When planning a work of fiction, we create a road map of events that our characters will experience. We might even toss in some details, as notes, about a specific location or a specific tool the character will use because some specifics are critical to the story.
But, how do you get from a plan to a finished product? Well, you write a bunch of chapters that might or might not be broken into smaller scenes. You work your way along the plan of events and at the end, you have a book. Tada! Right. If it were that easy, everyone would do.
Instead of starting with the book chapters, let’s start at the heart of writing and work our way back to our plan.
The following framework takes a mechanical look at assembling a story versus the artistic aspect of painting a verbal picture. I leave the art part of writing to you.
When I originally started composing this framework post, I found that the topic of the written word was quite lengthy. So, I broke the content out into a post called Written Words. In that post, I provide insights into the following aspects of the written word in both fiction and nonfiction (you can skip over the nonfiction if that isn’t of interest).
- Words have meaning
- To Repeat or Not to Repeat
After reviewing the four aspects from a fictional perspective, return to your character personas and, based on who they are, consider their level of education, their culture, and where they live. What types of words will they use when thinking versus speaking? Once you have that, you need to plan the sentences you will use to show your story.
Sentences are another large topic that got broken out into a post called Sentence Salads in Fiction Writing, where I identify five basic sentence categories for your consideration.
I end with an introduction to assembling sentences into paragraphs, which is the next step on the journey to writing a novel.
Like types of sentences, there are types of paragraphs, such as:
- Scene introduction
- Memory flashback
- Reflection of feelings or emotions
- Location description
- Character action
- A combination of the above.
My sentence salad blog introduces assembling a paragraph and provides tips, but here are a few more to consider.
- Paragraphs in fiction do not have a required number of sentences, which is good because it’s easier to read short paragraphs.
- Paragraphs shouldn’t be used for data dumps. Data should be weaved into the story.
- Dialogue paragraphs should have only one character speaking.
- Don’t use paragraphs to switch between points of view.
The sequencing of paragraphs needs to be considered before we look at scenes. There are two bits of advise, as a reader of hundreds of novels, that I wish to share.
- Don’t write a paragraph, short or otherwise, that explains ahead of time the dialogue that comes in the next paragraph. Just let it happen.
- Don’t add a paragraph that explains what just happened, unless you are drawing a conclusion, formed from several other paragraphs or scenes.
To scene or not to scene. Some authors skip to chapters at this point and that’s fine. Here are two reasons to use scenes within chapters.
- Scenes allow you to change the point of view (i.e., change whose head the reader is in) within a chapter.
- Scenes can jump your characters from one location to another without having to write, for instance, the part where they are driving in a car and nothing important happens.
David Mamet, Pulitzer Prize winner, shares his perspective of a proper scene. I recommend his advise. With that said, I share my own scene usage strategy.
When I was using Scrivener to write The Gifted, I took advantage of the software’s scene organizing feature. Why? Honestly, I didn’t know, at the start of writing this four-book fantasy epic, where the chapter breaks would naturally fall.
I had multiple character sets in multiple locations moving along the same timeline. I wrote the scenes needed for each character set. I tracked their movements through time with a spreadsheet. Then, I shuffled the scenes together such that at the end, my character sets arrive at the same location at the same time. It was do this or write chapters that sent the reader back and forth through time. I felt that would be more confusing.
After I had my story organized into scenes, I sat back and looked for the larger scenes and story milestones. Those were my chapter breaks.
The assembly process continues. Our words have formed sentences. Our sentences have formed paragraphs. Our paragraphs have created scenes that can be grouped into chapters.
While I was learning how to write fiction, I was given many rules by my writing coach. I read many articles on the topics. And, I analyzed the writing strategies used by successful authors. The most common bits of advice I can offer regarding chapters is as follows.
- Start each chapter with an engaging first line, just like you do when writing the first line of your book.
- The chapter should be written as if it was it’s own story with action and conflict and dialogue.
- Ensure your readers know who’s showing the chapter story as chapters are great for point of view shifts.
- Break the chapter into scenes if the chapter story needs a location or character point of view change.
- End each chapter leaving the reader wondering what comes next.
Lastly, chapter labels. Title a chapter or just use a number? As a reader, if I am honest, I don’t pay attention to chapter titles. I fear the title is a spoiler of what’s to come (seen it happen).
With that said there is one reason to title a chapter: point of view shift. George R. R. Martin uses this strategy in his series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I strongly recommend this strategy if you are writing in first person with more than one first person point of view.
A novel is more than its chapters. That’s why creating a plan for a work of fiction requires more than an outline. Notice how we have circled back around to the plan? We had to get here eventually.
While you are selecting words, shaping sentences, forming paragraphs, and deciding on scenes versus chapters, you need to keep your plan in mind.
- Will your words meet the expectations of your plot?
- Do your sentences reflect the nature of your characters?
- Does each scene provide a view of the world without putting a drag on the story flow?
- Will your audience understand the story as it is written?
- Did you venture off your flexible plan but still end up with a great reading experience?
Is this the end? Maybe. Let’s see.
A story can be written in a single sentence or paragraph. It can be a short story or a novella. I place the idea of story at the outer edge of this framework because a story can also be told over a series of books.
My first story was told in four books, before I knew to write each book as a stand alone story – this advise from several author agents. Don’t get me wrong, each book has a beginning, middle, and end, however, you can’t pick up book three and learn what’s happened so far. Assumptions were made.
So, if you are writing in a genre that expects a multibook series, I recommend taking the following steps.
- Create a master plan, where the key milestones are, at a minimum, the climax of each book.
- Create a plan for each book, including events and facts that will be used in the following books.
- Draft start and end content for each book to test your plan.
- Write the first book.
If you are going to sell your book and have never sold a book before, know that author agents only want one book. If it is successful, they will ask for more, so be prepared to finish your story.
I started a story once, thinking it was a multibook series. It’s in a virtual drawer collecting dust at the moment because the book I ended up writing was better than my original plan and now my master plan doesn’t work. I’ll get back to it, but I share this because it might happen to you.
And the opposite could be true. You end up writing a book that shouldn’t have a follow-on. Perhaps you didn’t create a master plan before you started and assumed you could write book two if an agent asked. If you are lucky enough to sell a book, you better have a plan for add-ons.
Can you write a story starting with just words? No. Don’t take me literally. However, you can draft sentences and paragraphs and scenes that fit into your plan, if that helps you get started.
Imagine a big whiteboard on the wall.
- You have your key milestone written across the top.
- Underneath, you tape papers or Post-it notes with short blurbs you envision using, while watching your story grow.
- Eventually, you will be able to connect the blurbs and smooth them into scenes and chapters.
For me, I have a habit of diving in and free-writing, holding the key milestones in my head. I keep this framework in mind as I compose each sentence and shape each paragraph, even if I delete it later. This approach works for me. Of course, I write my novels more than once – often three to four times.
Writing a novel is a process, one you have to create for yourself. I just hope this framework helps you along the way.