A simple guide to planning a novel – Part 6

In Part 5 of my Simple guide to planning a novel, we completed the last of the key plot points. Now, in this final stage we will explore the acts of the book in detail, and fill in the chapter gaps.

Planning a novel - the final stage

It is important to note a few things as we begin this final stage.

  • Planning does not need to be exact. We may find as we fill in the chapters that the key plot points shift forwards or backwards a little. This is fine. They definitely don’t need to sit at exactly 25, 50 & 75%. They do need to be reasonably well distributed though, if you want to have balance and pace to the book.
  • We don’t need to fill in notes against every single chapter. I go for about 60-80% of chapters with notes against them. There are a couple of reasons for this.

– Ideas continue to arrive while you are writing, and pre-filling every chapter leaves no space.

– Sometimes the notes you have against a chapter will cover more than one chapter, so this also needs some space.

Filling in the gaps…

So far we have identified our hook and inciting incident, and chopped our story up into segments using the key plot points. We have also noted our closure chapter, and the chapter or chapters to support our epic ending. Now, it’s time to fill in most of the gaps. The book is split into four sections; each has a purpose and is nestled between our previously identified key plot points.

The acts of a story

The First Act in detail – 1st quarter 0-25% 

Because the inciting incident can shift, it can make pinning down the purpose of the first half of the book a little tricky. But in summary, Act 1 includes an introduction to the question or hook and the stakes. It may also contain some early reaction to the inciting incident, or, be concluded by the inciting incident.

Some tips for the chapters in the first act:

I am going to provide more detail on the first act. The main reason for this is that the first act includes all the set up and introductions, and forms the foundations for the rest of the book. As with all things, if the foundations are not right the rest will ultimately struggle to deliver.

The first Act begins with the Hook / question, which takes our protagonist out of their routine and introduces the stakes. This happens in the first chapter.

The first act is concluded by the arrival of the 1st plot point, which occurs around the 25% point.

In between the hook and the 1st plot point, we need to cover a lot of detail. Explore your story notes, character timelines, and summary, and look for the events and activities that will deliver the following.

  1. Introduce our protagonist, including their characteristic moment (The very first time we see them).
  2. Introduce our world or location.
  3. Introduce our antagonist or antagonistic force.
  4. Introduce the supporting characters.
  5. Introduce the stakes – why should our reader care?
  6. Consider our inciting incident and its best location.
  7. Consider other key events that further deepen the reader knowledge of the world, the characters, and the stakes.

Write your ideas against the chapters in the first quarter of the book. You may find that as you slot the notes in you need to shuffle the chapters around.

Phew, that’s quite a lot! In addition:

  • If you are introducing a large number of characters, space some of their introductions out or you will fry your poor reader’s brain with too many names and personalities all at once.
  • Ensure you have introduced the stakes – Why should the reader care about our protagonist? What will our protagonist lose or risk losing when the conflict of the later key plot points occurs?
  • Ensure you show the characters reaction to the hook/ question and related changes.
  • Introduce any skills your characters call on in later scenes. We don’t want to surprise our reader at the end of the novel with our protagonist suddenly using a skill we have told them nothing previously about! So if they use something later be sure to introduce it now.

Write any additional ideas roughly against the chapters in the first quarter of the book.

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

The Third Act in detail – 4th Quarter 75-100%

I know this is the wrong order, but after completing the first act, the final act is the next easiest to tackle. You have already filled in the last and penultimate chapters (epic ending). This leaves around 10ish chapters (depending on your chapter count) following on from the last major plot point (75% marker) to fill in.

This final act should:

  • Be action / tension / emotion packed (not necessarily all 3 but at least one).
  • Contain a sequence of reasonably significant events that drives our protagonist towards their ultimate goal.

Explore your story notes, character timelines, and summary, and look for the events and activities that will include the following.

  1. Any events that need to happen after your third plot point.
  2. Any events that take the stakes to an extreme level.
  3. Show the protagonist’s reaction to the third plot point and ensure that it colours this quarter of the book
  4. If you find anything happening here that requires an earlier event or action, jump back and note it down.

