Before Page One: Planning My Novel

This post is not intended to explore all the many ways in which a person might plan a novel.  There are books about that (such as Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, by Meredith Sue Willis).  As the title of this post suggests, I will only be talking about how I go about planning my stories before putting words on the page.  I will also talk about how I learned to plan—a process that involved vast amounts of time, making lots of mistakes, and dead-ends.

I should also clarify another point.  I have, to date, completed one novel manuscript, and am in the process of working on fourteen others.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Working on fourteen (14) other novels.  Now, before you scroll down to the bottom of the post only to type, “You’re hopelessly over-ambitious” into the comments bar, let me explain:

Of those fourteen, three were the product of my earliest forays into writing, before I’d really developed a sense of planning.  Intended to be a trilogy, the manuscripts are riddled with systemic problems that I currently just don’t have the ambition to fix.  Doing so would require massive reconstructive surgery, the breaking and setting of multiple bones, organ transplants, and so on.  My patience is not up to the task.  So I have frozen them cryogenically, to be thawed out at a later date.

There are still eleven more:

Number Three is a young adult novel, approximately 25% complete.  I love the story, and I have every intention of finishing it someday.  Unfortunately, at some point in the writing, I became waaaay too focused on one minute aspect of the story, and ended up losing my perspective on the story as a whole.  So I stuck the manuscript into cold storage (the icy place where manuscripts go to wait).

Number Four is also a young adult novel, about 10% complete.  The reason that manuscript is on hold is not because of systemic errors, or because of lost perspective.  Basically, I knew that it needed more time to blossom in my imagination.  I hope to see this book full of drawings and diagrams (in the vein of Joshua Mowll’s Operation Red Jericho), and this has required a serious focus.  I don’t want to write something, go to the trouble of producing drawings, and then change my mind, only to repeat the process.

Numbers Five through Fourteen are in varying states of existence.  Several have only a few words typed on the page.  Should I really be calling these “manuscripts”?  I am, and that is because they exist in other ways.  Each of these stories has been planned out—to varying degrees—in my head and (importantly) on paper.

The original seed for a story idea tends to be extremely macroscopic.  By that, I mean that I tend to imagine a setting or a time period or a situation in which something might occur.  For example, one of my stories, The Tattoo, is set in an imagined Himalayan country in the late 1950s.  The country has just had a Communist revolution, and the royal family has been overthrown.  There’s a suggestion of plot there, but in actual fact, that’s all just setting.

Although I made sure to write the idea down, I let it simmer on low for a while before doing anything more about it.  I had also been reading something about the Copper Age, and found it compelling.  Well, I thought, maybe it could be part of the Himalayan story.  But how?  (Note that this question is actually moving the idea closer to developing a “plot.”)

Maybe, I thought, a person living in that Himalayan region during the Copper Age could end up travelling forward in time to the 1950s, and wind up right in the middle of the Communist revolution.  That would be interesting.  (More plot unfolding…)

Hmm… but how would he travel through time?

Ah!  What if the Copper Age man is a priest who receives a tattoo with strange powers, and it draws him forward in time?  Wait!  What if he has been training for years to become a priest, but it suddenly becomes impossible to achieve this goal?  What if the tattoo is a work-in-progress, only to be completed when someone attains full priesthood?  What kind of unpredictable power might an incomplete tattoo possess?  (Lots of potential for plot here!)

It was at this point that I began writing down what I think of as “setting details.”  By that, I mean facts about the place(s) in which the story occurs.  I started off by writing about the Copper Age valley.  What is the society like?  What is the economy like?  Approximately how many people are there?  Who’s in charge?  How do people make their livelihoods?  What is the geography like?  If there is a priesthood, what is their belief system like?  Is there conflict within the community, or between that and other communities?

Answering questions like these have a tendency to bring interesting plot ideas to the fore.  I decided that story will begin in a village on a lake.  The lake is surrounded by mountains sheathed in ice and snow.  Good farming land is in short supply, so all the buildings are constructed over the water on stilts.  In the same valley to the north is another village, which  has poor farmland.  However, the second village has access to copper goods from outside the valley, and trades these with the first village for grain.

So far, so good.  But what happens when the village on the lake discovers a large supply of copper near their village?  The other village has nothing to trade for grain.  Conflict ensues.

At this point, it’s important to consider how I hope to tell this story.  What will my point-of-view be?  Am the the semi-omniscient god-narrator who tells everything to the reader?  Is the perspective first-person, told only in the voice of the main character(s)?  Just how much backstory will I let into the narrative?  There are no “correct” answers to these questions; it’s just important to have a clear plan from the onset.

