How I plot a novel…

Writing a novel and how to do so is an interesting topic.

I tend to be the sort of writer that sits down with a vague idea in mind and WRITES. I churned out my first novel, Sector 12, in two weeks and it sort of came out of nowhere. So I figured that that was my process, that’s how I write.

But that doesn’t work in all circumstances. Because sometimes you have a vague idea in mind, you’ll write a couple of pages, scrap a couple of pages, write a couple of pages, scrap even more pages – six months later you’ve written 50,000 words of crap and made absolutely no progress whatsoever.

I wish I could be one of those “planning” writers. The ones that can sit down, have everything planned, everything organised, every single scene mapped out and know exactly where everything is going… But I don’t think I could do that. Because I really don’t know where a book is going until I actually write it.

I stumbled across This Guide by Rachel Aaron a couple of weeks ago. It’s entitled “How I plot a novel in 5 steps” and I found it really handy! Because it encourages you to sort some things, but not all things.

I especially liked points 0-2. There are other steps on (follow the link above) but I really liked the first two. Because it gathers enough information to know what you’re writing, but no so much that all the fun is taken away.

Fellow writers, how do you plot? Do you just write and see what happens, or do you have it all figured out?

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.

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).

About Jodie @ Words Read & Written

Book blogger & aspiring author.
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11 Responses to How I plot a novel…

  1. This is so helpful! I have always wanted to write a novel. While I’ve been creatively writing for years, writing a novel has always been a tricky thing to plan out. This is a great way to start.

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    • jodiellewellyn says:

      It is handy. I’ll sometimes get an idea, but unless I have a beginning, end, and who my characters are, I get no where.

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      • Same here! I have had general ideas before, but then instead of trying to just go with the idea, I end up with the doubt in the back of my mind in which I wonder how I could drag the idea on for more than a few pages. I think it’s a matter of learning how to develop the pace and plot of the novel, which can be the most difficult part.

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      • jodiellewellyn says:

        It’s amazing how novels start to flow once you get writing though. You should just sit down and start, see what happens.

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      • Thanks for the advice, I will do that! There’s no better time than now. 🙂

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      • jodiellewellyn says:

        ESPECIALLY since Nanowrimo is coming up! You should join in.

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      • I was just thinking about that! I had never heard of it until this year because a library I used to have was promoting the event. I think it’s such a cool idea to help writers of all backgrounds and levels of experience. I think it’s the perfect motivator for me to start writing a novel. 🙂

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      • jodiellewellyn says:

        It is perfect. It’s really hard! I’ve done it a couple of times and never really got there, but that’s because I always started with a blank sheet and a blank mind and a couple of days in was like, I hate this idea, lol. But this year I have a plot and some characters, so all good!

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      • Writing is definitely a difficult process! I think novel-writing is specifically hard because since it’s (in my mind) a lengthy project, so much self doubt can happen while working on it. Dedicating a lot of time to something can cause us to not like our novel ideas. But as long as we have faith in ourselves and stick with ideas we know are great, we can succeed.

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      • jodiellewellyn says:

        Definitely. And the madness of Nanowrimo is really good fun.

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      • I agree! I’m looking forward to trying it.

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