Write your ideas against the chapters in the final quarter of the book. You may find that as you slot the notes in you need to shuffle the chapters around.

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

The Second Act Part 1 – 2nd Quarter 25-50%

The 1st and 2nd plot points bracket this quarter of the book. It should show our protagonist reeling still from the events of the first act. It explores the protagonist’s reaction, or continuing reaction, to the change that came at the first plot point (and the inciting incident if this was earlier).

During the second quarter the protagonist will acknowledge their call to action, but may not wholeheartedly embrace it, or may embrace it with only limited success.

Explore your story notes, character timelines, and summary, and look for the events and activities that will include the following.

  1. Any events that need to happen between the 1st and 2nd plot points.
  2. Any events that deepen the initial stakes.
  3. Show the protagonists reaction to the 1st plot point and the inciting incident, and ensure that it colours this quarter of the book.
  4. Show how the protagonist comes to terms with what happened in the first act and how it changes them.
  5. If you find anything happening here that requires an earlier event or action, jump back and note it down.

Write your ideas against the chapters in the second quarter of the book. You may find that as you slot the notes in you need to shuffle the chapters around.

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

The Second Act Part 2 – 3rd Quarter 50-75% 

The 2nd and 3rd plot points bracket this quarter of the book. It should show our protagonist taking control after the events of the first half of the book. This part of the novel shows the protagonists reaction, or continuing reaction, to the change that came at the mid-point.

From the mid-point our protagonist stops reacting and starts acting. In other words they are no longer a passenger to the events. Whatever has happened during the first half of the book, something now triggers then to own the issue.

Explore your story notes, character timelines, and summary, and look for the events and activities that will include the following.

  1. Any events that need to happen between the 2nd and 3rd plot points.
  2. Any events that deepen the stakes to a higher level.
  3. Show the protagonist’s reaction to the mid-point, and ensure that it colours this quarter of the book.
  4. Show how the protagonist comes to terms with what happened in the first half of the book, and how it changes them.
  5. If you find anything happening here that requires an earlier event or action, jump back and note it down.

Write your ideas against the chapters in the third quarter of the book. You may find that as you slot the notes in you need to shuffle the chapters around.

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

Revise, but not too much

By the time you have explored all the sections of the book you should have ticked off everything on your timelines and character notes, and have probably identified a few more thing you had never considered before.  You have probably shuffled some of the chapters forward and backwards. There will almost certainly be some gaps.

As a final close to the planning, read through the chapter notes you have jotted against the plan and see if anything else pops out.

Once you have completed this you are ready to get on with the good stuff—writing your novel.

I hope you have enjoyed this series, and if you have any suggestions or feedback it would be most welcome.

Happy writing 🙂

A simple guide to planning a novel part 1 – Pre-work and character timelines

A simple guide to planning a novel part 2 – Word count and creating a framework 

A simple guide to planning a novel part 3 – The beginning and the end

A simple guide to planning a novel part 4 – The inciting incident

A simple guide to planning a novel part 5 – The key events in a book

A simple guide to planning a novel – part 5

In Part 4 of My Simple guide to planning a novel, we looked in detail at the inciting incident.

Today we will look at the remaining key plot points. Next week is our final instalment when we explore the acts of the book and fill in all the gaps.

The remaining key plot points

The Rhythm of a book

You may not know it, but books have a rhythm. This rhythm splits the books into four neat sections. Each section has a purpose, it’s own rhythm, and is triggered by the arrival of a key event that brings change.

One of the great things about taking the time to plan the novel is that you get this rhythm nailed right at the start. Once you know what the key plot points are you can shuffle everything else that happens around them. Unless we have these stabilisers, the story will drift, and we may find it either goes nowhere, or goes somewhere too far away and never really stops.

Each story needs at least 3 key plot points, or at least 4 if the inciting incident happens before the 1st plot point. Many stories have more.

