So you’re wondering how to plan a novel or a nonfiction book?
Before you go any further, you may wish to read this article on how to start writing a book with or without a plan and find out if planning a novel is right for you. It’s important to remember that the best way to start writing a novel is simply… by writing! If you spend all of your time planning, you may get distracted, lose motivation and never get around to starting. Don’t feel compelled to plan if that doesn’t feel like the right approach for you.
I also want to mention that no matter what planning technique you are looking at, it will always have its criticisms. When it comes to how to plan a novel, critics say that planned methods stifle your creativity by forcing you into a canned structure. There could be some truth to this, but ultimately, if planning a novel helps you write something you wouldn’t have otherwise – then keep doing it!
Nonfiction authors: Not all of this article will be relevant for you. The section about the 3 act play is.
Now, assuming you are an architect writer and want to learn more about how to plan a novel or a nonfiction book, then read on!
The Seven Basic Plots
It’s been said that there are only seven stories in the world. If this is true, it means you can literally categorize every story in existence. It’s a good first step to know what these story types are as they can provide basic perspective for your own novel. They are…
1. From rags to riches. In this story, the reader follows the tale of a protagonist who begins his or her journey with sorrowful upbringings and through many trials and tribulations, overcomes them. They may lose all of their newfound wealth or power before growing as a person. Aladdin and Cinderella are great examples of this type.
2. Overcoming the monster. The protagonist must go on a journey to defeat a great evil, a villain, a force of darkness or something similar. This includes major epic fantasy sagas such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
3. The quest. The hero must go on a journey to obtain or recover an item, an artifact, a person, or something else of great importance. There are obstacles in the way which must be overcome for the hero to be successful. Think Indiana Jones.
4. Voyage and return. The hero travels to a new, unfamiliar land, facing challenges along the way. When they return, they have gained valuable life lessons and experiences, helping them grow as a person. For instance, The Wizard of Oz.
5. Comedy. Not necessarily meaning “laugh out loud.” A comedy means a story where (usually) two people must overcome a challenge, force of evil, or some other obstacle preventing them from finding happiness. These stories often have a happy ending. Most romances fall into this category. Silver Linings Playbook is one of many examples.
6. Tragedy. Rarer to find than some of these other story types, a tragedy is one where our protagonist is really the villain. Perhaps they start off as a good character but we watch as they spiral down into darkness or madness, eventually being the cause of their own defeat. Difficult to pull off, but super-effective when done well. Walter White in Breaking Bad fits into this category, as does Arthas from Warcraft III.
7. Rebirth. Similar to tragedy, but at the end the anti-hero realizes the error of their ways and has a rebirth as a better person. There are several characters on shows such as Once Upon a Time, Prison Break and even Lost who have had rebirth tales.
This list of seven basic plot types will hopefully give you some insight as how to plan a novel, or where your story fits in, but it should by no means limit you either. If you believe you can create a good story outside of these archetypes – go for it! It’s often those who are the most creative who are the most successful. The Beatles, one of the most famous bands in the world, often didn’t follow standard songwriting formats. It worked out pretty well for them.
By the way, if you want to know more about the seven basic plot types then you might want to consider purchasing The Seven Basic Plots by Christoper Booker, who discusses it in far more detail.
How to Plan a Novel
If by now you’re still certain you want to know how to plan a novel, here are a few of the most common planning structures.
By the way, there is a lot of information included here – implement some of it, all of it, or none of it – it’s up to you. Whatever you do, DON’T use excessive planning as an ongoing excuse for why you haven’t started writing a book. If you want to know how to plan a novel that’s fine, but the most important step into writing a novel or a book is the part where you actually start writing.
The Snowflake Method
Arguably one of the most popular methods on how to plan a novel comes from author Randy Ingermanson, “the snowflake guy.” Ingermason’s approach is named after the snowflake due to the complexity and intricacy of its design.
I claim that that’s how you design a novel — you start small, then build stuff up until it looks like a story. – Randy Ingermason
Ingermason’s approach has 10 steps to it, which I will give a brief overview of here. If this intrigues you then you should visit his website where you can learn about it in more detail.
