How to plan a novel header

One Way to Plan a Novel

Turning a rough idea into a fully-formed novel can seem daunting. Where do you begin? Fortunately for us, the brilliant C M Taylor is here to help.

Initial inspiration might come from anywhere – from dialogue overheard on the bus, or from a special place, or a fascinating person, or a situation. Or it might emerge from your admiration for a writer or a genre, or from something more inchoate – a feeling, a memory, a wish. Or it might be a hypothetical, ‘What if X happened?’

However it comes, after that itch, that first flash of knowing you’ve got something you want to write about, well, how do you go from that to a full plan for a novel?

There was a time when I blanked that question, picked up the shining thread of inspiration and hoped it would spool out unbroken ahead as I marched faithfully into the dark. But that approach went awry too many times and these days, as a professional likely to be commissioned to write a screenplay or a short story, say, in a given time to a given theme, haphazard wanders in the dark prove too unreliable.

Instead, I’ve got a system for nurturing a story. It’s not remotely my own system. It’s a bricolage from books I’ve read and writers I’ve listened to and the many failures I’ve known.

It can be boiled down into three stages:

  • Define your book’s theme by interrogating the initial inspiration
  • Create characters who embody dramatic, oppositional variants of this theme
  • Use these theme-carrying characters to define the fundamental antagonism in your plot, and so the nature of its key moments

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Theme, character and plot

Stepping back a bit, in this system, narrative art is broken down into three constituent parts:

  • Theme – What a writer says about the world (theme here subsumes point of view, tone, and what people call ‘voice’)
  • Character – Who embodies the theme
  • Plot – What happens (in this system, setting and genre are included here)

Now, these three constituent parts can be united within one simple statement:

In narrative art, character carries theme through plot

Understand that and you can write about anything, turn any moment of inspiration into a full organic story having a unified theme, characters and plot, all heading in the same direction to produce a work of art that’s ‘about something’. It’s so important I’m going to write it again:

In narrative art, character carries theme through plot

the power of story and discourse

In narrative art, character carries theme through plot

Let’s go back to those stages:

Define your book’s theme by interrogating the initial inspiration

What’s your inspiration telling you you want to write about? Now, in this system, the answer to this question must be broad, because theme in this system must be able to carry contradiction and complexity. I’ll explain…

Your inspiration might be very specific. Let’s say, off the top of my head, it’s an argument you heard on the bus between a brother and a sister. It’s a good inspiration. But an arguing brother and sister is not a theme – it’s an event, a scene.

But what were they arguing about?

Let’s say they’re arguing about chores. In which case the theme behind the argument might be responsibility, or it might be the demands of family.

Theme is not the specific situation – the brother and sister arguing on the bus – theme is what lies behind, the abstract human value that everyone can plug into. You might see the rowing siblings’ theme as home, or responsibility, or rivalry, or captivity, even. Depending on how the argument on the bus went – and depending on (and this is the beauty of this system) what you as a writer most care about.

So, you move to theme by interrogating your inspiration. And you keep your theme broad. Because drama is conflict, story is argument, and contradictory versions of theme carried by characters are what drives plot forward.

So now we move onto the second part:

Create characters who embody dramatic, oppositional variants of this theme

In her brilliant book Inside Story, screenwriter Dara Marks uses the cop film Lethal Weapon to illustrate how characters carry theme.

The theme is risk and the two main characters are Riggs (suicidal following the death of his wife and takes huge risks carrying out his police work) and Murtaugh (a family man, days away from retirement who takes no risk at all). They are carrying contradictory versions of the theme of risk.

It’s a simple illustrative example, and story can carry much more nuanced versions of theme, and it can carry more versions. In fact, each of your characters can carry an oppositional variant of your theme. Take for example our disputatious siblings, if in the end you feel that your underlying theme is captivity, then you might also create an Aunt in jail, and a friend tasting the freedom of back-packing, for example.

By now we start to tangle with the third constituent part of narrative art, namely plot, as we move in to the third part of the system:

Use these theme-carrying characters to define the fundamental antagonism in your plot, and so the nature of its key moments

Because Lethal Weapon’s characters carry opposite attitudes to risk, you know the plot’s going to involve risky situations. It must. It’s going to jam them into fixes where their attitudes to risk are tested, exposed as imbalanced, and where conflict offers them the opportunity to correct and change.

Narrative art is about human change. And the point of good plot is to provide events which expose the character’s imbalance, and so provide them with chance to change their relationship to theme.

Put another way, stories are maps of human change and plot provides events that specifically expose the imbalanced attitudes which the characters carry.

The specific underlying structure of narrative – the sequence and intensity of events which test the theme-carrying character – is however a subject for another time, and it’s enough for now to get those three parts – theme, character and plot – moving in the same direction, giving you chance to produce powerful unified work.


Staying On, C M Taylor’s ‘geriatric coming-of-age’ comedy is published by Duckworth on October 18th. 

@cmtaylorstory             https://cmtaylorstory.com/

The idea generator

Get better ideas faster, with this simple guide.