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9 Steps to Plan and Write Your Novel

One of the best ways to share new ideas into the world is to write a novel. Why is that? Humans are wired for story. That is how we learn and how we experiment with different possibilities to better face life’s challenges.

Stories are emotional; stories grab us, hook us, dump us right into the lived experience of another person different from us. Scientists have shown what readers have always known – stories have the unique ability to change a person’s perspective, which offers the opportunity to change behavior.

Over the course of my writing career, I have published twelve books in the science-fiction and fantasy category. When I teach book writing, I recommend these nine essential steps to planning and writing novels, which I use in my writing.

Step 1: Decide Your Genre

Readers love certain kinds of stories. So, to attract your readers, take note of the genre you want to write your novel in. This will give you a general idea of your reader expectations, so that you can meet and exceed them.

Note: Genres refer to how books are marketed and sold, and their conventions change over time. 

Beginning Hook: What hooks the reader into the story? 

Middle Build: What are the conflicts that build toward a big crisis?

End Resolution: What experience do you want the reader to leave with?

These three parts of your story have obligatory scenes readers of specific genres want to see. Some genres include romance, mystery, suspense, thriller, women’s fiction, or mashups of these. (Thanks to Story Grid by Shawn Coyne for this rubric.)

Next, think about your setting. Science fiction and fantasy are settings that come with expectations, too. 

Science fiction is often set in a futuristic high-tech world and includes conflicts about worldview and what it means to be human.

Fantasy is often magic focused and includes magical creatures and a world ruled or bound by magic.

Another important setting-oriented genre is historical fiction. The main expectation includes historical accuracy and that the story is wrapped around important historical events.

Next, take note of the kinds of characters, their characteristics, and story elements readers expect to see.

Now make your genre elements specific, unique, and full of your personality, and surprise the reader.

For this article, let’s pick a science fiction mystery.

Setting: Futuristic; driven by science and technology; worldview is different than today’s: space-oriented

Beginning Hook: A dead body or theft.

Middle Build: The hunt for the perpetrator via clues.

End Resolution: Justice is served.

Characters: an investigator, amateur or professional for whom the case is personal somehow; a sidekick; victims; suspects; boss; perpetrator

Story elements: clues, evidence, red herrings

Step 2: Draft a Short Pitch

Once you have an idea of your genre and the setting, draft a short summary of your story as a first draft back cover blurb.

Like a mad lib, fill in the blanks in the present tense:

Initial Situation, also called the initial action or premise; this is the beginning of the plot.

Main Character(s): Self-explanatory. Add an adjective and/or job function.

Primary Objective: At first, what does your main character want?

Antagonist/Opponent/Central Conflict: Who or what is keeping your main character(s) from getting what they want?

Disaster That Could Happen: What’s the worst that could happen, and/or what does your character want next? Sometimes phrased as a question.

For example: 

Maria Itaka, a forensic investigator with Space Wing, stares at the exam table full of satellite shrapnel. Her mission is to determine the origin of these pieces and figure out who blew up the ancient satellite that nearly created a global catastrophe and got people killed. But a few things are against her: time, the need for secrecy, and maintaining her professional reputation. This is her first big case and if she can’t find answers and fast, her new career will end as soon as it begins. When her findings are somehow leaked to the press, she finds herself in the crosshairs of a shadow organization that wants to silence for good.

Step 3: Draft Your Story Synopsis

Expand upon the short elevator pitch and write a synopsis, using these seven steps:

1) Decide on the issue or theme. Example: Truth.

2) What is the idea that you want to prove or disprove at the end of your story? For example: “The truth will set you free.”

3) Keeping in mind the issue or theme and the idea to prove or disprove, think through the protagonist’s inner turmoil at the beginning, how it changes in the middle, and how it’s resolved by the end.

4) Keeping in mind the issue or theme and the idea to prove or disprove, think through the protagonist’s external problem at the beginning, how it worsens in the middle, and how the external problem is resolved by the end.

Optional: Steps 5 and 6: If you have another main character, often the case in a romance novel, then go through their internal issue and external problem.

Optional: Step 7: In a romance you would establish at the beginning how the two meet and relate to each other; in the middle how their relationship changes; and at the end how they relate to each other.

To shorten the process, consider using the following tool, Plot Spinner, created by novelist Patricia Simpson especially for romance writers. This plug-and-play tool helps you think through the emotional arc of your main character(s).

Step 4: Prepare Your Characters

Characters are the heart of any story. So, brainstorm these essential elements of your main characters. Stay focused on what is relevant to the story.

  • Goal, motivation and conflict, for both the inner life and outer life.

  • Strengths, inherent and learned.

  • Important relationships.

  • Appearance.

  • Education.

  • Home/living circumstances.

  • Backstory as it relates to the story problem.

  • The things in her pockets, backpack, car, or satchel, etc.

  • Habits, mannerisms, ticks

Step 5: Build Your Story World

Here are my top six to get your started. Of course, there are lots more topics. For a longer list, check out my World Building Workbook. Link in the bio.

  • Language: Does your story have different languages, slang or jargon? How did they evolve?

  • Politics: How is power held, kept, and transferred?

  • Family tree: What do your characters know about their family history?

  • Jobs/professions: What kind of work do people do? What kinds of training do your characters receive, if any? How are they trained and by whom?

  • Gender roles: What are people’s attitudes about gender roles?

  • Economics: What rules govern trade and exchange?

Step 6: Brainstorm Your Plot and Story

  • Brainstorm the high concept of your story. Example: Snakes on a plane. (Yes, this was a movie!) This will help you think of the kind of events and problems you can put into your story.

  • Make a list of all the bad things that could happen to your characters. Then organize the bad things in order of least bad to worst. (I expand on how to do this in the next step.)

  • Working from the genre expectations from Step 1 and combining that with your story and character, brainstorm specific problems for the beginning hook, middle build, and end resolution.

Step 7: Discover Your Characters’ Worst Fears

This exercise, one of my favorites, unlocks your story’s conflicts and helps make your story vivid and grounded in a character.

Exercise: “List of 20”

On a piece of paper or on your computer, list the numbers from 1 to 20.

Then set the timer for 10 minutes. Now brainstorm your main character’s worst fears. Keep moving your hand across the page to uncover even more worse possibilities.

You may be surprised at what you discover. Review your work and organize the fears from bad to worse.

Step 8: Plot Using the Problem-Solution Tool

Get more specific with this tool. Here’s how it works. Answer these questions: 

What’s the starting problem of your story? 

What’s the solution to this immediate problem? 

What problem is caused by this solution? 

Create a new solution, which creates a new problem. This leads to a new solution, new problem…etc., until you get to your story resolution.

Step 9: Scene-by-Scene Outlining

Start your scene-by-scene outline by writing the scene number and putting in parentheses the point of view character. (POV)

Next, one problem and resolution at a time, scene by scene, write the external and internal problems as they relate to your main character's goal, what makes each problem worse, and the dilemma the character faces. Until you reach the End Resolution.

Your Turn

Now that you have an outline for your novel, it’s time to sit down and write. Even 250 words per day will get to the end in one year.

Adapted from Plan Your Novel Like A Pro by Beth and Ezra Barany.


About the Author:

Beth Barany teaches genre fiction writers, primarily science fiction and fantasy novelists, how to write, edit, and publish their books as a coach, teacher, and developmental editor. She’s an award-winning fantasy and science fiction novelist and runs the podcast, “How To Write The Future.” Sign up for her World Building Workbook here:

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