Starting your first novel is a balance between brainstorming and structure. When you start with your story idea, your head is filled with scenes, snippets of dialogue, and settings. It doesn’t take long to feel overwhelmed.
All those different elements can leave you lost when it comes to actually sitting down and writing your story. It’s easy to lose the path towards your finished draft by writing too much or adding too many characters.
Planning Your Novel
Like any project, writing a novel works best when you sit down and plan first. Planning your novel will help you write faster and ensure that you don't get stuck. Here's one strategy for planning a novel.
1) Start with the one-sentence storyline
Write a short 25 to 30-word description of your story. Mention the protagonist’s role (not necessarily their name), the situation and the challenge.
Here’s an example for Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith:
- A Moscow homicide detective investigates a bizarre triple murder and runs afoul of the KGB and FBI.
Keep your storyline in mind as you follow the next steps. Each step grows from the storyline and is part of the overall whole.
2) Move on to the characters
Fleshing out your cast of characters gets you ready to write your story. Make sure you keep track of things like physical traits, so your main character doesn't have glowing auburn hair in Chapter 3 and dark tresses in Chapter 20. Keeping a list of your characters’ traits will especially help if you don’t write linearly.
Many writing software programs have a character development component. Be sure you go beyond the physical details to probe your characters’ psyches. StoryShop, for instance, has a unique feature called "Character DNA" that asks deep questions rather than just physical descriptions.
Readers love rich detail. What makes a story a page-turner is characters who have depth and respond in unpredictable ways. Build a deep, rich background for your main characters—protagonist, antagonist, love interest, sidekick. Know their big life trauma, their quirks, unique speech patterns, pet peeves, fears, and their one big flaw.
As you write, you’ll be able to dish out the details as needed when your characters interact. A lively character makes your story interesting.
3) Flesh out your story’s world
Know the world where your characters interact. Floor plans and maps will help you pinpoint where characters are in the story. Know the social customs and basic laws of your world. Research historical fiction and create as much rich backdrop as you can for fantasy and science fiction.
Drop in details as your characters move through the world. Your readers want to know what life is like for the characters, which means you need to show your readers how the world works. However, you should avoid long descriptive passages or paragraph after paragraph of the history of your fantasy world. Keep moving the story forward and focus on interspersing details as part of the action.
4) Plan scene by scene
Scenes are the building blocks of your novel. Begin by brainstorming every scene you can think of. Collect them the old-fashioned way on 3 x 5-inch cards or use a software solution. Start with the main pivots of the story—the opening, the inciting incident, the midpoint, the climax, the conclusion—and then fill in the scenes that come between those points.
At this point, don’t worry about structure, just create your scenes one by one as you think of them.
5) Define your story structure
Once you have collected scenes for your story, it’s time to put them in sequence. Story structure is the container for your scenes. Organize your scenes into the best order. There are many programs available to help you choose the story structure that resonates with how you think and write.
You may find holes in the story where you need to construct scenes. Or, you may find that some scenes you created don’t fit in the overall story structure. This is all part of the planning process and helps you organize yourself so you don't have any huge surprises once you start writing.
Why Planning Saves You Time
Knowing your story, characters, setting, and story flow allows you to concentrate on creating the story once you begin writing. Experienced writers know characters are apt to do and say the unexpected when you are writing. Think of the scene notes and story structure as guidelines to keep you focused.
You want to finish your novel. Planning helps you get to The End because you’ll know your story in depth before you even begin. You’ll be able to get through each scene more quickly as well as knowing where to reach for the next one.
And when you arrive at The End, you’ll be happy you planned at the beginning.