The acts of a story

The mid-point (2nd plot point) is probably the easiest, after the inciting incident, because this is the place right in the middle of the book where our protagonist stops reacting and starts acting. In other words they are no longer a passenger to the events. Whatever has been happening during the first half of the book, something now triggers then to own the issue. It is worth noting that owning an issue is quite different to acknowledging they need to address the issue, which is the inciting incident. They may not have a firm plan at the mid-point, this can wait for the 3rd plot point, but they know they need to do take control.

It is worth noting that this doesn’t have to be a massive big-bang event, it can even be simple or subtle. Maybe it is a repetitive argument or other event that has prevailed throughout the first half of the book and this time the protagonist views it differently and acts differently towards it. This time they change.

Star WarsExample Star Wars: The mid-point of Star Wars is marked by Luke’s discovery that the Princess is being held captive. Further, by his decision to take action independently of Old Ben in initiating her rescue. Until this point Luke, our protagonist, while acknowledging his willing to take part in the fight against the Empire, he was very much just following Old Ben’s guidance. Luke now starts to act independently, and this shows his ownership of his part of the fight against the Empire.

 

The 3rd plot point is where you are all in. It’s all or nothing. There is no turning back for our protagonist, even if they wanted to. This really is the point of no return.

Star WarsExample Star Wars: The 3rd plot point of Star Wars is marked by the death of Old Ben aka Obi-Wan Kenobi. It is worth noting that Old Ben’s death (3rd plot point) at the hands of Darth Vader—the very man who killed Luke’s father—Just like the death of Luke’s Aunt and Uncle (1st plot point), deepens the stakes and drives Luke further into his role of the protagonist. Luke’s decision to do whatever it takes to see the Empire’s weapon destroyed and Darth Vader’s plan thwarted is effectively reinforced by Old Ben’s death.

 

The first plot point can either come in the guise of the inciting incident, in other words the event that calls the protagonist to action for the first time. Or some other event that brings further irrevocable change.

Reminder: The point of the key plot points is to:

  • bring change
  • deepen the stakes
  • reinforce the protagonist’s commitment
  • provide a theme for the subsequent chapters of the book

When you review your character timelines certain events will pop out at you as potential candidates for the above key plot points. When I jotted my own character timelines for book three, I already had (what I thought was) a firm idea of where events needed to occur. But as soon as I started to explore them against these key plot points, I realised that what I thought should happen near the end (3rd plot point), needed to happen slap bang in the middle (2nd plot point). Once I made this change the rest of the plot points all fell into place, and the rest of the chapters sketched out quickly too. Taking the time to consider the key plot points makes writing the story so much easier. It also provides a vital framework, which gives our story balance and rhythm.

Step 1: Explore your story notes, character timelines, and summary, and look for all other EVENTS that bring irreversible CHANGE.

Step 2: Consider how these events fit in with the story time line. Can you identify roughly where they occur?

Step 3: Look for the mid-point first. Can you see what triggers your hero to take control of the situation?  The mid-point event drives offensive behaviour. They start to take control and we crank up the stakes even higher. Do you have an event near the middle that makes your character decide to make a stand?

Step 4: Next look for the 3rd plot point. Can you see what triggers the hero to be at the point of total commitment, the point of no going back. The stakes are extreme and it’s all or nothing now. It is the catalyst that drives them to their epic ending. Do you have an event near the 75% mark from which there is no going back?

Step 5: If you don’t already have a 1st plot point with your inciting incident, look for another event close to the quarter point that brings further change.

For all major plot points (including your inciting incident) we want to record in our framework the EVENT and the resulting CHANGE

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

In Part 6, we will look at the acts of the book in more details. This is the final stage where we begin to fill in the rest of the chapter notes.

A simple guide to planning a novel part 1 – Pre-work and character timelines

A simple guide to planning a novel part 2 – Word count and creating a framework 

A simple guide to planning a novel part 3 – The beginning and the end

A simple guide to planning a novel part 4 – The inciting incident

A simple guide to planning a novel part 5 – The key events in a book

A simple guide to planning a novel – Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of My simple guide to planning a novel, we completed some pre-work, explored our character timelines, and created a framework to pin our plot points on to.

