How to Plan a Novel

To date, I’ve written 8 books:

  • FESTIVAL OF THE BIZARRE (a terrible first novel)
  • THE GEARHEART (good podcast, bad novel)
  • THE GEARHEART: ARTIFICE (blank-page rewrite of THE GEARHEART)
  • THE GEARHEART: LION & SNAKE (the unpublished origin story)
  • ARCLIGHT REDLINE (working title)
  • HAS BEEN (in progress, working title)

I have a way that I plan them. Care to hear it?

The Concept

Every one of my stories starts with a concept. I guess that’s obvious, but it usually takes one of three forms:

  • A phenomenon I would like to explore
  • A particular character I would enjoy writing
  • A style I admire

Let’s start with style. FESTIVAL was written because I wanted to drunkenly write pulpy cyberpunk. It was that simple. THE GEARHEART was a love-letter to steampunk adventures and noir spy thrillers.

THE POWERS THAT BE was a phenomenon. What would work be like if you were a shitty office assistant to a pantheon of backstabbing gods? I wanted to write about the corporate business of godhood. HAS BEEN is about how much you can accidentally hurt someone while trying to save them from themselves.

Both EVERY MOUNTAIN and ARCLIGHT were spawned from characters. For EVERY MOUNTAIN, I wanted to write about an autistic woman dealing with the supernatural, because I have autistic people dear to me and I share some of those traits. The main character of ARCLIGHT was inspired by a small passage in Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. Capote describes one of the characters buying bullshit treasure maps of Mexico from a mail-in service, and I thought, “Who the hell is making those treasure maps?”

The Cast of Characters

From there, I set about trying to make my characters believable. For this, I fall back on a modified version of Debra Dixon’s GMC(If you decide to purchase the book, consider supporting the Autistic Self Advocacy Network through Amazon Smile.)

I start with the main character and answer the following four questions:

  1. What does the character want? (External Motivation)
  2. What does the character need? (Internal Motivation)
  3. What stands in the character’s way? (External Conflict)
  4. Why can’t the character find peace? (Internal Conflict)

These four questions are like the wheels on a car. Good wheels don’t give you a sports car, but you can’t drive at all without them. And, of course, they can lead you to the moment when a character is forced to choose between what they want and what they need. I’ll write more on character development in the future.

In answering these questions for your main character, you will inevitably discover you need more characters. All of your characters, whether they’re heroes or villains, important or minor, can answer these four questions.

The Plot

I never start with plot, because I always want to write about characters first. I see a lot of discussion of plot versus character-driven writing online, and I don’t like any of it. For me, books are about characters only, and the plot exists to serve their motivations. If blockbuster writing is your jam, James Patterson has a Masterclass that might be able to help you. (I’m hoping I didn’t offend anyone with that statement…)

True confession time: a lot of my structural ideas come from a simple, conflict-driven, three-act arc. If you don’t want that, it’s totally cool. Check out iyashikei!

Embarrassing, but true: a lot of my formative years were spent writing with formulas proposed by Robert McKee and Christopher Vogler.  While these ideas won’t help you create something spectacular, they can be excellent thought exercises for stuck writers.

A word of caution: this stuff is based off the work of Joseph Campbell, who has been rightly criticized for being ethnocentrist, sexist, anecdotal and so on. Do not take this word as writ. Be sensitive and forge your own path. I’ve tried to scrape out some of the toxic bullshit and give you a stripped-down framework.

Act 1 – Spinning Up

Act 1 essentially consists of 3 parts:

  • The hook
  • Setting up conflict
  • The transition

The hook is what gets your readers into the story. It could be an addictive character, an exciting story, a great scene or… really any number of things. Establish your voice here. Ask yourself what the important aspects of your plot are and amplify them thematically.

Drop clues to the coming conflict. Start working in minor antagonizing influences and show how the world is about to be a lot larger than the character’s everyday routines.

Transition to a new life. At the end of act 1, a character’s life will never be the same again. They can’t shrug off the event that they’ve just experienced.

Act 2 – Getting It Wrong

This is the hardest part of any novel, and I’ll probably do a blog post on just this one in the future. It lags, and it’s awful to write, and if someone has a better formula, please leave it in the comments.

  • Stabilize
  • Identify Antagonists
  • Execute a bad plan

Stabilize the main character after they’ve been knocked down. Get them some friends. Maybe give them some resources. Let them breathe for a second and ask questions.

Establish the stakes of the coming conflict. Introduce your antagonists, or at least show what will happen if the antagonists have their way.

Fight the wrong battle. Send the characters to deal with their problems in the wrong way. They’re not prepared to be successful, and act 2 ends when something dear to your main character is destroyed. It could be a person, or just peace of mind. Leave a scar, whether it’s physical or emotional.

Act 3 – Self-discovery to Triumph

Now you’re in the downhill slide! By now, your characters have discovered that they suck at this, and it’s time for them to ask some hard questions.

  • Self-actualize
  • The right battle
  • Return home

Discover who the characters really are. Now that they’ve been shaken to the core, they get the choice to abandon their pursuit. Maybe that means giving up on a marriage, or maybe it means rolling over and dying. Now that the characters are familiar with the steep price of success, they must decide to take action on their own.

They fight the right battle. They confront the Big Bad. They come clean about the affair they had. They make a daring break for the prison gates. Whatever it is, your characters have exactly enough to pay the piper. That doesn’t necessarily mean your character survives, but they usually do.

Then it’s time to head home. A point of stability reached once again, the character has taken care of their adversity for the near term, and perhaps for all time. That’s a function of the story you’re writing.

And that’s it!

Now you have a totally complete novel, right? Okay, maybe not. We’ll look at character development and backstory in the future, as well as the dreaded ACT II!

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