How to Plan a Novel That Rocks

Doug Landsborough
March 30, 2022
April 20, 2023

It's not easy to plan a novel. In the eternal battle of pantsers vs. plotters (spoiler, almost all the folks reading this are somewhere in the gray area between the two), the former might spend months planning the perfect book, while the latter will write first, figure out the plot holes later.

For those who are writing their first novel or just want to spend less time working on your characters after the first draft, this article is for you. We are going to look at:

  • Different structures you can use to plan a novel
  • How to come up with great characters and conflicts to fuel your novel
  • Coming up with a great climax and working backwards from it
  • Planning a great setting
  • How to take tips from other books in your genre
  • Goal setting to turn your plan into a first draft

Okay, let’s plan a novel.

Choose a Method to Plan Your Novel

First things first, there is no single right way to plan a novel. There isn’t even a best way to plan a novel, just like most other aspects of writing.

That said, there are a number of methods to make planning a novel not only easier, but more effective at creating a great book. These are called deals with elder gods story structures.

Story structures are, at their core, just ways that modern stories are told. They identify key aspects and events in a story that make a tale work well. There are a bunch of different structures, but we’ve done all the legwork to break them down for you in this article here.

If you hate planning, you can just skim those structures so you have an idea of what key elements, or beats, you should be including. It’s okay, no one is going to take away your title of “pantser” if you give a bit of thought to your story before you start writing.

For the planning aficionados, choose a story structure that resonates with your writing. If you’re starting out on your first book, might I suggest the tried and true Three-Act Structure?

Planning with the Three-Act Structure

Most fiction books these days, at least in Western storytelling, follow the Three-Act Structure or a more specific version of it. That’s because this method of outlining and telling a story is broad enough to accommodate basically anything, but contains the right elements to make it worth reading.

I’m not going to dive too deep into the exact nature of the Three-Act Structure, but you can read all about it here.

For the purposes of outlining, the Three-Act Structure is broken up into… three acts. I’ll wait while you take that potentially surprising idea in. Those three acts each contain three specific story beats—defining or critical moments that ensure your story is satisfying for the reader.

Act One is the Setup. This is where you establish and then shatter the ordinary world of your main character. The beats included in Act One are:

  • Exposition: The introduction to your protagonist and their world.
  • Inciting Incident: An event that sets the whole story into motion, shattering the ordinary world of the protagonist.
  • Plot Point One: When the protagonist decides to embrace the opportunity presented by the inciting incident.

Act Two is the Confrontation. The second act normally takes up about half of your book and continues to raise the stakes for your main character. The three beats included in this act are:

  • Rising Action: A series of scenes that introduces friends and enemies, raises obstacles, and promotes growth in your protagonist.
  • The Midpoint: Something big and bad that makes your protagonist pivot (hello, buzzword from 2020), pushing them towards great danger. Most of the time, your characters fail to overcome this challenge, and that should threaten their goal.
  • Plot Point Two: The biggest challenge yet, which your protagonist fails to overcome. In the fallout, your main character finds new resolve and might change their mind about what their initial goal was in the first place.

Act Three is the Resolution. In this act, everything comes together and, as you might expect, is resolved. The three beats of Act Three are:

  • The Pre-Climax: Despite their growth and new resolve, your protagonist’s bold march towards their goal appears to be failing, and they seem to be losing. Here we see the full power of the antagonist. Every time I write about this, I have to mention this beat is sometimes called the “Dark Night of the Soul” because that’s exactly what I would have called it back when I was in high school.
  • The Climax: The big payoff. This is usually a single scene where we see the protagonist take everything they’ve learned and achieve their bigger goal (vanquishing the villain, toppling the dystopian government, getting into business school, etc.)
  • The Denouement: The falling action that follows the climax. Don’t spend too much time on this beat; a few scenes are generally all you need to establish what life is like after the protagonist has achieved their goal.