The beginning and the end

 

Today we are going to explore in detail at some of the key plot points, including:

  • The hook / question
  • The conclusion
  • The epic ending

Q: How what order will we fill in our chapters?

A: NOT in chronological order…because that would be normal, and normal is known to stifle creativity. Instead, we are going to jump about, just a little.

The more we jump about the timeline the more we will encourage our brain to make lateral connections. Keep a stack of post it notes or a blank pad next to you. If anything pops-up scribble it down. Don’t worry about where or how it fits, just scribble, and if you have any relevant details, such as A must happen before B, note this down, too.

Occasionally, you do note ideas down that are later discarded, and that’s Okay too.

What are these key plot points? and why do we need them?

Books need ‘stuff’ to happen at certain points to avoid our reader getting bored. You know when you are reading a book that does this badly because you start to sense something should be happening and you get bored and switch off.

Note: This can happen at any of the key plot points. We have all been conditioned by years of reading to expect something to change at certain points, and when it doesn’t we notice it, perhaps not consciously, but certainly subconsciously.

This pacing is even more notable with films. You can set your watch by key plot points! (Please don’t try this it will spoil the fun!)

All plot points bring change. Life is not the same after, and the subsequent chapters are all about our characters reaction to the event.

We will go on to explain this in more detail as we go through. But…

Important: EVENT causes CHANGE and REACTION

Before we start, it may be worth taking time for a little quiet reading of everything you have jotted down so far. This includes: all the character timelines, character profiles, location ideas, the overview of the plot, and what you consider to be the start and end points, and anything else you may have relevant to the novel.

Now, let’s look at this first set of key plot points in a little more detail…

Step 1. The Question / Hook – chapter 1

This is the moment that introduces our book and hooks our reader. You know the kind of thing, there’s a murder, or a new kid comes into town. (Think Da Vinci Code and the murder) Whatever this event is, it brings change and it poses a question that will not yet be answered.

I am all for scene setting, but you really need to get on with the hook fairly promptly.

Note: The hook / question  must be part of the story i.e. relevant to the entire thread of the book. There is no value in creating a dramatic event just for action sake. If it doesn’t impact the overall story, the reader will just feel cheated.

In summary, the hook presents the reader with a question. Such as, What is going to happen next? How will the characters react?

Chapter 1 can also:

  • introduce our character(s)
  • introduce our location / book setting

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Star WarsExample Star Wars: In the very first scene in Star Wars we see a space ship being boarded forcibly by another. We understand there are two sides in conflict and we see a beautiful lady, one we don’t know yet, hide a message on a droid, right before she is captured and taken prisoner. A droid that flees the ship in an escape pod…

Let’s explore this: Right off we are intrigued. Who is the beautiful lady? What did she record in the message? Where is the droid going? Why was she taken prisoner?

Wow, thats a lot of questions and we don’t even know who she is yet!

Toy StoryExample Toy Story: The toys are worried that on Andy’s birthday that a new / cooler toy will come along and replace them.

Let’s explore this: What will Andy receive for his birthday? Will the new toy become Andy’s favourite? How will this impact his current toys?

This is a good solid hook, we can see the stakes, sense the tension, and are intrigued to find out what Andy will receive for his birthday, and more importantly, how the old toys will react.

Hopefully these examples will help you to identify your own question / hook from your notes and character timelines. The hook always needs to happen in chapter one, so take the time now to note some details about your question / hook event against chapter 1. A few bullet points or a few sentences should be enough, but if you have more…go for it.

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

Step 2. Closure – the last chapter.

This is where you say good bye to your characters and wrap up all the lose ends.

Important things to consider now:

  • who will be part of this scene? Note the characters you want (or think you want) to include
  • where will this take place?
  • what is the key message theme you want to leave in your readers mind?

Its Okay to leave this chapter a little sketchy when you start, and you may want to just note these questions down against the chapter if you don’t have answers now. You will find ideas pop up constantly throughout the planning or even when writing the book, so keep coming back to this final section of the framework at any point in the writing process, and fill it in as you go.

