Plan Your Novel: 3 Easy Strategies You Can Use Today

How do you plan your novel?

Do you create an outline, or forget plotting and just write?

In a recent fiction writing class, we discussing planning fiction, and how much planning is necessary.

I’m a big fan of fast plotting. In this post on plotting fiction, we discussed plotting in an hour or less:

Plotting fiction in an hour (or less, if you’re writing a novella) ensures that your motivation stays high. So does your inspiration… motivation and inspiration ensure that you maintain the feeling of your novel.

Your novel’s “feeling” can be hard to describe, but it holds your novel together. When editors discuss voice and style, they’re talking about a novel’s feel. If you can get that right, your novel will succeed.

I wish I could find the interview in which Hilary Mantel said she woke up one morning with the words: ‘So now get up,’ in her head. (More on Wolf Hall below.) She says she knew then that she had the feel of the novel.

With Wolf Hall, a big part of that feel is the novel’s tense:

Wolf Hall is written in third person limited present tense. The reader gets Cromwell’s POV only, though it takes a while for that to be totally clear.

If you manage to get the feel of your novel right, you’re on your way. Outlines, mind maps, cluster diagrams and the rest can help you to plan your novel, but keep your planning, and the actual writing, separate.

Plan your novel: the best plots grow organically, but know where you’re going

You can plot or not, but you should always know where your novel is headed. Knowing your ending stops you wandering away on tangents. For years, my novels needed lots of editing, because they wandered off into the wilds of backstory and subplots.

Finally, I realized that as soon as I knew the story question (see below) I had to commit to an ending.

I recently reread Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy; it’s a masterpiece. She knew its ending, of course; Thomas Cromwell is executed. But how she connects the trilogy’s opening lines with its ending lines is wonderful. In Hilary Mantel discusses Thomas Cromwell’s past, presence and future, she explains:

(the opening lines) … hearing the voice of his father sneering at him, ‘So now get up,’ my mind immediately flew to what would be the end of the project.

(the closing lines) “My idea is that probably the voice that says ‘So now get up’ is in his own ear again, and with the fading of Cromwell’s consciousness the project becomes extinct. It is done.”

Let’s look at three strategies you can use today, to plan your novel.

1. Every plan starts with your characters: your plot is what they do

To plan your novel strategically, start with your characters. All your characters WANT something. (No exceptions.) Your main character is prepared to do anything to get what he wants.

In this post, we talked about what characters want:

Readers love characters who go all-out to get what they want. These characters are motivated. This makes for conflict, and excitement. Creating characters who WANT desperately is a plotting short-cut.

Plotting begins when you know what your main character wants, and what obstacles stop him from getting that.

So that’s your first step to plan your novel: decide what your characters want.

Basically, most plots begin like this:

  • Your main character breezes through his daily life;
  • BANG: the inciting incident starts your plot. Something changes. Your character is forced to act, otherwise all hope of getting what he wants is gone.

Your main character’s primary want is the story question.

2. The story question: your main character succeeds or fails

Your story question is simple: does your character get what he wants? Or not? It’s the point of your novel:

Your novel must have a point. All the screaming excitement of your novel can’t and won’t make up for it if there’s no point to the whole thing.

The point of a novel is often referred to as the “story question”, or “dramatic question.”

In the above post, we discussed that your novel’s genre is often an excellent guide to the story question.

The story question can be whatever you want it to be. If you’re writing historical fiction, the story question can seem challenging. Everyone knows what happened to Thomas Cromwell: he came to a bad end. Along the way, he sent others to a bad end as well—Anne Boleyn, for one.

And yet, that’s still the story question in the Wolf Hall trilogy—will Thomas Cromwell get what he wants? He gets what he wants, and keeps getting it, but he’s created a monster. In the final novel, The Mirror and The Light, Cromwell still gets what he wants.

When he stops getting what he wants—his downfall—it’s quick, and the trilogy is over.

3. Free yourself from the tyranny of mind maps, outlines, and other helpers

When you plan your novel, use mind maps, outlines, and notes as useful tools. However, these planning documents aren’t chains. Refuse to allow tools to bind you. If you need to change an outline, do it.

Many authors use white boards, or have a planning wall—a wall stuck with sticky notes and images. You can grab a box, like Twyla Tharp, to plan your novel.

Use whatever tools you need, but constantly think about:

  • What your main character wants;
  • Why he isn’t getting what he wants. (The obstacles in his way change, as your character changes.)

Use obstacles lavishly when you plan your novel.

But, again, forget your planning while you’re writing: keep your planning and writing processes separated.

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