How to plan a novel, write an outline, and start writing

How To Plan A Novel

A step-by-step guide

You have an idea. You want to write a novel. You know that’s a big undertaking – a huge one, in fact. But what next?

Do you just pull your boots on and start marching? (A terrible idea in almost every case.)

Or do you start to plan your journey? And if so, how? This can seem like a journey without maps, where most routes can easily lead to disaster.

Well, worry ye not, these questions have solutions. Understanding how to plan a novel is both the most important question you face right now … and a completely achievable goal.

In this post, we’re going to give you, not a template exactly, but a set of tools and a clear understanding of the way forward. It’ll probably take you several weeks to plan your novel out (and – a warning – those weeks feel like damn hard work, even though you’re not racking up the word count and throwing chapter after chapter down onto the page.)

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Planning a novel: the need-to-knows

The single most important job you have now is to understand what you need to know about your novel. Sure, then you have to start filling in the blanks, but the first task is simply to generate your headings.

And here’s what you need to know about the book you’re going to write:

What genre is it? Who are your readers? What kind of books / authors are you most like?

You don’t have to answer those questions in complete detail. You won’t in fact know the answers until you’ve written your book. But you need some rough idea. If your book doesn’t sit at some natural point where readers gather, then either you are a genre-busting genius (unlikely), or you have a commercial disaster on your hands.

What are the genre expectations of your novel? What kind of length does it need to be?

If you know your genre well, you probably have the genre-expectations wired into your bones – which is good. But it’s still worth being a bit explicit about it. There’s no point writing a light chick-lit type novel of 180,000 words – those things are normally half that length, if that. Likewise, if you are writing a tense techno-thriller with a ton of slapstick moments, you may just have an unsaleable mess on your hands.

How do you plan to publish the book: as an indie author or via a traditional publishing route?

Maybe that question is a tiny bit premature, but the rules for self-publishing and trad publishing are a bit different. It probably helps to have a rough sense of your likely endpoint.

And yes, you can change your mind during the writing process – but remember planning a book is different from writing a book. You can make a plan, then change your mind halfway through – but you’ll still be a mile better off for having made the plan in the first place.

What is your story?

You need a rough sense of the overall shape of your story. We’ll talk about this more in a bit, but you need a sense of

  • the status quo at the start of your book.
  • what happens to disrupt that status quo. This is the initiating incident.
  • some very very rough ideas of what happens next. This is the hard-to-define Middle Act of your book, or just a general section of Developments. (You’ll hear both terms used by people talking about this stuff.)
  • You may also have a clear sense of some big middle-of-book crisis or action sequence or other tipping point. If so, great, this is your midpoint. If you don’t have this clearly visualised yet, don’t worry about it: that can come later.
  • Then you want a reasonable idea of your end-of-book crisis and
  • an idea of your resolution – how everything ties up at the end.

That right there, that fivefold structure, is how you are going to develop your story. Remember that at this stage, you don’t need complete answers to these questions. All we’re doing for now is laying out what you need to know (roughly) before you start writing. We’ll talk more about how to develop that knowledge in a minute.

Who are your characters?

Again, you need a rough sense of your characters. That means your protagonist, for sure. (Protagonist = hero or heroine of your book. You’ll also see the term MC, which stands for Main Character.) But you also need to identify and have a sense of who your other major characters are.

What are your settings?

Settings are left out of a lot of novel-planning lists, because often enough those settings seem kind of obvious. So let’s say that your novel is set in New York, a part of you thinks that New York is New York is New York. What more is to be said?

Except that’s not true! There are a million New Yorks. Let’s say your story was a coming-of-age tale in 1960s Italian-American, Mafia-world. That New York is radically different from a contemporary tale about (say) tech-startup world. By understanding your particular settings in detail, you’ll find yourself illuminating the whole story you’re about to tell. Again, we’ll talk more about this shortly.

What are your themes?

Finally, what themes are you going to be tackling? Perhaps that’s the least important question on this list, and some writers will want to ignore it completely … but, well, I think that question will nag at a lot of you anyway.

And while you don’t want to overdo it, I think it helps to have some early sense of what the Big Questions underlying your novel are. That’s just as true of genre writers (crime, SF, romance, whatever) as of proper literary writers. I write crime fiction, but there are still big issues underlying my work and my writing would be poorer if they weren’t there at all.

Planning a novel - and getting it written

Filling in the blanks

How to sit down and plan your novel without going crazy.

OK, so we have our headings:

  • Genre & genre expectations
  • Probable publishing route
  • Story
  • Characters
  • Settings
  • Themes

Your job now is to start putting some flesh on those bones.

Planners vs pantsers

There’s a dreary old distinction between writers who prefer to plan things out upfront and people who prefer to fly ‘by the seat of their pants’ and just wing it as they write.

The fact that you’re reading this post in the first place indicates that you’re intending to plan things. And so, frankly, you should. At Jericho Writers we run a lot of courses for new writers, and we do a lot of editorial work on finished manuscripts. And here’s the simple truth:

People who plan their novels, at least a bit, before they start are miles more likely to finish them.

What’s more, the basic quality of those manuscripts is much higher too.

Planning works. Don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t.

(And yes, talented and experienced authors who work with quite ‘freeform’ stories are an exception to that rule. But you’re not in that category. So keep reading!)