I want to use a third-person limited perspective for this novel (by “limited” I mean that the narrator only knows the thoughts and perspectives of the character.  However, I will also switch between the perspectives of different characters.  Of course, that implies that there are multiple characters.  Some emerged organically as I thought through where I would like the story to go, while others were created to fill a strategic need.

An important next step is to develop a strong sense of these characters’ personalities, backgrounds, and desires.  I ask myself, “How does this character look at the world?  Why does he or she look at it this way?  How have his or her past experiences influenced this perspective?  What does he or she hope to go?”  (I explored these ideas in a recent post.)

Having a solid understanding of your characters is critical for at least two reasons: (1) You will be less likely to have characters making decisions that are entirely out of keeping with their personalities (that is, behaving completely irrationally and making your novel unbelievable); and (2) you may find that knowing your character well presents exciting opportunities in the plot that you might not have thought of otherwise.

At this point in the planning process, here’s what I have in hand:

  • Setting (a story universe)
  • A few bare-bones plot ideas (emerging from the setting)
  • Characters (the more detailed, the better*)
  • Point-of-view

*I like to create a table for myself, outlining the main characters and a few other details, like this (from Broken Knife, a manuscript that is ~30% complete, in which characters from many different dimensions are thrown together):

  Dimensions   Time period     Chinese name
  Anthony Ryan   Present day   安东尼
  Cao Cao   2132   曹操
(cao2 cao1)
  Gary Martens   1924   None
  Fidel Castro   1955   菲德尔·卡斯特罗
(fei1de2er3 ka3si1te4luo1)
  Montasiuk   1757   懑她撕有颗
“Star of melancholy tears”
  Gikinakimis   1757   蛤壳娜刻迷色
Montasiuk’s Grandmother
  Zhineng Gongye   2012   智能工业
(zhi1neng2 gong1ye4)
“Intelligent Industries”


Once I have Setting, Bare-Bones Plot, and Characters, I feel more confident to begin outlining a plot.  This is typically the point at which I begin dividing the story up into chapters (or whatever type of divisions make sense).

Sometimes I develop a basic outline, with just a few short lines describing what happens in each chapter, like this:

Chapter 1
Starts with blah-blah-blah.  Here’s the essence of what happens in the middle.  Ends with blah-blah-blah.

Chapter 2
Same pattern as above.

On the other hand, I sometimes go into a lot more description.  I’m including an outline of the first three chapters of Broken Knife here as an example.  (Please note that I retain full rights over this work.  I have also written the actual chapters for which the outline was developed.)

Chapter 1:

Cao’s world, 2032 — Shanghai, East Asian Economic Zone

The world is ruled by a single government, and the highest authority of this government is the “Unity Council.”  Seats on the Council are heavily stacked in favour of the Chinese.

At this late stage of the post-industrial era, the Earth’s atmosphere is highly toxic, and not safe for regular human respiration.  Most of the world’s settlements are contained within airtight artificial atmospheres.  However, the cost of maintaining these artificial atmospheres is extremely high, and represents the upper limit on the global economy and human livelihoods in general.

The Unity Council forms a scientific commission to explore options to improve the atmosphere.  Because the commission’s results will be exploratory, they are encouraged by the Council to “think outside the box.”  No idea is too far fetched, they are told.

Cao, a preeminent theoretical physicist, is assigned to the team.  Over the course of their discussion and brainstorming, it becomes clear that his viewpoints differ greatly from the rest of the team (which is comprised of chemical engineers, climatologists, etc.).  Cao is pushed out of the team.

Chapter 2:

The commission presents its results to the Council, and their suggestions are fairly mundane: reducing the emission of toxic gases, and the creation of a battery of air scrubbers at key locations around the globe.

When no mention of Cao’s recommendations is made, he protests angrily.  He states that reducing emissions will only cause an additional burden on an already crippled economy.  Furthermore, he says that to be effective on a global scale, the cost of air scrubbers will be astronomical.  He points knowingly at the climatologists when he adds that the use of scrubbers oversimplifies the complexities of air movements and atmospheric stratification of toxic components.

The Council asks for his alternative.  Cao explains his concept of parallel dimensions.  He emphasizes that he is not referring to multiple universes.  There is only one universe.  However, there are an infinite, and increasing, number of dimensions, existing in synchronicity with our own.  The reason for this phenomenon is choice.  Nature exists, and does not choose.  Even animals, he argues, do not choose.  They exist, follow their instincts, and live according to their passions.  Humans, however, have the ability to choose, and whenever a choice is made, a vacuum is created—the choice not made becomes an absence.  Nature, Cao tells the Council, abhors a vacuum, and rushes to fill it—or rather, to fulfill it.  A split occurs, and a dimension comes into existence in which the “un-choice” is chosen.

