Planning a Novel: Three Main Elements of Story Writing

Some writers can sit down at their keyboard, tap in ‘Chapter One’ and proceed to write a 100,000 word novel without reference to notes or any kind of plan. They are, without a doubt, the exception because a novel should have a depth that defies mere human memory in its construction. A short story, perhaps, but not a novel. If you just pitch in and start writing the likelihood is that you will run out of steam or become confused and this is what a little planning can help you avoid. There is no problem with starting your novel and writing a few chapters before conducting your planning and this might actually be helpful in ‘nailing’ characters. At some point, however, you will have to plan or plot how your story is going to play.

Planning a Novel

So, what planning should you do before beginning your book? There are three main elements

(i) The Timeline/Events

(ii) The Characters

(iii) The Settings

The Timeline

(i) The Timeline may stretch over hours or centuries and can be either organised graphically or in text, eg

Spring 1994, George meets Fiona, Prague

Summer 1995, Fiona marries Charlie, London

Winter 2001, Arthur tells George about Fiona’s marriage

The story arc of your main plot should stretch from the beginning to the end of the time line. Sub-plots can be inserted within this.

By definition the timeline is laid out in a linear fashion, but you need not tell your story in this way. This is just to keep things straight in your mind.

The Characters

(ii) The Characters should each have a file devoted to them, detailing them physically and psychologically. Some historical background is also helpful. You should also sub-divide your characters defining them by their importance to the story. You might class them as A, B, and C, where A characters are the protagonist and antagonist; B are what could be effectively described as secondary or sidekicks and C are what would in the film world be called extras. They should have an amount of information relevant to their importance to the narrative.

So, from above –

  1. George Cuthbertson, 33, white male. Five foot ten inches tall, brown hair. British nationality. Profession-accountant. George was born into a working class family in Manchester. He qualified in accountancy at the University of Birmingham before moving to London where he is a junior partner in the firm of Clarence & Dodge. He was briefly (2 years) married to Clarice, a girl he met at university but they separated when he moved south and are now divorced.
  2. Fiona Potter, 28, white female. Five foot nine inches tall, redhead. Irish nationality. Profession-nurse. Fiona is a theatre sister in Donegal.
  3. Charles Longbridge, 31, white male. Six foot, blonde. British. Charlie is born and bred in London. He is a charity worker.
  4. Arthur White, barman at George’s local pub.

If you’re any good at art you might want to attempt pencil sketches of your characters for reference. An alternative is to base your characters loosely on well known celebrities such as actors or sports personalities and find their images on the web to insert into your character reference file.


(iii) If you are using locations that you are not familiar with, do some research. Every added detail will add to the authenticity of your story. So, in the above case –

London – capital of the UK, situated in the south east of England, population 7,500,00 (Greater London). George lives in West Hampstead and works in Staines.

Prague – capital of Czech republic, situated in central Bohemia, population 1,900,000.

Again, the amount of detail you require should be relevant to the location’s importance. In many cases you won’t use your research notes and over-use of them will be very obvious, so use them sparingly and effectively.

All of this is counter-instinctive to many writers who feel it will stunt their creativity, but a detailed plan, though it may be time consuming to set up, will reward you when you don’t need to start scrambling for some vital information at some crucial plot point.