How the planning process works

The way you are going to plan your novel is like this:

  1. You are going to give yourself the headings above.
    You are actually going to do that In Real Life. It’s probably better if you do it with pen and paper, but I’m OK with you doing it on screen, so long as you actually do it. This is a process where thinking-about-the-process is totally different from actually doing it. You need to actually do it.
  2. You are going to write notes under each heading.
    Yes, those notes will be scanty to start with. That’s OK! You don’t need to know everything yet. But write what you know under each heading.
  3. Then start to elaborate.
    Perhaps your early story idea is pretty damn basic … but then you write a little bit more about your characters and your settings … and you get an idea for an incident in your story, so then you pop down your idea for that incident, and your story-understanding has just grown.
  4. Keep going, take time.
    It’s important to realise that this process is a process. You can’t just allocate Monday and Tuesday to the job, then start writing on Wednesday. You are seeking to create a complex, elaborate and imaginative structure. Finding the right answers – and the right questions – will take time. I’d say that, for most writers, you are looking at several weeks, not several days.
  5. Try ideas out, delete the ones you hate.
    Let’s say you are making notes on character, you get an idea for a story incident, and you write it down. That’s what I just told you to do, right? Well, good. Yes, I did say that. But maybe the idea sucks. On reflection, it just doesn’t fit into the story you want to write. So delete it. You don’t know if an idea works until you try it out – noting it down in written form alongside everything else. But deletion is as much part of the process as creating. You might need to try four different routes, before you find the one that works for you. So those failed avenues aren’t failures at all. They’re what led you to the solution that finally worked.
  6. Work in a circular, iterative fashion.
    If it’s not already clear by now, this process is a circular one. You don’t write a complete set of notes on story, then move onto character, then move onto settings and you’re done. On the contrary, you do a bit here, then a bit there, and gradually, little by little, the whole picture fills out. Iteration, and building from sketchy to more detailed is the way this game is going to work for you.

So those are your headings and that’s the basic process. Just a few more comments before I leave you to it.

snowflake method novel writing

The Snowflake Method

Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method is just one, rather rigidly structured, approach to planning your novel. And it’s limited – it works more for genre novels, and even then only some genre novels, than for Fiction In General.

The heart of it, however, is simply the realisation that you can’t just sit down and write a four-page plot synopsis of your book upfront. That exercise would either fuse all your brain cells into a single steaming lump … or it would produce a really dire synopsis.

So you start with a simple one-sentence story outline, then write a bit about characters, and then circle back to the story and so on.

The basic process is precisely the one we’re talking about in this post. But I don’t like the precise format involved because it doesn’t really drive you to think more broadly about the book (settings, themes, market), it’s over-prescriptive about what you have to write when, and the “three disasters plus an ending” seems like a pretty damn crude summary of a book.

So yes, by all means, go take a look at the Snowflake Method approach to planning … but I think you’ll prefer a more relaxed approach, such as the one we set out here.

Understanding the market

The first two headings – the ones that relate more to the market than to your story in particular – you can just fill in and tidy away in an hour.

You need to make notes on length, genre expectations, comparable authors and the rest. Those notes are really just to remind you of your basic compass bearing. If you actually write them down, you are much less likely to go wrong than if you don’t.

And, truthfully, this part of the exercise shouldn’t be hard to do. Give yourself an hour or two, and you’re probably done.

That said, you might well find that writing some notes on these topics suddenly makes you aware of some gaps in your knowledge.

Yikes! What is the right length for a steampunk Victorian fantasy?

Gosh! I want to publish traditionally, but do I actually have a sense of what debut novels are making a splash in my genre right now?

Those questions may drive you to do some research – they might drive you to an actual bookshop. If so, no question, you’ll be a better author after doing that research than you were before. The market you want to write for matters. You have to know it inside and out. We at Jericho Writers have seen some horrible car-crash type manuscripts written by perfectly good writers. How come? Because those writers didn’t understand the market for their work before they put pen to paper. And if there’s no market for your basic idea, then no amount of editing work is going to save it.

Sorry.

how & when to start writing a novel

When do you start writing?

So.

You’ve written your headings. You’ve researched your market. You’ve started to make notes on plot, on character, on setting, and on everything else.

But when do you actually start to write the actual book? When do you shift from planning to doing?

And the truthful answer is:

It depends.

It depends on you, your story, your character, your life cuircumstances.

I’d suggest that you need at least:

  • A good idea of the shape of your story. (That means status quo, initiating incident, crisis and resolution, plus at least some vague idea of the direction of travel in the middle half of your book.)
  • A good idea about your characters.
  • A decent feel for settings and all those other things.
  • A strong sense of the market for your book.

If you end up accumulating more planning info than that, but don’t go crazy. Yes, JK Rowling famously plotted out her Harry Potter books, but she’s rare. Stephen King and Lee Child do 50% of Naff All. If you have a few pages on story, character, settings & market, and if you feel happy with those things, you may well be good to go.

In particular, I think the right time to start a book is about 3-7 days after you’re desperate to start your book. Let that head of steam build up. You’ll know when you’re ready to write.

Then start writing. Start enjoying yourself.

And happy writing!

Need more? We have an incredibly useful Idea Generator tool. Just grab it from the pop-up or the blue banner below this post. It doesn’t just help you structure your ideas … it gives you an incredible insight into how to plan a novel that has the potential to be a genuine bestseller …


About the author

Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).

As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)

Free plotting worksheets

Make the hardest part of writing easier