important. Don’t skip it, and try a couple of projects on for size before settling down. Remember, you can always switch projects later, but invested time can never be recovered, so do yourself a favor and think things through before you spend weeks working on a world you’re not actually interested in writing about.
Step 1: Get Down What You Already Know
Now that I’ve decided what novel I want to write, the first thing I do is write down everything I already know about the book. These are usually the ideas that exploded into my mind and made me want to write the story in the first place. Sometimes it’s a character or situation, sometimes it’s a magical system or a setting. Whatever it is, I write it down quickly and efficiently. I don’t bother with details and I don’t force myself to write past the initial flash of interest. This is just getting down the rough idea of what excites me the most about this book, what makes it special.
I use this step to codify and organize what I already know about my world, characters, and plot, which is usually very little. But, by putting this very little down, I have laid a basic framework and can now see the holes I need to fill in before any actual writing can begin.
Step 2: Lay Down The Basics
This is the part of the process where I figure out the bare bones of the three pillars of story – characters, plot, and setting. You know, that High School English stuff. Since I use Scrivener to write (amazing program), I just make a folder for each of these topics and throw everything remotely related underneath, but you don’t have to do that. So long as you can keep your notes straight, any system will do.
Now, what bare bones am I talking about? Here’s my list:
For Characters, I need: The Main Characters (usually 2-4), the Antagonists (usually at least 2), and the Power Players (as many as needed). The numbers are very subjective and change from book to book, but you get the idea. MCs and Antagonists are self explanatory, but Power Players are the people in the story who are not for the MCs or against them, but are never-the-less very important to the setting. These are the people who move and shake in the world. Think Etmon Banage in my Eli Monpress books or Dumbledore in Harry Potter. You know, the BIG names.
Now, I’m not doing detailed character sheets yet, I’m just getting down the basics – names, what they want, and the general sense I have of them as a character. Physical descriptions and histories come later. All I care about right now is how this person relates to the story. I’ve had character sheets that were nothing but a name and a one line description at this stage of things, and that’s perfectly fine.
For Plot, I need: The end and the beginning, in that order. Figuring out the end of a book is my number 1 priority. After I’ve got my start point and my end point, I set down the major twists/scenes/climaxes I’ve already thought up. I don’t worry about how all these thinks link together, or even if the events are in the right order.
This is also the point where I determine if this book is a stand alone novel or part of a series, and if it is a series, then I work out the end of the larger meta plot and where this current book’s plot fits into the larger scheme.
Finally, I write a sort of manifesto about the kind of story I am trying to tell. Is this primarily an adventure story, a rebellion story, a love story? An adventure story can have a love plot and a love story can be an adventure, but it’s important I decide early which story is going to be the primary tale. After all, a love story places the dramatic emphasis on different scenes than an adventure story does. The tone is different as well, so I need to know for sure right from the beginning what kind of story I’m writing as this decision will influence the style of the novel right from page one.
For Setting, I need: The magical system, if there is one. The basic political system. Where does this book take place and how does that relate to the rest of the world? What kind of a culture is this? What’s the level of technology? Who has power in this world and why? How did the world get to its current state and why? If I’m writing a fantasy I’ll do creation stories and work out the pantheon, for SciFi I figure out how humans got into space. This step changes wildly from book to book. I basically just write until I feel I’ve got a firm hold on what kind of world the action takes place in (though, again, I don’t sweat the details yet).
This is the most important part: What we’re doing here is the purest form of world building, and it should be enormously fun. If you are not having fun putting your world, characters, and plot together, you need to seriously reconsider if this is the book you should be writing.
Step 3: Filling In The Holes
By the time I move on to step 3, I’ve got all the basics down. I know how my novel starts and ends plus a few big scenes, I know who’s in it and where it’s taking place. Now comes the nitty gritty of making everything work together.
