How to Plan a Story

In honor of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), we have an excerpt about how to plan a story from Jack Woodville London’s book, A Novel Approach (To Writing Your First Novel, or Your Best One).

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #440

1) What is the punch line of the story? Write down in one or two sentences where the story ends.

Frodo and Sam toss the ring into the fire. Mordor goes kablooey.

2) Work backward from there long enough to identify which characters or what events resolved the conflict that enables the story to end. Write down in a few sentences a description of them.

Mordor is a hard place to get to, especially if you have the ring and the ring wraiths are looking for you.

3) Word backward from there to identify what had clouded or obscured the resolution to prevent it being apparent to them. 

Sam and Frodo were separated from their band of friends and fellow travelers. They went to Mordor, the others went to Middle Earth. Sam and Frodo were dogged by Gollum and by minions sent out to take the ring from them. The others fought off assaults on their kingdom, dangers from trolls, and sojourns with elves.

At this point, the written sentences will begin to reflect the workings of both the story and the backstory, those parallel events and characters that work alongside the main event, often overshadowing it, and are interesting in their own right. Beginning outlines of this type are simple versions of Martel’s notes of chapters. Continue making these notes until the story has worked its way back to the beginning.

Develop a system for yourself. The number one quality of your outline should be flexibility. For this reason, many writers use simple 3x5 note cards to write down the principle waypoints of the novel. (I tend to use PowerPoint.) Others use separate notebooks, one per chapter. Others use a large blackboard.

The cards (or notebooks or blackboards or slides) can be rearranged, rewritten, and supplemented with more cards until the entire novel is laid out in front of you. Once that is done it is time to see whether you have laid out your story, your conflicts, and shaped them with a story arc. 

Continue the process until you are satisfied that you know who enters and leaves when, how the conflicts unfold, how they are carried along, and how they converge. As your outline takes shape, begin to transfer your research on places, mannerisms, details of known events, and the like from your research folders onto your outlines.

The more time you devote to your blueprint, the more quickly you can build your novel, and with fewer stoppages from lack of supplies, labor, or bad weather. As the carpenters say, “If you measure three times, check it twice, then you only have to hammer it once.”

Reprinted with permission from A Novel Approach (To Writing Your First Book) © 2014 by Jack Woodville London, Vire Press. Cover image courtesy of Vire Press. "How to Plan a Novel" image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.