How to Plan a Novel – Article

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I was always told there were two different kinds of writers. One will let their novel flow, writing word to word—they only roughly know the details they want in the coming chapters. The other writer plans what will happen and keeps their novel to a timeline.

For my first novel, I wrote in the style of the first writer. The book was called Scar of Athens and was written when I was quite young and still very unsure of what I was doing. The story followed the adventures of Athens, a young princess in a turbulent kingdom. She made friends, enemies, lovers, and mistakes. The manuscript stands at a total of 60 pages long and remains unfinished. I haven’t touched it for years but it stands for me as two things: inspiration and warning. I loved writing Scar of Athens. It was a fantastic experience and spurred me to continue my writing.

I wrote Scar of Athens as I felt it should go. It was a story of sudden plot changes, random character introductions, and no actual ending planned. Reading the manuscript now, I know that if I ever want to retell this story, I am going to have to start from scratch. Scar of Athens was written in spur-of-the-moment style. I never had a proper plan for the plot. The flow of the story went wherever I felt it needed to at the time. I believe the novel has one main character, and about fifty minor characters. This is because whenever I told a friend, or met someone new, I felt compelled to add him or her to the story. I know now that doesn’t work very well, and, while this style of writing may work for some authors, it doesn’t work for me. When I began my novel Birth by Fire’s Embrace, I started it very differently.

I had mulled over the idea for Birth by Fire’s Embrace for about six months before I actually acted on it. One night, I made the decision to start it as a novel. I sat down at my keyboard and I started a document called ‘Birth by Fire’s Embrace, Planning’. I knew what I had done wrong before; I didn’t give myself (and my characters) a goal. They had just wandered through life, living whim to whim. That would change with Birth by Fire’s Embrace.

I am now a planner. Before I start a new novel, I extensively plan it out, chapter by chapter. I start ten chapters and assign a major or minor event for each of these. I select the most major event to occur in the seventh chapter with the resolution in the tenth chapter. This is just a basic plan, just a sentence or two.

The next step in my plan is to expand those chapters to twenty by adding chapters in between the original ten. I use these extra chapters as links to the other chapters. It helps to smooth the overall story and move characters from one incident to the next. I call the main events in my planning incidents, and an incident can take place over many chapters.

Planning chapter by chapter allows me to control the “curve” of my novel. When planning a novel, you need to consider the curve. The curve is the flow of tension in your book. You want medium tension at the beginning of the novel. This is to hook the reader and entice them to keep reading. In the twenty chapter plan, drop the tension back a bit once you hit the roughly ninth chapter. You may want to add a few minor rises, but keep the highest tension for resolution in the nineteenth chapter. Chapter Twenty is for the wrap-up and, if necessary, the lead into the next novel.

And now, the catch: no matter how much you plan your novel at the start, it will never end that way. As you write your novel, don’t ignore any inspirational bursts. Just because you have a plan, that doesn’t mean you can’t change it. My first plan of Birth By Fire’s Embrace was not how the book turned out. As I wrote the manuscript, my characters evolved and my understanding of the concept evolved until it was something more than what I’d started with. I even had a moment where my main character simply refused to do what I had planned, because it was no longer in their nature. I had to stop and think of another way I could get them to the next incident. Always listen to your characters. If they really want to do something, let them, even if it’s not planned, because it will make your characters more real.

I plan my novels because it gives my story structure and drive. Not all authors write like this; experiment until you find your own style. Try writing a few chapters off the top of your head and try planning a few. Compare them and see which is better. Ask your friends which one they think is better and consider which process was easier. I can’t say which is best for everyone because everyone is unique, but planning is best for me. Discover your own style. All it takes is practice and patience. And practice. Did I mention practice?

Ashleigh Galvin is the author of Birth by Fire’s Embrace available now here. Keep an eye on Spectacle for more novels by Ashleigh as well as her insightful advice for authors!

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