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Planning a Novel in Ten Steps

We all have a novel in us, or so they say. The problem is, for most people, writing a novel isn’t that easy. So, how do you get the ideas from your head onto paper and into some kind of useable format? Of course, there’s no magical formula that fits every single writer – what works for one is another’s nightmare. But, most writers agree that planning your novel is essential to prevent major plot and character mishaps. Planning helps prevent this from happening so, follow the tips given below and you’ll not go far wrong.

Step 1 – The One Sentence Summary

Start by writing a one-sentence summary of your novel. Don’t concern yourself with the names of the characters at this stage, just describe the character e.g. “a retired tennis star”. So, the sentence could read something like this, “A retired tennis star becomes embroiled in a mafia hit plot after agreeing to coach the mob boss’s daughter”. Take care when writing this sentence as, when you come to write your book proposal for publishers or agents, this sentence will be a prominent feature – it’ll act as the hook to sell you novel.

Step 2 – Describe the story

Now you need to expand the sentence you’ve just created into a paragraph of about five sentences. A popular way to structure novels is to have a three-act structure:

Use the beginning (the first act) to lead your reader in, introducing the main characters, setting up the main conflict and confirming the time of the book.

Use the middle (the second act) to develop your themes and reveal more about the main characters. But, make sure you have enough conflict and tension here or it can start to drag.

In the end section (the third act), the story needs to go up a gear; this is where it should reach a climax. Eventually, you should tie-up most of the loose ends, but there’s nothing like a few unresolved problems to get your readers demanding a sequel!

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Step 3 – Characters

Now you need to turn your attentions to one of the most important part of the story – the characters. For each major character write a one page summary that includes:

  • name
  • storyline – what part will they play in the plot
  • goal – what do they want
  • motivation – why do they want it
  • conflict – what stops them from getting it
  • epiphany – what will they learn or how will they change


End with a one-paragraph summary of the whole storyline for this character. These are working drafts so changing them as you go is normal. Remember, writing a book typically involves extensive planning and revising as part of the process.

Step 4 – Expanding

Now you should expand each of the five sentences you’ve created for Step 2 into a paragraph. By the time you’ve completed this you should have a one-page description of your book – it’ll still only be the bare bones but it will give you a good idea as to whether the story works or not. If not, you can change it now, before your start writing in earnest.

Step 5 – Back to the characters

Now go back to your characters and write a one-page synopsis for each of them. It’s useful to write this from the viewpoint of the character. This will help you get to know your characters, see where their story is going and, ultimately, whether they should be in the story or not.

Step 6 – Back to the plot

As above, go back to the one-page plot summary completed for Step 4 and do the same – fleshing out the main plot line and any sub-plots and flash backs and including more detail to create a four-page synopsis.

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Step 7 – Bringing characters to life

The one-page character synopsis can now be expanded into fully fledged character charts including the minutiae of their lives, such as:

  • birth dates
  • description i.e. hair colour, height, weight etc
  • likes and dislikes
  • history
  • hobbies
  • work


But, most importantly, you should decide how the character will change throughout the story. This teaches you more about your characters and the role they have to play in the story. Make sure each is a living, breathing character, not a two dimensional sterotype.

Step 8 – Setting the scenes

Starting with your four-page synopsis from Step 6 and write down all the scenes you need to turn it into a novel. Each scene should detail:

  • what happens
  • which characters point-of-view the scene is being told from
  • conflict/tension points and hooks that will drag the reader from chapter to chapter


As with most aspects of the novel at this stage, it’s moveable and gives you a really good insight into how the story moves along. You can easily see if it has a good flow and where changes need to be made.

Step 9 – Writing your novel

Now, the hard part starts – writing the novel! You should be able to get through this draft pretty quickly as there’ll be no wondering what comes next or who does what – all this has already been decided.

Step 10 – Edit and re-draft!

Don’t expect your novel to be perfect after the first draft – it won’t be. That’s why you should now put it to one side for a week or two, then go back to it and start editing and redrafting. Keep doing this until you are completely happy with it. It might, and often does, take several attempts to get it right, so don’t give up if you think it’s not working.

And finally, make sure you enjoy the process. Writing a novel is usually the biggest project most people have ever attempted so it’ll be so much better if you actually get pleasure from doing it.

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Lizbeth Crawford"My debut novel, Hate To Love You, by Elise Alden (my pen name for contemporary and historical romance), received three offers of publication. I went with Harlequin Carina Press.

"So, thank you Writers Bureau, to which I am extremely grateful. The Novel and Short Story course gave me the tools I needed to write my first novel."

Lizbeth Crawford

Association of British Correspondence Colleges
British Institute for Learning and Development

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