Many people have great ideas for a novel, but find it difficult to plan and plot the story. While everyone has their own way of doing it, planning is vital – and can make the difference between having a great idea, and writing a great book.
Right at the start I should stress that different writers have different methods and there’s no single catch-all way of writing a novel. You’ll find that some things work, and others don’t; it’s a process of trial and error as to which works for you. The good news is that there is no need to go out and buy expensive software – paper and pen will still work just fine.
For instance, keeping tabs on your characters can be tricky. Use an index card for each character, and note down the basics – what they look like, their mannerisms, their alliances and relationships, what’s special about them. “Perikles: bearded, wiry, Greek, clever and knows it, loves talking, lover of Velnies and tutor to Larth.” If you later add a detail, such as the fact that his hair has started going grey, add it to the card – you’ll minimise continuity problems if you do.
Don’t like index cards? Use a spreadsheet, or basic database program.
Keeping control of the plot can be trickier once you get beyond very simple stories.
Charting the plot using graphical techniques is useful in keeping a handy overview of what is going on, and there are a number of ways of doing it. For instance you can track each character as a line, with their fortunes going up and down across the page, and time shown across the bottom. That gives you an easy way to see what’s going on ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ while events are in progress.
This gives you a good feeling for the pace and rhythm of the novel. If your characters are all flatlining, you know that you need to introduce more events, more conflict, and more tension. You can also see if one character is monopolising the plot, or if you’ve left subplots dangling.
You can connect the different characters’ lines in various ways, for instance to show meetings, or to indicate parallels where one character’s experience reflects another’s (two different characters both experience the loss of a parent, or they both have nightmares the night before a meeting). Some writers colour code these links.
You also need to think about dividing the work into chapters. Some writers do this after they’ve done the first draft. Others plan each chapter before starting writing.
You might for instance say if you’re intending to write a novel around 100,000 words, that you’ll have thirty chapters, so each would be about 3,000 words, some a bit more. Then you can look at your plot lines, and think about where to locate each chapter for the best effect. You can also think about which viewpoints you’ll be using, and roughly how much time each character is getting.
At the same time, you may be able to introduce tension through using cliffhangers, or through leaving one character ‘dangling’ for a few chapters before we find out what has happened to them. It’s much easier to manage effects like this if you have a good outline before you start writing.
One tip that I’ve found very useful is to create a background file which contains myths, stories, and images which will appear in the work, as well as back stories for the characters, before I start work on the actual writing. You can then drop these in where it’s appropriate. So, for instance, instead of including the scene in which your character sees his grandfather’s body in the coffin at the start of the book, as would be the case if it was in chronological sequence, you might use it as a flashback when he is facing his own possible death – or you might have a dream in which this image reappears, and perhaps changes into a symbol. You might even just refer to it in passing – if he sees another funeral passing, for instance, or when he’s talking to another character about things that left a mark on him during his childhood.
Having this information in the background file, rather than writing it into the book, will allow you to use it more flexibly and can reduce the amount of redrafting you need to do.
Above all, remember that these are just techniques for keeping on track. Your own creativity is what’s important – and that may mean the story changes as you’re writing, and you think of new images or new events or characters. Having these structures for your records will make it much easier for you to slot these into your existing work, while maintaining your continuity and ensuring your overall story isn’t compromised.