Tuesday, July 5

6 Easy Steps to Planning Out Your Novel

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

One of my favorite aspects of writing a novel is planning it. I love plotting and figuring out how an idea might become a book, and it's always a treat for me to hear how other writers plan their stories. Please help me welcome Laurence MacNaughton to the lecture hall today to share his process and offer tips planning a novel.

Laurence grew up in a creaky old colonial house in Connecticut that he's pretty sure was haunted. He's been a bookseller, printer, copywriter and (somewhat randomly) a prototype vehicle test driver. When he's not writing, he bikes and hikes the Rocky Mountains, explores ghost towns and wrenches on old cars. His books include It Happened One Doomsday, The Spider Thief, and Conspiracy of Angels. Get free stories, bonus features, and more fun stuff at www.LaurenceMacNaughton.com.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

Take it away Laurence...

Even if you hate the idea of writing an outline or synopsis, you can still figure out a plan to help you finish your novel fast, avoid major revisions, and beat writer’s block forever.

It's surprisingly easy. Here’s how to do it.

First, turn off your computer and set aside your notebook. For this exercise, you going to need a pack of index cards. Regular old 3 x 5 cards will work just fine.

Wait — index cards? Really?

Yes. It may sound clunky, but writing on small cards actually makes it easier to plan out your story.

With cards, you can throw away or rearrange your ideas instantly. Plus, small cards force you to focus your thoughts. When you only have a few square inches to work with, you need to be succinct, and that boosts your creativity.

Here's what to do:

1. Get out two cards.

Crack open that brand-new pack of index cards and lay out two crisp, clean cards. Write “Beginning” at the top of one card, and “End” on the other card.

2. Start at the beginning.

Start with the card marked “Beginning.” In one or two sentences, write down what happens at the beginning of your story. Keep it simple.

You’ll want to make your protagonist active and interesting. To do that, begin the sentence with his or her name.

For example, “Dru discovers that the latest customer at her crystal shop is possessed by a demon.”

If you’re not sure how your story should begin, just make something up. (You can always change it later)

Start with a moment of change. For instance:
  • The protagonist moves to a new home.
  • The protagonist finds something mysterious, such as a diary or dead body. A relationship begins or ends.
  • A stranger comes to town.

3. Skip to the end.

Now pick up the card marked “End” and write down the climactic final confrontation of your story.

Again, keep it simple. Just one or two sentences, beginning with the protagonist’s name.

For example, “Dru defeats the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

If you feel stuck, just write down the character’s name, then a strong verb (finds, delivers, escapes, stops, etc.), and then finish the sentence with whatever badness they’re stopping or escaping from.

4. Brainstorm the middle.

This is the fun part. Count out at least 10 more cards.

Spend a few minutes thinking up obstacles that could prevent your protagonist from reaching the ending. Write each idea down on a separate card.

These obstacles could be physical in nature, such as distance, imprisonment, or forces of nature.

Another idea: your protagonist might want two mutually exclusive things. Or she might be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Obviously, you also want to write at least one card about your bad guys. But don’t forget about your protagonist’s friends and allies, who could want different things, creating even more conflict.

The trick is to do this quickly, off the top of your head. Don’t spend too much time trying to think each idea through, or trying to make it perfect.

Just jot down whatever comes to mind, then set that card aside and move on to the next.

Keep going until you have ideas written down on at least 10 different cards. You want to give your protagonist plenty of problems to solve.

Here are some examples:
  • Dru lacks any real magical experience.
  • Dru discovers that Greyson’s muscle car has a mind of its own – and it wants to kill. 
  • Dru starts to fall in love with Greyson, which is forbidden.
  • Dru’s best friend, Rane, threatens to kill Greyson to keep the world safe.

5. Stack ‘em up.

Sort through these obstacle cards and place them in order of difficulty, from smallest obstacle to largest. That helps you build rising tension in your story.

Now, take another look at your Beginning card. How does your protagonist get from the start of the story to the first obstacle?

Write a card for that.

For example, “Dru starts researching Greyson’s problem in her magical library.”

Go through your stack of cards one by one, and find ways to connect them. Feel free to rearrange the cards if you need to. Do whatever it takes to give your story a sense of flow from beginning to end.

6. Write it up.

Using your completed stack of cards as a guide, sit down and write a simple outline or synopsis of your story, from beginning to end. It should only take a page or two.

Give yourself permission to write badly. This is just the rough draft, which you’ll throw away later and rewrite. So don’t worry too much about grammar or punctuation.

