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How to Plan Your Novel or Story

An Outline on How to Outline

(To skip the intro go to paragraph three)

When writing a creative piece, whether its fantasy, sci-fi, realistic fiction or any other genre, the planning phase can be an absolute mess. Many new authors prefer to skip these steps and just start typing, thinking the story will be just as good either way. I hate to say it, but this isn't true. Stories and books that are unplanned come off messy and poorly written more often than not. 

As I tried to write my first book, I thought I was some kind of literary genius. I'd sit for hours and type away at my keyboard until I grew tired. What I didn't know, and what I found out as I reread the unpublished manuscript years later, was that as much as I worked on it,  the story was predictable and boring to read. Some character introductions lasted pages because I simply didn't know where I was going with the story. When I was hired by a professional writer to take part in his own endeavors, I learned how to better outline my stories. Without this five step planning method, my writing would still be as sloppy and bland as it was in middle school.

Step 1: Character Profiles

In order to make a believable yet fantastical story, the characters must think and act like real characters with complex personalities and backstories that are not only realistic (at least by the laws of your universe) but make readers understand how they could shape the characters into what they are now.

This isn't to say that every single character to appear in your story needs to be this thought out, but the protagonist and antagonist are the most important and do need to be well organized. Also, if your protagonist is traveling with other characters who have their own story arcs (which they should if it's a novel or series) they should be somewhat planned out as well. Below is a template that I use often. If you don't like it there are plenty of others you can find with a simple google search.

Character Profile Example

Remember, some questions may be irrelevant according to your story.

Step 2: Main Plot

Subplots are fun to write, with the love interests and heart-wrenching losses that can come from them, they certainly add spice to your story. However, before you can get to those you need to plan out the stories core element: Your main plot, typically following the hero fight against your antagonist's plan.

The antagonist could be anyone from a political foe to a super-powered monster. Either way, they have a plan to get or do something that is advantageous to them. The planning for this has to start with the three main parts: "beginning" "middle" and "end."

The 'beginning' is always the readers' first impression, and so it's especially important. Usually, it has your main character's introduction (along with any other characters that are there at first) and a small foreshadowing of the plot starting up, one that doesn't make much sense at first but falls into place like a puzzle piece later on.

The "middle" is when the antagonist's first half or 'phase' of their plan has either been completely prepared for and is now ready to put into action, or when the hero is noticed by the antagonist and is being attacked more and more. Keep in mind, this is not necessarily the middle of your book or story, this is just the peak of its plot before everything starts snowballing out of control. It's at this point when the entire world is usually flipped upside-down. Personally, I like to do this by revealing a huge secret about the antagonist. For example, a secret underground army, or a weapon he was building up until that point that the reader didn't know about either until that point.

Finally, the 'end', as you probably guessed, is the point when the main antagonist is defeated and the story can be wrapped up soon after. When planning this it's best to write these three main points on a piece of paper as a timeline because from here it only gets more crowded and complicated. Example below.


Between the "beginning and middle" and the "middle and end" there needs to be another 2-3 (or even 4 if it's a long story) points explaining how the beginning connects to the middle and the middle to the end, tying together the main plot.

Step 3: Adding Subplots

There are two different kinds of subplots. The first kind is a "personal subplot." These subplots are about your protagonist and are typically showing emotional growth such as getting over a traumatic situation. Subplots such as love interests could fall into this category as well, but I prefer to fit them into the second category which is 'character subplots'.

Although these sound like the same thing, by "character subplot," I mean subplots involving any character besides your main protagonist. These are everybody else's character arcs, whether losing something close to them or realizing what part they have to play in the overall story. Whatever the case these subplots are important to make the story seem less forced and more as if it could actually happen.

When planning out subplots, you need to make sure that they have a beginning, middle, and end. Just like the main plot. Unlike the main plot, these three main parts don't have to be in the "beginning, middle, and end" of the outline. While one of the protagonists subplots should, for the sake of a satisfying end to the story, other subplots can just be in one half of the story.

So, plan out your subplots as the correlate to the main plot, and write them down on the same chart your main plot so you know exactly how the story will flow. It's important that you try to have at least one subplot active in all points of the story so it never feels like it's two-dimensional and manufactured.

Step 4: Planning 'Parts'

When I say "parts," I mean chapters. However, if your story is being presented by means of a different medium (meaning comics, tv shows, or anything else) then this is divided into your own individual 'parts' (issues, episodes, etc.)

Now that you know exactly what has to happen in order to get your story from point A to point Z and everywhere in between, You need to divide it up into individual pieces. In order how to separate your different plot points, you need to decide how long each 'part' should be.

Personally, I think you should look at how many subplots are active at a time, and decide from there. No "part" should be too busy, nor should it be too flat and straightforward.

When splitting up your story into different "parts," you should write down what 'part' it is and what it has to cover. For Example:

Part 1: John Smith's accident, a protest starts up in the town square

Part 2: John Smith realizes his potential, the protest grows violent

Part 3: John Smith explains the misunderstanding behind the protest and brings people to an agreement

(And so on)

Step 5: Write!

Now, you're done! (With the planning phase at least). You have a full description of all your most important characters and an understanding of how they would act in these situations, as well as a point-by-point of what you're going to write. Open a google doc and be prepared to type away. Just remember as you write, the proofreading and editing phases are next, be prepared for its tediousness. 

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