Star WarsExample Star Wars: In Star Wars this is the medal ceremony. Our heroes have defeated (if not destroyed) the evil Empire and halted it’s plans. In this scene we see all our main characters, smart and shining in their best dress uniform, receiving a medal for their bravery. The crowd cheers and everyone is smiling.

It’s totally cheesy, but it totally works!

Toy StoryExample Toy Story: This is one of those circular stories that takes us back to the original hook / question, but we now explore it through the characters changed mindset.

It’s Christmas, and new toys are about to arrive. Woody, has lived through, and come to terms with, the arrival of a rival toy-Buzz Lightyear, and further become this rivals friend. In the closing scene, Woody now teases Buzz, with his own fears from the book hook.

Woody To Buzz about the arrival of the new toys: “You’re not worried, are you?”

Hopefully, these examples may have give you ideas about your own closure scene, but if not, just keep this as a background thought and return to it later as your story unfolds.

Step 3. Epic Ending – penultimate chapter(s)

This is the big battle, the big confrontation, the final countdown, where the bad guy gets caught, the lovers fall in love…the epic ending.

Star WarsExample Star Wars: The epic ending of star wars covers several scenes, and like Toy Story stretches over much of the final Act (last quarter of the book). They know it’s a long shot. Our protagonist, Luke Skywalker, must take the final shot to destroy the Empire’s death star – a powerful weapon that is seconds away from destroying the rebel base (the good guys). In the lead up to this, his squadron has already failed several attempts, but now it is up to Luke, who must trust his inner instincts and embrace his powers known as the force to win through and save the day.

Let’s explore this: This plot point brings culmination to everything the story is about—defeating the evil Empire. It is worth noting that although Star Wars is the first part of a trilogy, we still have a complete story with all the plot points, including it’s own epic ending.

Toy StoryExample Toy Story: There are two climaxes at the end of Toy Story which fill the last quarter of the book. Firstly, defeating / escaping the evil Sid. Secondly, returning to Andy. We will explore this in more detail during the Act Analysis later on. The epic ending is really the culmination of all the above, and would be the scene where Woody lights Buzz’s rocket, and Buzz flys with Woody back to Andy’s house.

The toys are once more home and safe!

Conclusion

The ending should be the easiest part of the book. It brings together all the plot points and character growth and wraps it all up over the final quarter of the book. If exploring your character timeline does not yield ideas, I would continue with the rest of the plot points (covered in the next post) and then come back to the ending.

It is worth noting, that if you are really struggling with the ending, even after exploring the other plot points, it may be the story is not one that will ultimately work. That’s Okay too. Sometimes when we plan we find out that the ideas we had were not strong enough to make a whole story, and it is much better to find this out now than after writing half a book.

Generally, this doesn’t happen often. If you have enough of an idea to come up with interesting characters, and you have some good change points, the ending will become obvious.

Now, check back through your notes and character timelines and take anything and everything you think belongs in the epic ending, and, as many of the prior chapters as you can. Break it up into scenes (person, location, event) and work backwards from your final chapter / scene.

Note: if you use any points from your notes or character timelines, remember to tick them off.

In Part 4, we will look at the critical part of the book known as the inciting incident...

A simple guide to planning a novel part 1 – Pre-work and character timelines

A simple guide to planning a novel part 2 – Word count and creating a framework 

A simple guide to planning a novel part 4 – The inciting incident

A simple guide to planning a novel part 5 – The key events in a book

A simple guide to planning a novel part 6 – Filling in the chapter notes (scheduled 7-Jan-2016)

A Simple guide to planning a novel – Part 2

In the first instalment of my Simple guide to planning a novel, we completed some pre-work and explored our character timelines. For each character we should have a rough list of events.

I should probably start part 2 with another confession, creating a framework is incredibly dull, and there is even a little maths! Think of it as a necessary evil, and something we just need to get through before we can enjoy being creative again. So, stick with it. I promise next week will be much more fun.

Planning a novel - creating a framework

The framework holds the building blocks of our story, which we will later pin all our events from the character timelines on to, and for this we need two important counts:

  • word count for the novel
  • word count for the chapters

Step 1 – Novel Word Count

Word counts for books are not necessarily cast in stone, but it is worth being aware of the typical word count for novels in your genre, so at least if you break the rule you know you are breaking the rule.

