Let’s face it: the current state of events has thrown all of us into a tailspin. Some of us are juggling lots of new responsibilities while others are struggling to figure out what to do with our time. As hard as it is for the former group to fathom, this situation has provided an actual opportunity for many people to finally sit down and write. Maybe you’ve been putting it off, unsure where to start, and now the temporal barriers are gone. If you’re in this boat, Rachael Cooper from Jericho Writers is sharing some novel-writing methods that might give you a push in the right direction.
Writing a novel is not just a case of putting pen to paper and letting your imagination run wild—at least not all the time. For most writers, their novels begin with some form of structure. Planning for each twist and turn can be hard at first, especially if you don’t quite know how it all hangs together, but with any of these techniques, you’ll be fully prepared to plot your novel and make the most of your writing time.
Once Upon a Time…
Although the Pixar method is used primarily for screenwriting, their $14 billion profits last year suggest they must be doing something right. Their stories begin with this formula: ‘Once upon a time, there was ___. Every day, ___. Then one day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Finally, ___.’
You can see that it feels almost fairy tale-like, but the enduring popularity of fairy tales implies that this form of storytelling works and is going to be popular with your readers. For example: Once upon a time there was a little girl. Every day she would visit her grandmother with a basket of cookies. One day a wolf spotted the little girl in the forest and wanted to eat her. Because of that, he ate her grandmother and jumped into bed to take her place. Because of that, he managed to attack the little girl until, finally, the huntsman rushed in to save her.
Try filling in the blanks for your story idea. Once you have a rough idea of your outline, expand it and see where it takes you.
The snowflake method lets you take the central idea, characters, and setting for your novel and expand them exponentially—like the arms of a snowflake.
Start by writing a simple sentence to summarise your story idea. For Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it might be something like this: Ebenezer Scrooge hates everything to do with Christmas—until three spirits show him the error of his ways in the past, present, and future.
Now do the same for your main character (in this case, Scrooge), and your setting (Victorian London). Once you have a clear overview of these things, write a couple of sentences describing the beginning, middle, and end of your narrative. Then go back and add more detail. Repeat this exercise until you’ve expanded your plan to about two pages. Once you have enough information, you’re ready to begin writing.
The rule of thumb here is to avoid the temptation to create a story that has moments you can join with ‘and then.’ That formula can result in a linear and potentially dull narrative. Instead, try to use therefore and but. This method, made popular by the creators of South Park, ensures that your story will include cause and effect, along with moments of rising and falling tension. Not only will your narrative become more realistic and believable, but it will become a much more exciting read. For example: Jack’s family is poor; therefore, his mother asks him to sell Daisy the cow, but he sells her for magic means instead of money; therefore, his mother gets angry and throws the beans away, but they grow into a giant beanstalk…
Write a few sentences explaining the plot of your story, but only let yourself use therefore or but to connect your ideas. If you find yourself using then, you may need to rethink your narrative.
Begin at the End
The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.
~Joyce Carol Oates
In the planning process, writers often focus on their narrative arc. But not everyone works this way. Maybe you don’t know much about your character’s journey, but you do have a clear vision of what will happen at the end of the story. You clearly see the main character and her friend holding a handful of berries that will kill them both while the world watches. Or you see your protagonist blowing up a haunted hotel (and himself, along with it) to save his family.
If you know what will happen at the end of your story, start there. Then you can work backward, figuring out what’s driving them toward that conclusion and what choices they’ll have to make to get them there.
Sticky Note Planning
You can use this method in conjunction with one of the others, but it’s also a good way to start because a blank sticky note is far easier to fill than an empty page.
Use individual notes to create your timeline of events and then switch it up, removing some scenes, adding others, and rearranging the moments in your narrative until you’re happy with the overall plan. If you prefer a digital tool, you can do the same thing with One Stop for Writer’s Timeline tool. The benefit of planning with sticky notes is the control you have over editing and rearranging your plot. It’s particularly useful for writers who enjoy experimenting with non-chronological narratives.
It’s likely that during the planning process, you will use a combination of strategies. If you plan effectively and in detail, the writing process becomes more manageable, more efficient, and much more enjoyable. So experiment with different ways of planning and structuring your narrative and make sure that you are happy with the result before you begin to write.
But before I sign off, I want to acknowledge the giant, viral elephant in the room. If your life’s been turned upside down by recent events, writing a novel may be harder than ever. So I’ve got a bonus tip to help you manage the little time you have and maximize it for efficiency.
The Pomodoro Method
Most authors enjoy the planning and writing bits of the process. But learning to structure your novel is just one aspect of the writing journey. The challenging part is often just getting started—finding and carving out writing time during your busy schedule. To succeed, it’s essential to learn how to make the most of your writing time.
Kate Harrison’s method is not only pretty exciting, it’s realistic. Her technique involves setting aside manageable 25-minute chunks of time.
Creative work can be hard to quantify—you might write a scene or section, only to delete it later. But time is a quantifiable thing, so you can measure your progress in… 25-minute chunks. I set myself a certain number to complete every day.
Setting manageable goals means you’re more likely to achieve them and feel motivated to get up and write again the next day. So start with something small—maybe 15-20 minute chunks. You’ll be surprised how much you can get done, and how motivated you’ll be to continue writing past your time limit.
What novel-planning method works for you? Leave a comment and let’s add to this list.
Rachael Cooper is the SEO & Publishing Manager for Jericho Writers, a writers services company based in the UK and US. Rachael has a Masters in eighteenth-century literature, and specialises in female sociability. In her free time, she writes articles on her favourite eighteenth-century authors and, if all else fails, you can generally find her reading and drinking tea!