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  • Writer's pictureMadii Cato

Three Novel-Planning Methods and How to Start

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

There's no wrong way to plan a novel. Some methods work for different writers and some writers choose their methods based on the individual project. The different plotting methods themselves can be executed in numerous ways. Whether you type out your outline, write it by hand, or use notecards, it's important to find a system (or combination of systems) that works well for you. This can take some trial and error, but you'll never know if it works for you unless you try it.

1. The Bookend Method - A Discovery Writer Friendly Method

This method involves figuring out the first and last points of your book. If you know where your story will end it will be easier to draw a line from point A to point B. Knowing where your book is going to end will also help you sew tension into the relationships between your characters, adding up to the perfect suspense point. Instead of picking the very first scene and the very last scene you could also decide on your opening idea and your climax. What area of life is your character in and how do they want to change at the beginning of the story and then what do you want the most suspenseful part of the book to be. I find that this can take some of the weight off getting the perfect opening hook or ending.

If this method interests you, but mapping out two points isn't quite enough, then you can try the bookend method with different acts, chapters, or scenes of your novel. This is a happy medium between being prepared but also being able to discovery write. Whenever you sit down at your piece, try having a period of brainstorming where you decide which bookends you'll hit in that session. Sometimes this planning period can help you get into the mood to write.

2. The Godzilla Method

This is one of my favorite methods because it is based on building outward—or "feeding the beast" as the name suggests. You start with a summary of your book. This can be anything from a sentence to a few short paragraphs. Next, you move to an outline or descriptions of the individual scenes you mention in your summary. Then you enhance the character arcs, evaluate areas that might need more material, and choose where your chapters will start and end.

Some people go on to make a more detailed outline here and others use this detailed skeleton to discovery write the happenings of the individual scenes. The best part of this is that you can feed your beast until you hit a level of preparation that's perfect for you. You can start writing immediately after the breakdown of your short summary, or you can build it up until all your chapters and world-building elements are filled out in advance.

3. The Three-Act Story Structure

This is by far the most popular method of outlining. It has many forms but the general makeup of what you are doing to prepare is the same. People might refer to this as the beginning, middle, and the end, the rising action, climax, and resolution, 27 chapters, or the save the cat method. The process behind this method is to use predetermined story elements to tell your story. This sounds a little silly, why would everyone use the same story elements in the same order? But many famous stories use this type of structure. There is a science behind grabbing a reader's attention and having the right amount of tension and suspense. And like many guidelines, the more familiar you become with the why behind how it works, the more leeway you'll have to move elements around.

Abbie Emmons has a great YouTube series walking you through the elements of the Three Act Story Structure and the book Save the Cat: Writes a Novel is also a good resource for this type of planning.

The process of using this method is taking each story element and figuring out which part of your story corresponds to it. For example, the first "story beat" in the Save the Cat method is called an opening image. The book describes the function and purpose of an opening image and then you brainstorm to decide what your opening image will be. Some story elements you may know in advance like "I want her to meet the guy" and some you may have to really work at placing. One thing I like about this method is that it is easy to go back and change certain parts without a lot of rewriting. Usually, writers start by filling in just the bare bones of this outline—moving and adjusting things as needed until each element has a corresponding part of your story. After this bare-bones outline, you can flesh it out into separate scene plans, and then a detailed explanation of each scene (just like in the Godzilla method).

How To Start

The endless methods of planning can be daunting and even after you settle on one you might find "blank page syndrome" settling in. So how do we tackle the new planning method we are starting with the most efficiency?

Experiment With The Execution

Nowadays, a lot of people write their stories on a computer. It is a pretty swift method, especially for those who would like to publish, because you'll eventually need a typed version. However, the novel planning process can be done either on your computer or by hand. Many people benefit from drawing out diagrams or writing on notecards and it's important to find a way of making planning as fun and productive as possible. If you don't already know which parts you like, then this will be trial and error. Experiment with how easily ideas come to use on your computer, in a notebook, or by sticking post-it notes to a whiteboard. Look up what other writers do, but don't be afraid to make up your own thing. There's no right and wrong way to plan.

Decide Which Parts You Like

The best way to find your perfect planning style is to explore dozens of different styles and pull out just the parts you like. Do you really like how that YouTuber used their index cards? But also love how someone on Instagram color codes their planning? Combine them! Keep doing this until you have a system you like for each component in the planning process.

Sometimes the first method you find and like might not be the easiest, best practice, or even your own favorite. So never stop exploring and sharing with other writers.

Keep Track While You Write

Sometimes one method of planning feels amazing at the beginning, but halfway through you may realize that you prepared too much and wrote far off your outline or that you didn't prepare enough and you're struggling. Maybe you write the entire book with only a few hiccups. Either way, it's a good idea to keep track of any hardships you have in your novel writing process so that you can continue to modify and improve your workflow. If you find your perfect system on the first try then you are extremely lucky. For me, I change up my planning methods often to keep it fresh and interesting.

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