Planning in Stages

I've got one, honest.


We’ve all been told, time and time again, that you need to plan your writing – especially novel writing. There are some brilliant resources out there for novel planning, many of which I’ve recommended here before. Over the years I’ve studied a lot of those novel planning techniques from Rachael Stephens’ plot embryo to Nanowrimo-recommended quick plans. And over those same years, I’ve kept the parts that work and abandoned the others.

Today, I want to talk about what I have learned works for me: planning in stages.

Start Simple

You’ll be doing this already without thinking about it, because really what I start with is a concept. If you’re gearing up to write a novel, one would hope you’ve already got a concept – and so, you’ve probably got this down.

Let’s say your concept is, I don’t know, boy finds out he is a wizard, gets whisked off to wizard school and then realises the evil wizard that killed his family is coming back to power.

I’m pretty sure that hasn’t ever been used, so it’ll serve as a good example for our needs. Now that might just seem like the idea behind your novel, but it’s also the basis of all of your planning. I like to think of planning as taking that simple concept and stretching it out.

So before you do anything, make sure you can explain the thesis of your novel in a sentence.

Plan Your Acts

Most novels fall into acts or arcs, so the next thing I tend to do is break that simple plan up – or stretch it out – into the arcs of the story.

In our absolutely-not-already-written example, you could break the arcs down in a few ways – I would at this stage make them quite big. Pre-Hogwarts, first term, second term, etc. They can then be expanded further when you’re closer.

To use Mundane Magic as an example, it has three major arcs which are delineated by location: when they are at home, when they travel to Bristol, and when they go after Thomas. My current project, Protos, has five arcs – these, too, are largely delineated by location.

This obviously doesn’t work so well if your novel is the kind that jumps back and forth a lot. If that’s the case, you’ll need to find another way of looking at it. Are you writing a coming of age novel? You could use the main character’s age as milestones. Mystery? Make it pieces of evidence that they gain.

At this point it doesn’t need to be detailed – that’s not the point. You want to get a picture of the overall shape of the story.

Start Writing. Wait, What?

We’re talking about what I do as much as what you should do today, so here is the truth: I start writing at this point.

I don’t work on entire projects chronologically, but it really helps me when I’m planning and writing to have the beginning of the story out and there. Sure I know my characters well, but that doesn’t mean they can’t surprise me. I want to make sure I have the hang of how I’m committing them to paper before I start playing about with them.

So I will write a few chapters, which are generally the scene-setting, formative ones. These will also spawn ideas that start to fill out the first act of the story, which we’ll come onto next. I sometimes jump to the end and write the finale too, or at least part of it. This way I have an idea of where I’m going.

This is what works for me – your mileage may vary. But I think it’s important not to be afraid of writing. You can always go back and edit, and that bit of writing you do might help you shape the plan as you go on.

Plan As You Go

After I’ve written a bit, I will then plan that first arc in more detail. I’ll probably then write that arc in its entirety – this is what I’ve done with both novels thus far. But how does planning in more detail go?

Let’s go back to our wizard example. You can break the Pre-Hogwarts arc down into the following:

  1. The night of Voldemort’s attack, Harry is placed in his aunt’s care.
  2. Harry has grown up. It is Dudley’s birthday. He goes to the Zoo and talks to snakes.
  3. Harry gets weird letters that his aunt and uncle destroy, then they run away to hide.
  4. Hagrid appears and gives Harry his letter on his birthday.

The cunning amongst you (or the particularly Potter obsessed) may have noted that these are the first four chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. That’s because this is how I plan: the novel as a whole; arc by arc; chapter by chapter; scene by scene. So this list I have above I would then take and break down further if I needed to.

I say if I needed to because sometimes I find a chapter lends itself to just being written without a scene-by-scene plan. Sometimes this is because I’m not sure precisely what is going to happen and I need to find out by writing. Sometimes it’s because the chapter is just one massive scene – often the case with fights, where a lot happens in a small amount of time.

But Jump Ahead If Required

That said, there may be parts of your novel that it’s very important to plan out before you write a preceding bit.

This is especially the case if you’re writing something where ‘clue gathering’ is involved – or if your plot is about coming to understand something. Mystery is the obvious genre for this, but it’s also very present in fantasy. Those parts I will almost always plan in advance, at least by chapter.

This helps ensure that the dreaded Plot Holes of Doom don’t surface, and also that the pacing of the story is good – that they’re always working on gathering those ‘clues’ or whatever it may be, always leading you towards the climax of the story. Not wasting a second.

So most of the time I write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit.

Revise If You Need To

I imagine you’ve heard that it’s bad to allow yourself to revise your novel until you’ve finished the first draft in its entirety. This might be true if you’re competing in Nanowrimo and need to get to 50k words within a time limit – but I don’t think it’s the case if you’re just writing generally.

The thing is, you might find as you’re writing that there is a Giant Plot Hole. You might have completely changed your mind about what a character is going to be like. You may have changed the ending and need to modify the earlier chapters to fix it.

Don’t be afraid of revising if you need to do it in order to be able to continue. Sometimes if you’ve spotted that problem now, it’s much easier to just go in and fix it rather than having to come back at the end and revise the entire thing.

Whenever you revise, though, make sure you go back and refer to your plan. Don’t be afraid to change that to fit, too. If you’ve been planning as you go, this might be easier, because you won’t necessarily have to go sort a whole scene-by-scene plan.

In Summary

The crux of all of this advice is this – you don’t want to overplan or underplan. One will stop you from ever writing, the other will give you giant plot holes, weak structure and terrible pacing. Don’t risk either.

Read about ways of planning, try them out, experiment. It’s the way that you’re going to find what works for you – and that, really, is the most important goal. Don’t be scared of planning. Planning is your friend – a friend that you can sculpt to your whim.

Now go smash that novel of yours.

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