When I reach this step, the first thing I start filling in is the plot. Now, a book is way too huge to plot all at once, so rather than trying to just write out a plot, I break things down into small chunks. Thanks to the work I’ve already done, I know the story’s beginning, so that’s usually where I start. I go to the beginning, look at my world and my characters’s motivations, and ask “what happens next?” And then I write that down. Once it’s down, I ask again, and so bit by bit the plot fills in.
Of course, I always get stuck. Sometimes I just don’t know what comes next. When this happens, I usually jump further down the line, either straight to the ending (which I already worked out, clever me!) or to one of the big scenes I was excited about. When I get to the big scenes, a battle, say, I look at my world and my characters and ask “how did this happen?” And then I go backwards until I either reach the place where I got stuck the first time or I get stuck again.
Sometimes, though, I get really stuck. Like, I have no idea how two scenes are connected, or how I can possibly get from the middle of the book to the end. When this happens it’s very tempting to think the plot is completely borked, but here’s a trade secret: there’s no such thing as an unfixable plot. Often, you don’t even have to figure out a clever solution, you just need to discover whysomething isn’t working and the solution will simply appear. One of the earliest lessons I learned about writing was that, if I was stuck, it was because I didn’t know something. When a plot won’t move forward, it’s because there’s something you don’t know. Figure out what that is and you can unstick even the most stubborn plot.
So, when I get seriously stuck, I let the plot go and start working out other things. This is where I fill out those character sheets you find on line. I work out the detailed history of my world and spend time with my characters, try to figure out what they’re thinking. If that still isn’t enough to get me moving again, I set down in ludicrous detail what’s going on in the world at the moment where the plot is stuck. I especially map out exactly what the villains are doing, that alone is often enough to snap the plot back into place.
Learn from my Fail – Never get so wrapped up in pinning down particulars that you kill the novel for yourself. Long ago, before I’d actually finished a novel, I was working on a sweeping epic fantasy. Now, I’d read online that a writer should know her world inside and out, so I set to work Building My World (TM). I wrote and wrote and wrote for days, getting down all this absurdly detailed information that had nothing to do with my story, things like the political backdrop of wars that happened five hundred years before the plot and table manners in countries across the sea I was never going to visit. About half way through naming the different dead princes of the Empire that had fallen a thousand years ago, I threw away the novel in disgust. Now, if you like planning out your worlds to that level of detail, go for it, but there’s absolutely such a thing as too much planning, and you can make yourself sick of your world before you’ve even started writing if you’re not careful.
I know I’ve reached the end of step 3 when I can write out my whole plot, start to finish, with no blanks or skipped scenes. By this point, I’ve also gotten stuck enough that I’ve written detailed sheets for all my characters and major settings. If I have missed writing out the details for someone or someplace, I’ll sometimes go back and fill them in, but not always. Usually, if I didn’t need their information while I was writing out the plot, that’s a sign that they weren’t as important to the story as I thought.
Finally (and this is where things get a little hokey), I know I’m ready to move on to the last part of my planning when the feel of the book becomes tangible. All my books have a unique feel, almost like a taste in my mind that belongs to that book alone. I can’t really describe it, but I never move on to the next step until I can feel the book clearly. I guess you could also call it the book’s voice. This is about as “feel the muse” as I get.
Step 4: Building a Firm Foundation
This was the point where I used to just go ahead and dive into the novel, but now that I’m writing faster, I’ve discovered that taking a day to do one extra step of refinement can save you weeks of trouble down the line. At this stage I’ve got my plot, I know my characters, my world has its history, rules, and feel, so now it’s time to start pouring the concrete details that will support my novel through the writing and edits to come.
In this step, I always:
- Make a timeline. I didn’t have time lines for the first 4 Eli novels and OMG did it bite me in the ass. Lesson finally learned, I now make timelines not just for the events of the novel itself, but the history before it as well. I especially make sure to note relative ages and how long everyone’s known everyone else. Yes, it’s annoying and nitpicky, but timelines have saved my bacon many, many times over, and I very, very much recommend making one. Trust me, you are not nearly as good at keeping track of things in your head as you think you are.