Write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Make it short and sweet – think of it like a tweet.
In fact, a tweet summarizing your book can be incredibly helpful because on the 4th Friday of every month you can tweet a short summary of your book under the hashtag #PitchCB. If a literary agent from Curtis Brown likes it, you’re invited to send them your query letter. This won’t be much use to you right now at the planning stage, but it’s good to keep in the back of your mind for later when you’re ready to publish.
Expand your sentence from step #1 into a full paragraph. It should be about five sentences long. This will also help your query letter once you get to the publishing stage. Ingermanson recommends your story having five major disasters, which are outlined in sentences two, three and four.
The Café variation: Rather than having three disasters, use a combination of disasters, major story developments, ‘ah-ha’/discovery moments, or plot twists.
For each of your major characters, write a one-page summary sheet about them which includes:
- Their name
- Their storyline in one sentence
- Their main motivation
- Their main goal
- Their main conflict
- Their epiphany by the end of the book
- Their story in one paragraph
Expand each sentence from the summary paragraph in step #2 into a full paragraph. Each of these paragraphs should end in a disaster, or one of the variation moments mentioned in step #2. This will be your one-page synopsis.
Write a one-page description of each of your major characters, plus a half-page description of all other important characters.
Expand your one-page synopsis from step #4 into four pages. Essentially, each of the paragraphs from step #4 now becomes its own page. You can go back and make any changes as you see fit.
Expand each of your character descriptions with more information about them. Include things like birthdays, motivations, backstories, favourite foods, likes, dislikes – anything you think could be interesting or relevant about them. This is important to get right because bland characters can kill a reader’s interest, while unique ones become what’s memorable.
Time to pull out a spreadsheet. You can use Excel, Google Spreadsheets, or whatever software you feel the most comfortable with for this. What do you include in this spreadsheet?
- Outline the individual scenes that make up the paragraphs from step #6 (one line per scene)
- Track different characters
- Make notes of locations, stores, items, etc.
- Whatever else you can think of that might help you
I used a spreadsheet for when I wrote Elementalists and I had it open constantly. My suggestion – if you only actually implement one single thing from this entire article then make it this step. Use a spreadsheet – you won’t regret it. It’s incredibly useful for thinking about how to plan a novel.
Start writing a narrative. Take every scene from your spreadsheet and expand it into a multi-paragraph description of the scene. Make notes, include dialogue if you wish, talk about things in as much detail as you like. Make sure you’re including conflict as it’s the core element to any story.
Note: Ingermanson says he doesn’t even do this step anymore so if you feel like it’s too much work just move on to step #10. Trust me, once you start writing, the words have a way of flowing out on their own in ways you never imagined.
Start writing! No more excuses – get that first draft out there. You have everything you need at this point. Don’t worry about the quality of the first draft either because your first draft is merely a skeleton of the greatness that’s to come. During the editing stage is when you can worry about actually making it readable for a commercial audience.
The 3 Act Play
The 3 act play is a popular format for stories with a clear protagonist, antagonist and not too many point-of-views. It’s also useful for certain types of nonfiction. In fact, it’s often used by entrepreneurs and marketers during product launches.
Because of this, the 3 act play is useful for fiction authors who want to learn how to plan a novel, as well as nonfiction authors who want to learn how to plan a book. However, this format is only useful for a nonfiction book that talks about how to overcome a problem. A biography or other type of nonfiction book is best developed using a different approach.
The 3 Acts can be interpreted slightly differently depending on who you talk to, but the general idea is fairly straightforward. Begin with a setup, raise the stakes via different plot elements, then bring everything to a resolution.
Act 1 – 25% of the novel
Act 1 is about setup – introducing the main character and his or her problem. Who are the important people in the protagonist’s life? What is the protagonist’s flaw? The protagonist may or may not be aware of the problem they are having but at the very least, the reader should be able to have a clear sense that something is wrong.
The setup that is created in act 1 is not simply biographical information – it’s about introducing the protagonist’s world and everything that encompasses it.
