A Simple guide to planning a novel – Part 2

In the first instalment of my Simple guide to planning a novel, we completed some pre-work and explored our character timelines. For each character we should have a rough list of events.

I should probably start part 2 with another confession, creating a framework is incredibly dull, and there is even a little maths! Think of it as a necessary evil, and something we just need to get through before we can enjoy being creative again. So, stick with it. I promise next week will be much more fun.

Planning a novel - creating a framework

The framework holds the building blocks of our story, which we will later pin all our events from the character timelines on to, and for this we need two important counts:

  • word count for the novel
  • word count for the chapters

Step 1 – Novel Word Count

Word counts for books are not necessarily cast in stone, but it is worth being aware of the typical word count for novels in your genre, so at least if you break the rule you know you are breaking the rule.

Not sure what your word count should be? Check these links out here:

Step 2 – Chapter Word Count 

If you have written a novel before then you will have an idea of your usual chapter length. Typically Chapters are between 1.5 and 5k and contain 1 or more scenes.

A Scene is a unit of action that takes place in one location and should move the story forward or reveal a character.  What’s a Scene? (And What’s a Chapter?)

“Scenes in novels rarely need to be longer than 1000-1500 words. If yours goes on pages & pages, do some cutting” ~ Curtis Brown Literary Agency.

Side note on chapter lengths: I have seen many discussions on chapter length, but this really is a personal preference. Some, like long chapters (think epic fantasy). Some, like short snappy chapters with only one scene (think commercial fiction). Then, assume this rule is broken all the time! It all depends on the genre and the writer’s style. Longer chapters can slow down the story, shorter chapters with lots of cliff hanger endings can speed it up.

My own scenes generally come out at around 1.5k. Most of my chapters have one scene, but they occasionally contain two, making my average chapter length about 2K.

Step 3 – Create a framework for the plan

To create our framework we simply list down all the chapter numbers based on our novel word count and our average chapter word count. Don’t worry if this is a bit of a guess, this is just a rough framework. Think of it as a giant book concertina, as long as we pin things on in roughly the right order, it can easily expand or contract later.

My example: 

I write Scifi, average word count 90k, but no more than 110k.

I take an even 100k target length (allowing for 10k of chop during editing).

I write an average 2k per chapter

100k/ 2k = 50 Chapters 

Now we just write those down.

Q: What tools do I need to create my framework.

A: Scrivener has a chalk board option for planning which allows you to create ‘post-it’ like notes in your size choice. You can recreate exactly the same thing on a white board, chalk board, pin board, or a few sheets of paper. I use scrivener for 90% of my writing process, but I find early planning easier on a piece of paper with post-it notes, I think partly because you can see more of the plan on a piece of paper than you can on a computer screen, but also because there is something comforting about the tactile aspect of shuffling the scene post-it’s about on a board or piece of paper.

Note: Assume you will be shuffling chapters about!

Vladimir Nabokov, author of LolitaPale Fire, and Ada, was very particular about his writing instruments. He composed all his works on index cards, which he kept in slim boxes. This odd method enabled him to write scenes non-sequentially and re-order the cards any time he wanted.

Below is a screen shot from Scrivener

Note you can colour code chapters / scenes in Scrivener in the same way you can on paper using coloured post-it notes. I find this really useful as I use multiple POV and you can see how the story flows between the characters. Colour could also help with location for example, or any other useful categorisation your chapter may benefit from.

Scrivener Planning board

Step 4 – Note the key plot points

This is the final stage before we leap into the good stuff and start exploring the details of what these key plot points are.

Against each of the chapters add the following information

  1. Write – ‘question/hook’ against chapter 1 (Always chapter 1)
  2. Write – ‘closure’ against your last chapter (In my example chapter 50)
  3. Write – ‘epic ending’ – against your penultimate chapter(s) (In my example chapter 49) Note: The epic ending can often stretch over a several chapters – some stretch over the entire last quarter of the book!
  4. At the 1st quarter chapter point write – ‘1st Plot point’ (In my example chapter 13)
  5. At the 2nd quarter chapter write – ‘2nd plot point’ (In my example chapter 25)
  6. At the 3rd quarter chapter write – ‘3rd plot point’ (In my example chapter 38)

Perfect! Now we are ready to start filling out our plan!

