There are many ways you can think about structuring your novel, the least of all your worries are how many actual words you should or should not be typing – until you have actually typed every single one of them. Do not worry about your novel being too short or too long when you are completing a first draft, the biggest question in your mind should be whether you can get a full draft down. And the answer to that is yes. You can and you will.
Once you have committed to writing a story from beginning to end, remember that there are no hard and fast rules as to how you should or should not plan your journey. To give you an idea of the options, here are five ways you can go about it, or you can choose a sixth way which is just to make up your own novel-writing plan!
1.Write a Synopsis – If you havent heard of this, it’s a written assessment of your story detailing the plot from beginning to end. It can be as lengthy as you wish, though best to focus on the points of the story and not get bogged down with the fleshy details. One problem with this.. I personally find.. is that you can get so busy writing the perfect synopsis, you avoid writing the actual book because, yes, we all know a book is going to take a hell of a lot longer to complete. (If you are still pruning and editing a synopsis a month after writing it, you have actually kind of lost the plot!)
Alternatively if writing a synopsis for an agent you might want to produce a 2-3 page synopsis (maximum) and dont forget to use an ‘active’ voice. Here’s an example:
Jane read the entire novel in a day. (active)
The entire novel was read by Jane in one day. (passive)
2. Notebook style – This is my way of planning a story which kind of reflects my upside-down life. I gather information, ideas, scattered words, and just fill a notepad with all things that come to mind, possible plot ideas, intriguing characters, enticing beginnings and thrilling endings. The whole ‘notebook’ style of planning your novel might look like Marilyn Manson’s school jotter, but trust me, when you need to incorporate ideas, you will be able to make sense of some of it, pulling out just the bits that you really want in your story.
3. Chapter by Chapter – There are many writers who simply prefer to ‘wing it.’ They pick up an idea, figure out a tentative plot in their heads, engage in some vague sense of direction, and off they go. This is not advice most experienced writers would give because at some point you are going to burn out or meet the murky middle (or GSM – great swampy middle) as described by one intrepid author. Once there you will find it hard to escape the muddy mess, or be able to continue your story in any sensible direction. The murky middle of your book will exhaust your brain and quite possibly murder your story. Having said that, some brave writers attempt this approach and have completely blown all sensible advice out of the water, going on to produce fantastic books on a whim. (Yeah we hate those writers!)
4. Back to Front – I love this idea though its never worked for me. I could never plan or start my novel in this way. Some people dramatically write a last chapter complete with a shock effect ending. They then work backwards, creating the entire reason and plot arc as to how that particular ending came into fruition. If it works for you by all means try it. Just remember that working backwards might be more complicated than it seems. If your character is murdered on the last page, at what point in your story does your reader get to find out who killed him/her and why? If anything, choosing an ending first might well give you a few good ideas on possible plot ideas.
5. Story Beats – This is a method I have used myself. Simply write down 25 chapter headings. Within each chapter you will add the main beats of the story. Here is an example:
Sally is sitting alone in cafe.
Hospital calls her to tell her that her husband suffered a grave accident.
Sally leaves the cafe and heads straight to the hospital.
Traffic holds her up and she is too late to reach him.
Once there he is already pronounced dead.
Using the above method you are only outlining the very basic beats of the story and not bogging down your mind with all the description and fleshy details. This method can also be incorporated using Index Cards, but I find throwing the ‘beats’ into chapters allows you to re-arrange/adjust your story using the minimal (and most important) information which your story should contain.
Drop us a comment below and let people know what kind of method works best for you?
Here are further links to useful novel planning articles.