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How to Plan a Novel Using the 4 Basic Story Elements
Even if you like to leave a lot up to in-the-moment inspiration during your writing process, these are the essentials that you need to have an idea of before you start writing for the first time:
- Main character: Every story has a main character—the person whose arc and character development readers follow throughout the story. There are tons of options to choose from when crafting your major character. They can be a good character (i.e., full of moral integrity) or a bad one. You can give them a unique physical trait (like a limp or a lazy eye) or an interesting personality trait (for instance, that they hate water and refuse to learn how to swim). You can use them as the point-of-view character, or you can tell the story through the eyes of a minor character. Examples of famous main characters in literature include Harry Potter from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Jay Gatsby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
- Goals: Once you have a few bullet points about your main character, it’s time to think about their goals. The main character’s goals are vital to the storyline because their goals should reflect the overall story goals—and the plot moves forward based on the main character’s decisions. For example, if you’re writing a crime thriller, the protagonist’s goals should have something to do with the crime; maybe they’re a retired detective who’s uniquely suited to help, or a witness who’s trying to forget the whole thing.
- Conflict: If a story was just about a main character easily achieving their goals, readers would get bored immediately—that’s why every good story needs conflict to get in the way of the character’s goals. Come up with a strong obstacle that will keep your character from achieving their goals too early.
- Setting: Regardless of whether your story is a science-fiction thriller set in a world you built from scratch or a suburban story set in your hometown, you’ll need to think about the setting and how it will influence the story. If you pay attention to the setting as you plan—including world-building details like what season it is, what it looks like outside and inside, and how people get around—you will find that it can influence the plot in interesting ways and give the story a unique and believable texture.
How to Plan a Novel: 2 Story-Planning Methods
Once you have a few bullet points of description for the basic elements of your story—your character, their goal, the conflict, and the setting—there are two main ways to fill in the details:
- The A-to-Z method: This method is the most straightforward; it involves starting at the beginning of the plot and coming up with each event sequentially all the way to the end. This step-by-step approach can have a steep learning curve for some writers, because it requires them to have a very firm grasp of their character, goal, conflict, and setting at the start, in order for them to craft a strong and detailed outline of the plot from start to finish. If your novel has many characters, you most likely need to have detailed character sketches (or character profiles) for each in order to be able to get started. If you’re using the A-to-Z method and find yourself stuck, try writing chapter titles for your story—it may help suggest where the plot could go.
- The snowflake method: The snowflake method, coined by writer Randy Ingermanson, is named because it follows the shape of a snowflake rather than a straight line. To plan your novel, you start with a basic idea (the center of the snowflake) and slowly add details to the idea (the fractals of the snowflake) to spiral into more and more detail. To follow the snowflake method, start with a one-sentence description of your novel—including the character, goal, conflict, and setting. Then, flesh that one sentence out into one sentence about each of those four elements. Turn each of those sentences into a paragraph, and then each into a page—and continue on until you feel like you have enough of a grasp to start writing the whole story.
4 Tips for Planning a Novel
Even with a great book idea, novel writing and planning can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for excelling at the process:
- Schedule planning and writing time. Even with all the ideas in the world, if you don’t actually sit down to do the hard work and plan your novel, you’ll never write a bestseller. If procrastination is taking over, try scheduling writing sessions with a writers’ group or give yourself daily word count goals to hold yourself accountable. If writing at home isn’t working, get out of the house and try writing at a café or coffee shop.
- Let yourself brainstorm freely. Do an information dump in which you write down as many things as you can think of—this gets your creative juices flowing and offers more options for your brain to explore, connect, or subvert. When brainstorming, keep in mind this mantra: There are no bad ideas. You can even create a mind map with topics and subtopics to organize your ideas.
- Read. All great writers are good readers, and if you’re looking for inspiration, the first place you should turn to is another book. How do other writers craft interesting characters who feel like they’re straight from real life? How do they keep the conflict fresh enough to keep the reader’s interest? Pay attention to things like these in order to bring those lessons and writing tools to your own work. Reading can also show you the tropes of a genre—the common plot elements that many books lean on in their plots (for instance, the hardboiled detective trope in mystery novels)—so that you can incorporate and subvert them in your own book writing. Even though reading isn’t writing, it’s still an important part of the process.
- Beware of over-plotting. It’s important to have at least a roadmap when you start writing—but don’t get caught in the trap of thinking you need to know the backstory of every character and the details of every subplot of your entire novel before you start writing. This often has the opposite effect of what you’d want: Rather than making you feel confident that you can write a great first draft, it can leave you obsessing over details and feeling like you’re never quite ready enough to start the actual writing. Even just a blurb about each of your plot points is enough to get going.
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