Tips for Pre-Planning Your Novel

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Writing the first draft of a novel is the easy part. Revising it is the hard part. The next hardest, I believe, is pre-planning your story.

Sure, you can begin drafting the story as you see it in your head (as I usually like to do). But most authors have to do some pre-planning to know what they will write about in the first place. Otherwise, you can get through six or seven scenes then draw a blank about where the story will go next.  

Pre-planning is important for several reasons.

  • It helps you know how your story will begin – and end – and the major plot points in between.
  • It helps you understand who you protagonist is, what they most desire and what is getting in the way of getting what they want.
  • It helps you figure out who the other characters are and what their motivations are.
  • It helps you get a clear idea of the back story and setting.
  • It helps you understand how the story will progress, and how the tension will develop.
  • It helps you organize your notes so that you’re not stopping and starting your writing.

There are different approaches to pre-planning depending on the type of writer you are. If you’re a planner, then pre-planning will come naturally to you. The downside is you may get so caught up in the pre-planning, that you delay starting your novel.

If you’re a pantser like me, you prefer to write intuitively, letting the scenes and characters show up organically. However, even among pantsers, pre-planning can help you organize your ideas and give some structure to the story before you begin writing. The good news is the pre-planning process provides a skeleton layout of your story while giving it enough flexibility to allow new characters and scenes to develop.

There is no right or wrong way to plan your novel. It all depends on how much planning you like to do ahead of time. Some plans are more detailed than others. But there are a few common steps.

  1. Know what kind of story you want to write, and who your audience will likely be. Do you want to write a mystery? Women’s fiction? Literary? Or historical fiction?
  2. Write the story’s premise in 1-2 sentences. You might consider playing the game “what if” to come up with different scenarios for your story. For example, what if a rising figure skating star is kidnapped as a revenge against her father and the skater’s coach must work against the clock to find her? Be sure the premise hints at the conflict.
  3. Write a bio of your protagonist. It might help to write it in their voice so you can easily get inside their head. What is their greatest desire? What or who is getting in their way of getting it? Who are their friends and family? Know your protagonist inside and out.
  4. Brainstorm different scenes. Just jot down the ideas for each scene in 2-4 sentences. You’ll flesh them out more fully later.
  5. Create a timeline for your story. Does it take place over several days in a thriller? Or several years as they might in historical fiction. Understanding the timeline ahead of time helps you figure out when each scene will occur in relation to one another. Otherwise you’ll have to address the timing of events in the revision phase. (I highly recommend this step. I wish I had done this with my current work in progress.)
  6. Know your audience. This can be several sentences. Who are your potential readers? What else do they like to read?
  7. Do your research. If you’re writing historical fiction, this is especially important to understand the setting and customs of that time. But even if you’re not writing this genre, some research is needed. Do any of your characters suffer from a rare medical condition? You’ll need to know the symptoms and treatment. What types of poison are least likely to be detected? You’ll need to know the answers before you begin writing.
  8. Begin writing. You can start anywhere in the story. I find it helpful sometimes to write individual scenes that you can see in your imagination. You can always figure out where it will appear in the story later. Another option is to begin at the end. Writing your ending first can help you figure out how to start your novel. If you know your protagonist has to end up at Z, then you know you have to have her begin the story at V, and get through W, X and Y.  

You’ll find numerous resources and articles about planning your novel on the internet. There are numerous approaches, and you may have to experiment with several of them before you find one that works for you.

Good luck and happy writing!

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