Impossible, argues a scientist on the commission.  Matter cannot be created from nothing.  But it is not being created, says Cao.  It is being fulfilled.

Cao explains that he only came to be aware of the existence of parallel dimensions through the measurement of inexplicable resonances and dissonances on an atomic level.  After a lengthy experimental phase, he can now conclude that these reverberations are caused by similarities and differences between the dimensions.  Importantly, if the dissonances were to be amplified, they have the potential to tear a rift in the septa dividing the dimensions.  If done strategically, a puncture in our earth’s atmosphere will allow us to discharge our spent atmosphere and siphon off that of an earth in another dimension.

The Council rules that the idea is completely unethical, and will not be done.  Cao points out that if they choose not to do it, they are only preventing the action from occurring in this dimension.  They are ensuring that it will happen in another dimension.  The Council remains unmoved, and Cao storms from the building.

Chapter 3:

Cao has obtained a truck, and is rumbling his way along a barren, windswept section of the Tibetan Plateau.  It is sunset, and in all directions, there is nothing to be seen but rust-coloured sand, spotted here and there by small, toxic lakes.

He is determined to build his apparatus without the Council’s consent.  It is clear that he is driven by ego, and not by love for humanity.  In fact, he is obviously willing to sacrifice the world whose atmosphere he will steal.  He wants to prove that he is able to do it.

Cao drives into the mountains, where he builds the resonance amplifier.  The apparatus is small—because it operates on an atomic level, it doesn’t need to be large to be powerful.  Cao starts the process, and at first it appears as though nothing has happened.  He expects this.  Slowly, the dissonances increase, and the strangeness builds as a rift opens between dimensions.  Cao is then sucked into the rift.


Personally, I prefer to develop the second, more detailed type of outline, because I find that in the process of writing it out, my mind is making connections and exploring the avenues by which I might tell the story.  The details in the outline easily transfer to the writing of the story itself.

The balancing act, of course, is to write out details, but not to confine the story. You’re not setting hard parameters for the plot.  At the end of the day, doing that will only make the story flat and rigid.  Make sure to leave lots of room for organic creativity.  If the story suddenly demands a shift in plot, be flexible.  However, make sure that you actually think through what those changes mean, and how they would affect the rest of the story as you originally envisioned it.  (We’ve probably all read stories that have conflicting internal structures, and I personally think they originate from the writer making flippant changes on the fly.)

Ideally, I will completely outline a story before actually writing the manuscript. However, for a few stories, I have outlined to a certain point, and then realized that the remainder of the story will take care of itself.  By that, I mean that I’ve established a strong framework for the story (setting, characters, plot), and the conclusion of the story flows naturally from there.  In that case, I get to writing.

As a parting thought, it is worth mentioning that I am focusing my energies on just two of these manuscripts for the time being.  I harbour no delusions of grandeur, and know that I could not work on 14 manuscripts simultaneously.  Well, I suppose I could, but the quality of each one would probably all suffer as a result.  Working on two allows me some variety when I feel frustrated with one or the other.

So, to recap my novel-planning process, I generally follow this pattern:

  1. Explore a landscape (where the story happens)
  2. Consider the possible implications of that landscape on the story
  3. Populate the landscape (create characters)
  4. Develop an intimate understanding of those characters
  5. Establish point-of-view
  6. Build a plot around the actions of the characters on the landscape
  7. Outline the story (to whatever level of detail makes sense)

Again, this is only the way I do it.  Hopefully, this will give you a few ideas as to how you might go about planning your novel in a way that makes sense to you.  I also hope that this post shows how the entire planning process can be exciting, instead of a chore that the writer must complete before getting down to the fun part.  Be the creative demi-god of your domain!

You can also check out a great (and much more succinct) post by elmowrites for her take on planning a novel.


About jackfrey
Jack Frey lives somewhere in Northeast Asia with his wife and two young boys. He finds the letter K to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all the consonants, in both its upper and lowercase forms. Like many of us, he is currently seeking publication of his first novel.

3 Responses to Before Page One: Planning My Novel

  1. elmowrites says:

    I’m fascinated by how much you leave the plot in the background during most of your planning process, Jack. It’s interesting to see how, as you say, different writers have very different processes. And also, how many of us change our process for different lengths, styles or types of writing.
    Good lukc with the novels and thanks for the linkback.

  2. Pingback: The Agony of Ether to Substance: Bringing Your Story to the Page | Jack Frey

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