You can plan your novel even if you’re a pantser
by Beth Barany
Even as an experienced novelist, I still need a roadmap to follow when I’m starting a new novel. When I was a beginner, I really needed a roadmap that worked for me. Which is why I created these tools, especially designed for busy people who want to write a novel and don’t know where to begin.
Whether you’re juggling 10 other responsibilities and your brain is full, or you’re ready to write that first book and all the writing books out there are so confusing, these 7 essential steps will help you plan your novel like a pro and gain clarity and to be able to write your story with confidence.
Essential Step #1: Start to Plan Your Novel with Your Elevator Pitch
An elevator pitch is another name for a book blurb, i.e., what you see on the back of books and online as the “Book Description” or “Overview.” At this stage, this exercise isn’t for marketing; it’s for brainstorming your story’s key elements.
To start the brainstorm, think about your genre and its expectations. Each genre has an expected ending, i.e., romance ends in a happily ever after or happily for now; fantasy ends with the balance of the world restored; mystery ends with the culprit being caught by the investigators; etc. What’s your genre’s expected ending?
Elevator Pitch Formula
With that in mind, brainstorm your elevator pitch. Aim for ~75-100 words.
- Situation: (Also called the Initial Action or Premise, this is the beginning of the story.)
- Main Character(s): (Self-explanatory)
- Primary Objective: (At first, what does your main character want?)
- Antagonist Or Opponent: (or Central Conflict. Who or what is keeping your main characters from getting what they want?)
- Disaster That Could Happen: (What’s the worst that could happen? And/or what does your character want next?)
- Abandoned on his relatives’ doorstep as an infant,
- Harry Potter
- longs to understand where he came from and why he feels different.
- He discovers that he is a wizard and that his parents were killed by Voldemort, a powerful and evil wizard,
- who has been hunting for Harry, to kill him.
My rough draft for a work-in-progress sci-fi mystery novel, Book 5 in the series:
Janey McCallister’s grandparents died to save the planet 70 years ago. Yet when Janey takes a job to investigate four seemingly random murders on a rogue space station far from Earth, everything points to a planetary conspiracy connected to the topmost seats of power. What she thought she knew about her grandparents and the world’s glorious past upends. Can she trust anyone anymore, including her lover, Orlando Valdez, who works for the very world government that was formed out of her grandparents’ tragedy?
Essential Step #2: Brainstorm Your Story Synopsis
A synopsis is a short summary of your book. In the planning stages, a synopsis can help you think through the beginning, middle, and end of your story, as well as brainstorm the inner and outer changes your main character goes through.
For this step, use the online plug-and-play tool, Plot Spinner. Designed by the award-winning romance author, Patricia Simpson, based on an exercise by writing teacher, Alicia Rasley, this tool is set up for romance writers. You can use it for only one character’s arc too.
Example for my WIP:
Issue characters are dealing with: Trust
Premise of story: Sometimes trust is about a leap of faith rather than having all the answers.
Janey ignores the request to connect with someone who said she knew her grandparents. She doesn’t believe that someone has new information about her grandmother, yet she needs to know the truth, even if her heart might break.
When she finally investigates the seemingly interconnected deaths, the clues have run cold because she didn’t act on the request soon enough. What she uncovers guts her. She doesn’t know what’s real about who she is and how the world works anymore.
Since not everything is as it seems, Janey finally puts the pieces of the murders together and discovers the chilling truth that changes everything.
Essential Step #3: Prepare Your Characters
Characters are the heart of story. Brainstorm these essential elements to get to know your main characters:
- Goal, motivation, and conflict, for both the inner life and outer life
- Strengths, inherent and learned
- Important relationships
- Appearance, especially key characteristic
- Backstory as it relates to the story problem
- The things in their pockets, or backpack, or car, or satchel, etc.
- Habits, mannerisms, ticks
Essential Step #4: Build Your Story World
Explore your unique story world by interviewing your main character and other characters that are part of it. A partial list.
World Building Brainstorming Topics
Origin Tales — How did the world come to be?
Folklore – What is your favorite childhood folktale or fairytale?
Jobs/professions — Do men and women divide work, share it? What kind of training do people receive? How are they trained and by whom?
Gender roles – What are people’s attitudes about gender roles?
Clothing/Costumes — How do people dress? What do people wear and why? Where does fabric come from?
Flora & Fauna – What are some of the important or relevant animals and plants where you live?
