A simple guide to planning a novel – Part 1

I am going to confess something right off—I hate planning. I hate it with a passion. I find it boring. So, if I want to plan a novel I need to make it super easy, and when I say super easy, I mean idiot proof.

My Simple guide to planning a novel will be a series coming out every Wednesday. Today we are looking at the tools needed, pre-work, and Stage 1 – Brainstorming. I will be using Star Wars to provide plot point explanations, and these examples will be obvious even for those who haven’t seen the movie. If you haven’t seen Star Wars (why haven’t you seen it?), I will also be using examples from Toy Story.

My advice in using this guide is not to over-think every stage. For example, if you don’t have a complete character profile you can move forward anyway. You do need some of the character profile, though.

You will find that as you develop each stage you gain insights into previous stages and previous ideas. It’s okay to dive back and add extra details to any stage at any point. The more passes you make, and the more you progress, the greater detail you will see. And it doesn’t have to be perfect before you can start writing, I go for the 80/20 rule. If it’s mostly complete just jump on in and the last few missing pieces will pop up as you write.

Q: What are the planning stages?

A: Pre-work + 5 stages

We will follow the series of steps shown below. The Key plot points will take the most time and effort, but these are also the most important parts so it is worth investing this time. Today we are covering pre-work and brainstorming.

Planning a novel - Part 1

Q: How long does it take?

A: About a day

I have just planned my third book using this technique, which is based on a number of blog posts, articles, pod-casts, books, and planning guides I have read over the years, along with the experience gained in planning my first two books. It took me about a day in total excluding the pre-work and character profiles. Since it was the third book in a series I already had a good idea about what I wanted to achieve, and of course knew most of the characters. However, my original outline was still extremely sketchy, but with about 6 hours effort I had a great set of chapter summaries, was comfortable that I had not backed myself into any plot corners, and had all my key plot points covered.

Q: What tools do I need?

A: This is a generic planning approach and can use anything from a dedicated writing tool such as Scrivener, word, excel or good old pen and paper.

If you are using the manual approach then coloured pens and post-it notes can be a great help, but otherwise plain old paper and pen will do.

Now, without further ado, here is my Simple guide to planning a novel.


As with most things, you need to do a little pre-work before you leap into planning a book. The pre-work involves developing your story concept, along with a rough idea of what the story is about. A summary will do. Then we can move onto brainstorming our plot. Things to identify in the pre-work stage include:

  • What sort of dramatic situation is your story about? You may be surprised to discover there are only so many types of plot. Want some ideas, check out this great post with examples. 36 Plots and Mad Max
  • Who is your story about? When we get an idea for a story we usually have a character in mind for our protagonist, and we usually have back story ideas about them too.
  • Who is your story antagonist, or antagonistic force? Whether it is a person, a force of nature, an animal, a disease or something else doesn’t matter, there just needs to be something or someone who provides the counterbalance to our protagonist and delivers a source of conflict.
  • Our characters never live in a vacuum, so you also need an idea for the setting or location, and ideas for supporting characters as well.

Phew, that is quite a lot of pre-work! But, all of this will help you when you come to start the real planning and we begin to explore our character timelines.

Step 1 – Character timelines via brainstorming.

To explore character timelines, you need a book start and the book end…even if you change these as part of the planning and /or writing process. You have to start somewhere, and you have to put a boundary around your story.

This boundary will be used now when we explore our character timelines.

  1. First, list all the main characters, and all your supporting characters. If something other than a person is acting as an antagonist then list this as well.

2. For each write up a little bio. Here is a great list of questions you can use to explore your characters. How to create a character profile. You don’t necessarily need to fill in everything, especially for minor characters, but everything you do note down will increase your character depth.

3. Naming characters in my humble opinion is a nightmare, and I change the names constantly!  Some people use a generic name to start with such as ‘Best friend’, ‘guy in bar’, ‘Mr X’ and then let the name pop up later. Personally I just get on with naming them and change them later if need be. For more help see. Character names – decisions, decisions!

4. For each character now jot down any and all plot points or events that happen to them in between your story start and your story end. The main character(s) are easiest so start with these first. Don’t worry if you think there may be gaps, it will all get filled in later. And you often find that bullet-pointing one character generates ideas against another, which is great!

Don’t worry about the order of the events. If you have a order that’s a bonus and certainly use it, but otherwise just let the thoughts and ideas pour out.

Don’t allow any subconscious constraints to influence the brainstorming. Don’t worry if it will be an actual plot point or a sub-point. Your ideas here may become chapters, a few sentences or even multiple chapters, the most important part is simply to write them all down.

A simple guide to planning a novel part 2 – Word count and creating a framework 

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

66 thoughts on “A simple guide to planning a novel – Part 1

  1. Pretty nifty ideas!
    I’m not a planner either. At all. I am in the midst of writing three novels though and one of the climactic plot points has me stuck. I think I might try using this system of yours to help me figure out where I’d like to go next.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It does, but two of them are nearly finished. 75 % or so. The third is maybe half way there.
        I’m thinking that your way of breaking things down might save me time in the long run.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I do think it speeds up the process if you plan, even though I hate admitting this 😉 Brainstorming and cross-referencing the same info from different perspectives really helps the ideas to pop out. Once you have enough ideas and can apply a little structure, you are well on your way to completing your draft.
        Ideas can still pop out when you write, but it’s slower and the act of writing drives a narrow focus on only what you are doing now. At least it does for me 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’ve tried outlining and I suck at it. Well, mostly I just hate it, which makes me wanna steer clear.
        Most of my story structure is built in my head for a few months before I put it to page. Maybe writing it all down before hand will save me time in the editing stage.
        Besides, your unconventional way of structuring the story makes me want to give it a try.
        So thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great advice, Georgina. I especially like the first comment about not overplanning – your 80/20 rule. Leaving room for the characters, settings, relationships, and plot to grow is important, and it keeps the creativity flowing throughout the story. I’m constantly going back to my profiles and outline to add updates and jot down notes, usually because my characters are making changes. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This couldn’t have dropped into my inbox at a better time! I am getting ready to take a break from narration and concentrate on a writing project that has been in the works for a couple of years. Just knowing that I can get a basic plan hammered out in one day is a relief! I have a bad habit of over-complicating everything!

    How would you handle starting on what you know will probably end up as a trilogy? Should I spend one day on an overriding general plot that reaches an overall climax and then extra time for each book?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is a great question, Wendy. I am just beginning to write the last book of a trilogy ( I didn’t know it would be a trilogy at the start, I just knew it was multiple books, and I am still sitting on the fence about leaving an open ending!) . I think before you start a series (however many books it may have) it is important to have an idea of the overarching story and the overarching character arc or arcs. I had a rough idea of the overall plot right from book one, but I found as I went through each book some of the key plot points shuffled about quite significantly. New plot points also came along, and some original plot points were ditched.
      Too much detail at the start for the later books would have been wasted on me. I think a one page synopsis or just a list of key plot points for book 2&3 is plenty IMHO. I do like to have this much though, because I like to have something to break / change and you cannot break or change a blank page 🙂
      One of the things that I have read time and again as being important for a series, is that each book still needs the all key plot points / change points.
      Look forward to your feedback if you do try this planning technique on your book 🙂


  4. Pretty solid!

    I HATE naming things, it’s so hard to the the sound/feel/connotations Just. Right.

    I’ve got a super rough draft of a book with all the characters I didn’t have names for just given random names in ABC order. New character? Alice. Bob. Carol. Dave… What can I say? It was NaNoWriMo and I needed word count.

    Liked by 2 people

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