Just write it all out. Get it out of your head, off the cards, and onto the page. When you finish, you’ll have your entire story clearly laid out, from beginning to end.

Then take a moment to appreciate what a fine job you’ve done. Your entire novel, from beginning to end, is right there in front of you. How amazing is that?

Remember: nothing is carved in stone.

It's important to stay fluid in how you visualize your story. Don't feel like it's all locked down, because it's not. It will change and improve over time.

You'll come up with even better ideas later, and when you do, you can buff up your outline or synopsis to match.

It’s your story. Ultimately, you can do whatever you want.

But for the moment, you're off to a great start. You have a roadmap for success. By figuring out the major beats of your story, you've created a solid plan for writing your novel.

About It Happened One Doomsday

Magic is real. Only a handful of natural-born sorcerers can wield its arcane power against demons, foul creatures, and the forces of darkness. These protectors of the powerless are descendants of an elite order. The best magic-users in the world. Unfortunately, Dru isn't one of them.

Sure, she's got a smidge of magical potential. She can use crystals to see enchantments or brew up an occasional potion. And she can research practically anything in the library of dusty leather-bound tomes she keeps stacked in the back of her little store. There, sandwiched between a pawn shop and a 24-hour liquor mart, she sells enough crystals, incense, and magic charms to scrape by. But everything changes the day a handsome mechanic pulls up in a possessed black muscle car, his eyes glowing red.

Just being near Greyson raises Dru's magical powers to dizzying heights. But he's been cursed to transform into a demonic creature that could bring about the end of the world. There's only one chance to break Greyson's curse and save the world from a fiery Doomsday – and it's about to fall into Dru's magically inexperienced hands...

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I am not a planner which makes me work pretty hard to get from the beginning to the end. However, I think maybe I can manage this way of planning. I am just about ready to start a new project and I think I will give this a try. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. MH, I can't tell you how many writers I hear from who swear that they can't plan anything out beforehand. But this method seems to work really well for just about anyone, because you can make it as simple and unobtrusive as you want. That gets the outline out of the way, so you can just focus on the good stuff: writing! :) Try it, and let me know how it works out for you. www.laurencemacnaughton.com

  2. I'm a planner. This is similar to what I do,but I like the index card suggestion. Thanks.

    1. Good to hear, Pam. One of the things I like about using index cards is that because they're small and disposable, they can prompt you to be creative faster, coming up with more ideas in less time. Give it a shot, and let me know how it turns out! www.laurencemacnaughton.com

  3. I'm a planner. This is similar to what I do,but I like the index card suggestion. Thanks.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. FYI: if you're having trouble posting your comment using the Chrome browser, try switching browsers. Firefox works for me. :) www.laurencemacnaughton.com

  5. Laurence, I wonder if this would work as well for a novel that is written but whose structure is not quite jelling? It's frustrating me to bits and just seems too much to get my head around at the moment. :)

  6. Sheryl, it actually works great for already-completed manuscripts. I’ve done this exercise myself with a few manuscripts, and helped writers in my group do the same.

    One thing you might consider as you go through your manuscript: use white cards for the main plot, and different color cards for each subplot. (Colored pens work, too.)

    That way, you can spread out your cards and see visually how they go together. Look at each plot separately, and then together as part of the whole.

    Let me know how it works out!

    1. This sounds like a good idea, and we like the different coloured cards/pens, as well. We always have difficulty figuring out a book, and this may help.

  7. And if you're a tech geek, you can always use virtual index cards on Scrivener! I like to brainstorm/mindmap using the Scrivener free form index cards, and then develop a plotline using that as a starting point.

  8. So true, PD! I often start with paper index cards first, because then I feel less locked in to any specific ideas. Once I've gone through the paper versions and discarded what I don't want, I transfer the rest to the computer and continue working from there.

  9. Wow! This is one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" moments! So practical. Thank you for sharing your process!

  10. I'll try this for the second book. Genius, thanks for sharing. I didn't purposely choise to write this first book paintser style, just didn't know any better. Going to try this with book two. Hope this gets rid if: Bangs head on desk for the next twenty minutes because I wrote myself into a corner yet again. x.x

    Thanks also for allowing us to delete our comments, I spot typos usually after they are posted. xP

  11. Remember L.S., for most people (me included) the first novel manuscript is all about figuring out what you're doing. So don't beat yourself up. Just keep writing, and let me know how it's going! :) Come check out my other writing tips at www.laurencemacnaughton.com