Food — How is it planted/harvested/hunted/gathered? What do people eat? When? How is it cooked? Who cooks?
Geography – What are the variations in the geographical regions?
Annual Rituals — How do you celebrate weddings, funerals, birthdays, puberty, etc.?
Technology – What kind of technology exists? How is it powered? Who creates it?
Religion/Spirituality – What are your beliefs? How might they create conflict with others and why?
Magic (if any) – What are the rules and boundaries around magic?
Politics/Power – Who is in power and why? How is power transferred to the next generation?
Essential Step #5: Explore Your Plot and Story Using High Concept & Genre Expectations
To create your story’s High Concept, put two well-known movies, books, TV shows, or concepts to evoke the main problems in your story.
The Jewish version of The Da Vinci Code
Lara Croft meets Lord of the Rings
Snakes on a Plane
Die Hard on a Ship
Make a list of all the events that your readers most likely expect in your genre and type of story. Then explore how you can twist the events to surprise your readers within the genre. (Thanks to Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid.)
Essential Step #6: Discover Your Characters’ Worst Fears
A unique way to develop conflict in your story for pantsers – people who write by the seat of the pants, this exercise will help you brainstorm your main character’s worst fears. Be prepared — you might freak yourself out. And that’s okay. You may be surprised at what you discover.
Uncover Your Character’s Worst Fears to Discover Your Story Conflicts
Exercise: “List of 20”
- On a piece of paper or on your computer/digital device, number down from 1 to 20.
- Set the timer for 15 minutes.
- Brainstorm your character’s 20 worst fears, starting with what occurs to you first.
- Then ask, “What’s worse than that?” Write that down.
- Keep moving your hand across the page to uncover even more worse possibilities. Keep going until you get to at least 20.
Review your work and, if need be, organize the fears from bad to worse. Note: Your character’s fears can build the external challenges of your story.
Essential Step #7: Plot Using the Problem-Solution Tool
(Thanks to The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray.)
Here’s how it works:
- Write the starting problem of your story.
- What’s the solution to this immediate problem?
- What problem is caused by this solution?
- Create a new solution,
- which creates a new problem.
- This leads to a new solution,
- new problem…
- until you get to your story resolution.
Bonus1 Essential Step #8: Outline Your Story Scene-by-Scene
I want you to feel confident and ready to start writing your first draft. With a scene-by-scene outline, you can start writing your novel with a road map, as detailed or loose as you’d like.
Start Scene-by-Scene Outline
- Write the scene number and who the point of view character is for the scene.
- Draft the external and internal problems in relation to the character’s goal.
- Add what makes these problems worse.
- List the hard choice the character faces.
- Add sensory details, location, time, and who else is in the scene.
Move to the next scene. Write dialogue as it arises. Keep going until you have mapped out your entire story.
Your turn! Let me know how your story planning goes!
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by Beth Barany (@BethBarany) June 5, 2022
Adapted from Plan Your Novel Like A Pro: And Have Fun Doing It by Beth Barany and Ezra Barany and their annual 60-Day Novel course.
What about you, scriveners? Have you tried to plan your your novel using tools like this? Or are you totally a pantser? If you’re a pantser, would you be willing to try this kind of planning? Do you think it would make your writing go more quickly?
ABOUT BETH BARANY
Beth Barany is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy novelist, master neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, and certified creativity coach for writers. She specializes in helping writers experience clarity, so they can write, revise, and proudly publish their novels to the delight of their readers. Her courses are packed with useful hands-on information that you can implement right away.
She runs an online school for fiction writers and a 12-month group coaching program to help them get published. More resources on publishing, book marketing, and novel writing are on her blog, Writer’s Fun Zone.
When she’s not helping writers, Beth writes magical tales of romance, mystery, and adventure that empower women and girls to be the heroes of their own lives.
And here’s a link to Beth’s 60-Day Course!
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Plan Your Novel Like a Pro–And Have Fun Doing It!
“I can honestly say this book saved a manuscript that was headed for the shredder!” — Ann W. Shannon
“Beth’s book is like plotting for pantsers!”—Tess Rider, Science Fantasy Romance Author
This book will help you get excited to plan your novel. The tools shared here are designed to spark your muse and give you confidence when you sit down to write your story. Plan Your Novel Like A Pro: And Have Fun Doing It! is for organic writers and pantsers who want a roadmap to follow, so that they can let their creativity loose.
This 168-page book comes with 20 chapters, lots of exercises, and a free bonus workbook.