Welcome back to another month of our Building a Book series. This week we’re going to cover ways to plan your novel. You may be asking yourself, “why should I plan, can’t I just write?” The answer to that is yes, of course. There’s really no right or wrong way to write a novel. However, writing a book is hard.
While picking up a pen and just writing might seem like the most organic option, that method doesn’t work for everyone. Planning a novel gives authors the ability to figure out their story and where they want to take things before they start writing. It’s a great way to organize thoughts, develop your characters, and structure your work.
Just as we explored the myriad of options for brainstorming last month, there are many different ways to approach planning your novel. First, you’ll want to explore different planning methods and find one that works for you. Options include bullet points, maps, diagrams, outlines, etc. There is no right or wrong way to plan your novel. You just need to find the method that is going to best help you organize your thoughts.
Once you’ve figured out your method, you’ll want to begin planning your story elements. We’ve highlighted a few key factors to focus on while in the planning stages below!
While it might sound like we’re stating the obvious, planning your main character is generally the best place to start. You can’t have a novel without characters and understanding who your characters are. For more tips on how to develop your main character, we recommend listening to the May episode of Three Houses, One Podcast, which was all about character development.
Every novel needs a conflict regardless of genre. Frequently, the conflict propels the story and gets the characters from point a to b. However, there are many different types of conflict. Determining the type of conflict to incorporate into your novel is going to depend on your characters and the type of story you’re telling. Establishing your conflict is one of the most important elements you can plan since the conflict ties into the rest of your plot. In romance, the conflict is most often the thing keeping the main characters apart. It could be the hero lying to the heroine or the heroine’s misconception of the hero. Regardless of what the conflict between the hero/heroine is, the conflict must be resolved for them to ultimately end up together. Planning the conflict in advance allows writers to build their plot points around the conflict so that it can be resolved in the end.
The setting of your story is in many ways another character. Giving your setting layers and depth is a pivotal way of transporting your readers into the world of your story. Whether your novel is set in rural Illinois or an alien planet, you have to build the world of your book. If you don’t take the time to establish the setting for your novel, the world and the way your characters navigate it will never feel dynamic. In another display of shameless self-plugging, you can read parts 1-3 of our World Building series here, here, and here.
The structure of your novel consists of several smaller, yet important elements: point of view (POV), tense, and chronology. As you begin to plan your novel, it is crucial to not only pick your POV, but also your tense. Furthermore, it is important to maintain a consistent tense. Starting off with past tense and then switching to present tense in the same paragraph is jarring for readers. If you’re planning on including multiple POV characters, establish the tense for each. A fantastic example of multiple POVs is in Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. In the third Outlander installment, Voyager, Gabaldon uses third person past tense for chapters where Jamie Fraser is the POV character and first person past tense for chapters where Claire Fraser is the POV character. This change in perspective alerts readers that the POV has shifted from one character to another.
Finally, you’ll want to establish your chronology. Are you telling a fully linear story? Or will you alternate between past and present events? If you’re going to jump around in your timeline or incorporate long flashbacks, you’ll want to establish that in a way your readers can comprehend. A great example of time hopping is The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han. In Summer, Han frequently alternates between chapters set in the present and the past. She prefaces every flashback chapter with the narrator’s age, establishing that we are now reading something from the past. Using flashbacks is a matter of personal preference. I generally recommend only using them if they further the plot or establish a crucial facet of a character’s backstory.
These are just a few ways to plan your novel. Other elements to consider when planning are goals for your main character and your ending. Be sure to comment below on how you like to plan your writing!