In Part 3 we will begin exploring these key plot points, with examples from Toy Story and Star Wars to illustrate.

A simple guide to planning a novel part 1 – Pre-work and character timelines

A simple guide to planning a novel part 3 – The beginning and the end

A simple guide to planning a novel part 4 – The inciting incident

A simple guide to planning a novel part 5 – The key events in a book

A simple guide to planning a novel part 6 – Filling in the chapter notes (Scheduled 7-Jan-2016)

24 thoughts on “A Simple guide to planning a novel – Part 2

  1. “Scenes in novels rarely need to be longer than 1000-1500 words. If yours goes on pages & pages, do some cutting.”

    The great thing about this is that one reason it’s good advice is that it means two different things (perhaps not intentionally 🙂 ). There’s “cutting” in the obvious sense, of course — throwing things out — but there’s also “cuttting” in the movie sense. Don’t just sit on that one scene, maybe for too long — cut back and forth between different scenes, in different places (or at different times — though that can be trickier to pull off). If you get a good rhythm going, this can be very effective.

    As for chapter length, I like a variety. All chapters the same length can get predictable, like seeing a band where all the songs are in the same key. For one obvious example, when the story is getting closer to the climax, with higher stakes and more tension, shorten the chapters.

    (There’s only one chapter in Inherent Vice that has only one scene, and it’s not, apparently, a vital scene. I still wonder what Pynchon was thinking…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are really great points Anthony. When I drafted the first book I originally had much longer chapters with several scenes. I changed this after feedback from a reader and chopped nearly all the longer chapters up, breaking them, where possible at a more critical mid-point, and then cutting to a different event (and usually POV too). While every chapter doesn’t have a cliff hanger ending, many do – or at least an intriguing end. It injected a lot more pace into the story, and when I asked the the same person for feedback, they said it was far more interesting.
      I left a few bigger chapters in place to mix it up, but only a few.
      And I do like varied chapter lengths. I used to worry about being really consistent- like they all had to be exactly the same size, which seems really funny now on reflection. 🙂


  2. You’ve provided a lot of good information for people who are able to plan out an entire book. Pantsers don’t do well with outlines or planning. We keep our fingers on the keyboard and watch the words fly.

    When I’m at the computer, the book writes itself. When I’m going through the first draft, new chapters and ways to integrate information pop into my brain like bagels ejected from a high-strung toaster. Pantsers seem to be the platypus’ of the writing world. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds perfect, definitely don’t need any help with a plan. 😉 A quick question though, do you ever struggle with too many ideas, and the story just wants to keep going? I am firmly in the middle of a pantser and a plotter, but I still sometimes struggle with too much story.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on A.R. Rivera and commented:
    I know, dear readers, that I’ve been virtually nonexistent this week and I’m am sorry. But I did not drop off the face of the planet.
    See, Christmas week is a BIG week for me, personally. Bigger than most I daresay.
    See today is my sweet nephews birthday.
    Tomorrow is my oldest sons birthday.
    Christmas Eve, we go out of town to celebrate my mother and father in-laws 1000th wedding anniversary (They’ve been married forever and it’s freaking adorable!).
    And then of course, the next day is the world wide observance of JC’s birthday.

    In preparation for all of that, I haven’t really had time for bogging. BUT… Georgia Cromarty of thewritingchimp.com has!
    So, without further ado, here is Part Two of her fascinating post, A Simple Guide to Writing a Novel…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m about to start work on a particularly difficult novel – one where I have the beginning and ending inside my head, but not enough in the middle to lead into the sequel – so I think I will use your guide to help me mold the plots of the two books. If nothing else, it should save me time in the editing process.

        Liked by 1 person

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