How to Plan a Novel from Idea to First Draft

How to Plan a Novel from Idea to First Draft

The best way to go about writing your first novel

You don’t want to be jumping headfirst into writing a novel without any planning. It’s probably the biggest mistake any author can make. However, a good plan doesn’t have to be a chapter-by-chapter outline or a massive document describing every character and setting. Everyone has their approach towards crafting stories. So, instead of giving you a specific guide on how to plan a novel, we will share with you some of the universal tips that will help you form a solid foundation for your next writing endeavor. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

1. Pick a Planning Method that Works for You

Before jumping into the details of the entire story, we should first talk about the planning approaches available to you. We’ve already mentioned that there isn’t a tried-and-tested way to plan a novel. Practically speaking, the process is specific to the author and the story being told. Some authors tend to type up bullet-point lists, and some prefer drawing mind maps. Some even sketch their characters. Here are some of the methods that you may want to try:

• The Snowflake Method

Imagine a snowflake, starting at the center and then fanning out to all the sides in an intricate fashion. Your planning is going to be similar to this example if you use this method. You start with a simple one-sentence summary of your plot and then branch out to your characters, the setting, and then add other details from there.

The process for this kind of planning is also circular, just like the shape of a snowflake. You may start with character development, switch to world-building, and then turn back to the characters when you are inspired to do so. You should remember that growth in one area can create sparks for the other, and you shouldn’t put yourself under any pressure to plan in order, as you need to do what works best for you.

• The Classic Free-Writing Method

You can never go wrong with free-writing. This method lets you spill out all the thoughts you have about your story and can even help you make connections you have never noticed before. If you are thinking about using this method, you should organize your ideas under the following headings: characters, setting, and plot. That way, you will be able to find and edit details easily, and you won’t be overwhelmed by your notes.

2. Zero in on Your Protagonist

Now, we’re getting to the meat of the planning process. Every single story follows at least one protagonist, so if you want a foolproof start to your plan, kick things off with your main character. However, don’t just think about their names and what they’ll look like, but instead focus on ensuring that your novel has strong character development. You should delve into the core of your main character by doing the following:

• Choose a Goal

A goal is not something that a character has to work toward. Instead, it represents a strong yearning within a character, an object, or desire that motivates the character’s actions. A goal informs a character’s journey and their internal growth. The goal’s presence would be felt in the character’s history and their actions throughout the narrative.

• Outline a Belief System

Once you’ve nailed down your character’s primary goal, temperament, and backstory, you should dig a little deeper into their psyche, which are the parts of your character that may be less obvious on the page. Your protagonist should be a round character with a complex belief system, which may include details about:

  • How they see themselves in contrast to others
  • What they believe to be their rights
  • Whether or not they agree with the reigning values of their society

Not only will this deepen your understanding of your character, but will also impact on your plot. A character’s belief system can also give you some great ideas about which kinds of situations you can construct to increase the stakes throughout your book.

3. Create a Challenge

If one side of the storytelling coin is your character’s biggest goal, then the other is the central conflict, and you need to have both of them in the novel. Only when there’s something to impede the protagonist in their quest can there be the rising stakes that readers so desire and enjoy. This obstacle can be a physical antagonist, a status quo, a disruption in the protagonist’s environment, or all of the above. There are plenty of different types of conflicts you can use, even in conjunction with one another.

However, experts suggest that you choose a central, impactful conflict when you’re planning your novel. Everything that happens in the story should either add or resolve this central conflict.

4. Find a Setting that Suits the Story

As you would expect, the setting of a story varies wildly depending on your genre. The setting is part and parcel with the story concept. But even if your setting isn’t as intertwined with the plot of your novel, you should still put a fair amount of thought into it. So, whether you’re building an elaborate mythical world or basing your narrative in a real location, it’s essential to make sure that this environment helps you tell the story. Not quite sure how you’re going to do that? Here are a couple of suggestions for you.

If you’re choosing from several potential settings, ask yourself which one will most effectively heighten the central conflict. For example, if your character is trying to find themselves, you may want to set the story in a big city full of exciting opportunities. A small, down-to-earth town may pop up as a stark contrast to that, but it probably won’t be ideal as your primary setting.

You should note that though it doesn’t necessarily have to increase the conflict, your setting should never undermine the obstacles in the story. Do not use a setting that would upend the tension or friction driving the narrative. For example, when writing a story in which a character is lost and has to fight for their survival by setting it in a shopping mall with endless supplies.

Sci-fi and fantasy novels feature elaborate worlds with their own rules and conditions. You can invent these rules by researching real-world societies and fictional societies featured in other works. By doing research, you will be able to create more convincing worlds with verisimilitude

You don’t have to visit the place to get to know it, as you can easily use blogs, books, or even Google Street View to construct a convincing image of life in this setting.

5. Decide on an Ending

If you’ve written any kind of story before, you will know that it is pretty easy to start one, but finishing it can seem like a monstrous task. Sometimes you lose direction of where the story’s going, which can be incredibly frustrating for you. However, what you can do is take inspiration from the start of the story and then plan an appropriate ending that takes into account all the major plots.

Reaching a satisfying conclusion to your novel can be a bit daunting, and a lot of writers do end up getting stuck in the process. You should ensure that the central conflict in the story is resolved properly and that all the characters get closure. This will provide readers all the answers in a satisfying way and make for a fantastic ending for your novel.

• Follow a Character Arc

If you can’t figure out how to finish your first draft, allow your main characters to chart their course organically. You must have an idea of where these characters will end up. Let your story conclude with your characters reaching their goals and growing from that experience. For instance, if your character is in a difficult situation, your story should end with them overcoming it and learning something from experience. Your story will be impactful if your characters go through a change that highlights their growth and gives your readers a catharsis.


Planning a novel is not child’s play. It is an extremely complex process and requires several things to fall into place to get to the satisfactory level that you want. There are tons of different ways you can plan a novel from the idea to the first draft, and we have highlighted some of our methods. We hope that this will help you out when you’re starting to write your novel.

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