Not sure what your word count should be? Check these links out here:

Step 2 – Chapter Word Count 

If you have written a novel before then you will have an idea of your usual chapter length. Typically Chapters are between 1.5 and 5k and contain 1 or more scenes.

A Scene is a unit of action that takes place in one location and should move the story forward or reveal a character.  What’s a Scene? (And What’s a Chapter?)

“Scenes in novels rarely need to be longer than 1000-1500 words. If yours goes on pages & pages, do some cutting” ~ Curtis Brown Literary Agency.

Side note on chapter lengths: I have seen many discussions on chapter length, but this really is a personal preference. Some, like long chapters (think epic fantasy). Some, like short snappy chapters with only one scene (think commercial fiction). Then, assume this rule is broken all the time! It all depends on the genre and the writer’s style. Longer chapters can slow down the story, shorter chapters with lots of cliff hanger endings can speed it up.

My own scenes generally come out at around 1.5k. Most of my chapters have one scene, but they occasionally contain two, making my average chapter length about 2K.

Step 3 – Create a framework for the plan

To create our framework we simply list down all the chapter numbers based on our novel word count and our average chapter word count. Don’t worry if this is a bit of a guess, this is just a rough framework. Think of it as a giant book concertina, as long as we pin things on in roughly the right order, it can easily expand or contract later.

My example: 

I write Scifi, average word count 90k, but no more than 110k.

I take an even 100k target length (allowing for 10k of chop during editing).

I write an average 2k per chapter

100k/ 2k = 50 Chapters 

Now we just write those down.

Q: What tools do I need to create my framework.

A: Scrivener has a chalk board option for planning which allows you to create ‘post-it’ like notes in your size choice. You can recreate exactly the same thing on a white board, chalk board, pin board, or a few sheets of paper. I use scrivener for 90% of my writing process, but I find early planning easier on a piece of paper with post-it notes, I think partly because you can see more of the plan on a piece of paper than you can on a computer screen, but also because there is something comforting about the tactile aspect of shuffling the scene post-it’s about on a board or piece of paper.

Note: Assume you will be shuffling chapters about!

Vladimir Nabokov, author of LolitaPale Fire, and Ada, was very particular about his writing instruments. He composed all his works on index cards, which he kept in slim boxes. This odd method enabled him to write scenes non-sequentially and re-order the cards any time he wanted.

Below is a screen shot from Scrivener

Note you can colour code chapters / scenes in Scrivener in the same way you can on paper using coloured post-it notes. I find this really useful as I use multiple POV and you can see how the story flows between the characters. Colour could also help with location for example, or any other useful categorisation your chapter may benefit from.

Scrivener Planning board

Step 4 – Note the key plot points

This is the final stage before we leap into the good stuff and start exploring the details of what these key plot points are.

Against each of the chapters add the following information

  1. Write – ‘question/hook’ against chapter 1 (Always chapter 1)
  2. Write – ‘closure’ against your last chapter (In my example chapter 50)
  3. Write – ‘epic ending’ – against your penultimate chapter(s) (In my example chapter 49) Note: The epic ending can often stretch over a several chapters – some stretch over the entire last quarter of the book!
  4. At the 1st quarter chapter point write – ‘1st Plot point’ (In my example chapter 13)
  5. At the 2nd quarter chapter write – ‘2nd plot point’ (In my example chapter 25)
  6. At the 3rd quarter chapter write – ‘3rd plot point’ (In my example chapter 38)

Perfect! Now we are ready to start filling out our plan!

In Part 3 we will begin exploring these key plot points, with examples from Toy Story and Star Wars to illustrate.

A simple guide to planning a novel part 1 – Pre-work and character timelines

A simple guide to planning a novel part 3 – The beginning and the end

A simple guide to planning a novel part 4 – The inciting incident

A simple guide to planning a novel part 5 – The key events in a book

A simple guide to planning a novel part 6 – Filling in the chapter notes (Scheduled 7-Jan-2016)