So, you have an idea. Awesome! Hopefully it’s really good. If it’s not, hopefully someone tells you before you put too much work into it.
You’ve got your idea and your pen is hovering over the page, (or your hands over your keyboard), and you’re not quite sure where to begin. There are two schools of thought. Firstly, outliners, those who meticulously plot their stories before they begin writing them (J.K. Rowling.) Secondly, pantsers, those who just dive right into their story and figure it out as they go along (Stephen King.) There’s no right or wrong way. Coincidentally, I fall right in the middle. I begin writing my story immediately because I’m so excited to start, but in a separate notebook I begin planning the greater plot and character development. I feel I get the best of both spontaneous creativity and thought-out planning this way.
I’ve written this guide for the outliners among you, obviously the pantsers don’t need a guide, just go write!
Determine your setting -
This is an incredibly important step when planning your novel. Deciding upon, and utilizing, the right setting is a very difficult task. The setting will often have a huge impact on your characters and the story but it should fly under the radar, and be a subtle tool in your writing. You don’t want your reader thinking about the weather, you want your reader thinking about your character reacting and adapting to the weather.
Think about what different settings offer, and how they enhance your story. Desserts are harsh and unforgiving and offer little in the way of food and water. Rainforests are plentiful in food and water, but what lurks in the trees? Space is both infinite and unknown, it gives you the freedom to create whatever you want, but don’t get carried away being silly with technologies and weapons you can’t explain.
What time period are you setting your book in? Are there paved roads that make it easier for your character to get around? Are there cameras and satellites they have to hide from? Even a hike through the trees becomes completely different in different eras. Technology, weapons, medicine and clothing all change with each passing year. How do these effect your stories? But be careful not to get too bogged down with technology and ignore your character’s development.
A great tip from Writers Digest is to explore your setting. Imagine yourself walking through the setting you’ve chosen, what are you reacting to? The smells? The fauna? The animals? What is impacting you the most as you mentally walk through this land. Is it easy-going? Are you bundled up against the weather?
Putting yourself in your characters shoes as often as possible will help you create realistic and relatable reactions to the situations you put them in, regardless of whether they’re an intergalactic space general, or a janitor.
Develop your characters -
Who are the characters in your story? In my outlines I only plan the three or four most influential characters. Then as I’m writing I have the flexibility to experiment with secondary characters as the need arises.
Who are your heroes and villains? What are their motivations? Their fears? Their strengths and weaknesses? But more importantly than all that, who are they? Your main character may be a world famous sword-fighter with a great mind for military tactics. But all that does is continue the story, what about what your character adds to the story? Do they secretly thrive in violent situations, loving the blood? Or are they disgusted by what the world needs them to become? Perhaps they’re an avid chess player rather than just the barbarian the people see.
Construct your plot -
There are those in the writing community who spend pages and pages outlining their plot in the most minute detail. In my opinion, a page or two is normally enough to get you started. Masterclass.com says that your outline should be the “skeleton of your novel.”
What is the conflict that your story revolves around? Then think about how your setting enhances that conflict, or how your characters can use their setting to solve the conflict.
Another reason I try to avoid over planning my novels is because you can run the risk of creating a story that feels very formulaic and step-by-step. Again, Masterclass.com puts it well, when you follow a rigid outline too closely “characters may seem to make inauthentic choices, solely based on plot points instead of natural results from narrative action.“
Write out your key scenes -
When I say write out your scenes, I don’t mean write them out as you would in your actual story. I mean just make a note of the key scenes that you want to take place through out your book. For example instead of writing out an entire fight scene you could just make a quick note saying, “Main character fights an assassin in the woods, he kills the assassin but is badly wounded and lost. He is found by a sorcerer when he is near death and saved.” There’s enough there for you to fatten it out into an exciting scene.
Having these as anchor points will help you to keep your story on track heading towards the ending you want. But don’t get too attached to these scenes, if you get to a point in your story and the scene no longer excites you or no longer makes sense, then axe it! A good idea to help you with these scenes is to add how your character is feeling. It can be as simple as “main character is curious, but not angry.” When you get to these key points in your story having this guidance can help take the pressure off the writing and you can just write. Once you have the scene down on paper it’ll be a lot easier to improve it. But trying to right the perfect scene from scratch? Never gonna happen.
I’ll reiterate this, you don’t have to write an outline. Plenty of hyper successful authors just dive right into writing their story after they think of an idea. But for those of us who lack the discipline to stay on track that way, an outline is a great way to keep yourself headed in the right direction.
Happy writing, friends.
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