Act 1 has three important components:
1. The Opening: An introduction and overview of the hero. Who they are? What world do they live in? What is their main flaw?
2. A Push Forward: Something happens that gives the hero an opportunity to fix their inherent flaw or issue.
3. A Big Problem: Something happens that puts the hero onto the path towards facing their core conflict.
With these two components completed, we move onto the second act.
Nonfiction variation: You are still going to introduce a character, business or entity – the world as it exists for them now, in addition to the world as they want it to be. This applies regardless of whether you are writing about yourself or someone else. You need the protagonist (“the solution”) and the antagonist (“the problem”). No matter what story you are telling – whether it’s about yourself or someone else – you can show results in advance by explaining how the protagonist overcame the antagonist. Act 2 and 3 take the reader through the “how it was done.”
Act 2 – 50% of the novel
Act 2 introduces the major problem the hero will have to face, which they will most likely fail at because they haven’t learned enough about how to overcome it yet. Remember that inherent flaw from the first act? This will be extremely important as it will likely be the reason for why the hero was not able to succeed.
Act 2 has three important components:
1. A Choice: This is a transitional moment in your story as the hero has accepted their responsibility and must venture forward to overcome the conflict. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo accepted his task of carrying the ring into Mordor.
2. A Reversal: Something happens to make the hero believe that their core worldview is wrong, and to doubt themselves. If possible, the stakes get higher. When Neo believed he was not “The One” in The Matrix, people died and Morpheus was captured.
3. A Disaster: This is the point where absolutely everything that can go wrong – does go wrong. Thank Murphy for that. The stakes are at their highest point and the hero is at his or her absolute lowest. The only solution for the hero is to face his or her ultimate fear.
Nonfiction variation: This is where you apply the solution to the problem and show how the solution solves even more than the original problem. You explain how the problem is solved and why the solution works. This is the turning point in your book. You use case studies, examples, and interviews to provide authority and proof. You can also talk about failed attempts and what NOT to do. Explain the ultimate disaster and how the protagonist had to face adversity to thrive.
Act 3 – 25% of the novel
During act 3, the protagonist faces their fears head on, has a final confrontation with the antagonist and wins. Unless of course, you’re writing a tragedy story (see the first section of this article), in which case the hero loses.
Act 3 has three important components:
1. The Plan: This is where the hero makes amends, comes to terms, or does whatever he or she has to do in order to face the antagonist in the final battle. They come up with a plan that the reader may or may not know about. This is like when Luke Skywalker agreed to blow up the Death Star.
2. The Climax: The hero faces the antagonist in their final – metaphorical or literal – battle, and wins or loses. If possible, raise the stakes one last time.
3. The Finalé: Everything that happens after the final battle. What is the resolution? Is it happily ever after, bittersweet, or morbidly tragic?
Nonfiction variation: What’s going to happen? This is the payoff to the reader. They know how and why to do what you’ve been showing them, now you are going to as visually as possible show them the results and what they can expect should they follow your guidance. Your solution (protagonist) must be more powerful than the antagonist. Use a real case study to show authority in this matter. Now that they have all the information they need to apply your solution on their own and achieve similar results.
That’s it for the 3 act structure! If you would like to read more in-depth, you should check out this post on Fiction University by Janice Hardy.
Plan to Write – Write to Plan
Now that I’ve taken you through several methods for how to plan a novel, you have a full arsenal at your fingertips to prepare your book. Quite honestly, there are more methods out there. I’ve simply laid out some of the most popular and well-known structures, which should be more than enough to get you going. If you have another great method you would like to recommend, please leave a comment.
I’m also going to recommend the Master Outlining and Tracking Tool for Novels on Fantasy Scroll by Iulian Ionescu, which incorporates elements of both the Snowflake Method and the 3 Act Structure. He has also been kind enough to create a spreadsheet, which you can download for free from his website.
By the way, in case you feel overwhelmed wondering how to plan a novel, please just remember this following piece of advice.
Don’t overthink, but do write.