- Draw a map. Actually, I usually end up doing this back in step 2, but if I don’t have a detailed map by now, I’ll make one, usually several, of the world at large as well as all my important locations. I also write out short descriptions of each place. This helps me describe things consistently and removes the burden of making this shit up as I go along.
- Write out who knows what, when. This is usually just a paragraph where I look over the plot and jot down who discovers what when. This is to make sure I don’t have Protagonist A making an argument (or worse, a plot decision) using information they wouldn’t actually know yet. This is less of a resource and more of a double check on my plot.
- Make sure I memorize everyone’s particulars. I need to know name spelling, physical description, motivations, and relative ages for all my major cast by heart. Can’t have anyone’s name dropping vowels or eyes changing color, can we?
- Write out a scene list This is where I take that plot I wrote out at the end of step three and break it into scenes and chapters. I’ve talked about what makes a scene before, so, using that criteria, I slice my plot into scenes and list them in a bulleted list. Once I have a list of scenes, I group them into chapters to make a nice little list. In my experience, a chapter usually consists of three scenes, though I’ve done as few as two and as many as five before. Chapter breaks should also take into account dramatic tension, so I try to take that into accout as well. For example, the first chapter of The Spirit Thief would look like this:
- Chapter 1
- Eli charms his way out of prison
- The king of Mellinor discovers Eli has escaped, is moved to safer quarters
- Eli and Josef take advantage of the confusion and kidnap the king.
- Chapter 1
- Word Count estimation: Now that I’ve got a rough idea of my chapters, it’s time to do an even rougher estimation of how long this book is going to be. I know from personal experience that my chapters tend to run between 5000 and 6000 words long. I don’t know why, that’s just what feels like a chapter to me, I guess. But this regularity is very handy when it comes time to estimate! By looking at the number of chapters I’ve cut my scenes into and multiplying that by my average chapter length, I know that a book with 15 chapters will most likely run 75k – 90k words long, or right smack dab in the sweet spot of publishable
book length. Of course, this is just an estimation, but doing a check like this is also a really good early warning signal. If, for example, I’ve lined up all my scenes and found that I have 30 chapters worth of plot, then I know I probably need to cut something to avoid ending up with an 180k unpublishable monster. Trust me, it is SO MUCH EASIER to cut scenes at this stage than to cut them after you’ve written them. Even if you don’t know your average chapter length yet, chances are your chapters won’t be shorter than 5k. Counting them up and multiplying to get an idea of how big your book is is a great way to avoid painful cutting later down the line.
- Do a boredom check. Once I’ve broken my novel into scenes and chapters (and cut and reworked the plot if the book was too long), it’s time for the final and most important plot test: the boredom check. What I do here is I think through my plot, imagining the story in my head as thought it were a movie. There’s no sound, no dialogue, I just go through the story scene by scene in my head, testing the story’s flow. All the while, I’m on the look out for slow spots. Does the action lag anywhere? Are there any sections I can’t visualize or scenes I skip over? If so, I go back to those points and figure out why. See, when you cruise through your plot like this, you’re seeing your story with your reader mind and not your writer mind. Your writer mind might consider a scene necessary for plot reasons, but if your reader mind is bored you’ll skip right over it and move on to the good stuff. This is BAD. I don’t want my readers to be bored by or skip over anything I write. Plus, I don’t want to waste my time writing boring crap, no matter how nicely it fits into the plot. This is all part of “be excited about everything you write.” If a scene is boring, I rip it out and redo it. Ripping up a finished plot can feel really scary, but just remember: there’s always more than one way to solve any problem, and a boring scene can always be replaced by an interesting one, usually by raising the stakes or upping the tension. This step may seem unnecessary, especially since you’ve been over your plot 10000 times by now, but take thirty minutes and do it anyway. A boredom check is your final defense against having to rewrite stupid scenes later. If you take the time and make sure every scene is golden right from the start, you’ll save yourself wasted work and heartache later.
Step 5: Start Writing!
Again, hope this helps someone. As always, thank you for reading! And if you have your own novel planning process, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about it!