Those are the basics of the Three-Act Structure. Understanding them will help you in both planning a novel and writing it, even if you ultimately go with another story structure or don your rebel cap and decree, “I’m not using a story structure!”

For those of you who are extreme plotters (aka the most cultured of writers), I have another method you can use that will help you get to know your stories and characters better than any living, breathing people you happen to know in real life.

Planning a Novel with the Snowflake Method

Pantsers beware, this might give you heart palpitations. The Snowflake Method is a very detailed way to outline and plan a novel. It takes a long time–like, over a month–but leaves you with an outline that virtually ensures you have a near-inhuman understanding of your characters, no plot holes to be found, and a story that is ready to be written pretty dang quickly.

The Snowflake Method takes your one-sentence idea for a story and gets you to expand it, first into multiple sentences, then paragraphs. It also gets you to really get to know your characters, including their flaws, goals, conflicts, and more. Add in entire summaries from the perspective of major characters and a detailed breakdown of every. single. scene. in your story.

It sounds tedious, and for many, it will be way too much. But you’ll struggle to find a more effective and renowned way to plan a novel.If this method of planning sounds right for you, click here to read our complete walkthrough, including how easy it is to use the Snowflake Method in Dabble.

Start with Character and Conflict

Alright, so you’ve figured out the framework you want to use to plan your novel. Next up, you’re going to want to think about your characters.

Characters are the lifeblood of your story. So we’re going to start planning your story with them. Makes sense, right?

Most importantly, you want to focus on your main characters: your protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). You can plan out your other characters–in fact, I insist that you do–but these are the big ones that you have to nail down when you plan a novel.

Planning your characters means more than just surface level details like hair color, height, etc. Yes, those are important, but your characters need more than those details. This is especially true for your main characters.

When planning your characters, what:

  • Is their ultimate goal?
  • Motivates them towards that goal?
  • Are their flaws?
  • Do they want and what do they need?
  • Arc will they experience?

You might also want to conduct a character interview with your protagonist and antagonist. And guess what? We created one that actually helps out that you can read here.

Characters are Driven by Conflict

Once you have a decent idea of who you want your characters to be, it’s time to think about the conflicts they’re going to experience.

Just as characters are the driving force of your story, conflicts are what push characters. In your story, you’ll have a primary conflict–the bigger one that is linked to your larger plot–and smaller conflicts that help promote growth and change in your characters.

There are four types of conflicts you can use to create those that you’ll use in your book.

Person vs. person conflict is just as it sounds. In this type of conflict, your protagonist faces  off against your antagonist, or other characters will be up against each other.

Person vs. self is when the conflict is internal. This includes trying to overcome trauma, wrestling with morals, questioning one’s identity or faith, or rising to meet a challenge.

Person vs. society involves a conflict against a larger power. A character might rebel against a corrupt government, facing off against a cult, or act as a spy.

Person vs. nature conflict pits a human (or a non-human character, if that is what you’re writing about) against the forces of nature. They might use their resourcefulness, determination, or survival skills in the face of a natural disaster or wild animals.

There is a lot of wiggle room in these conflicts to make them suit your needs, but these are the broad categories you’ll be looking at. So think about which conflicts you’ll use for your plot and for each of the character arcs your precious creations will experience.

If you’re up for more info about conflicts, hop on over to our blog on the different types of conflicts, including some that combine more than one type!

Plan Your Novel’s Plot

Okay, so we have the structure we’re going to use, we’ve outlined some amazing characters, and we know the conflicts our characters are going to experience.

But, just as an amazing plot is nothing without strong characters, your characters need an amazing story. Otherwise, your book is going to end up on the top of everyone’s DNF pile.

So, next up, it’s time to figure out your story.

Start With the End

One of the easiest ways to plan a novel is to start at the end. When you were originally dreaming up this amazing tale you’re about to write, odds are you thought about how it ends. You thought about the big battle, the protagonist’s triumph–or defeat!–that will make your future readers tell their friends they must read your book.

Getting to that end can be difficult, though, even for experienced writers. That’s why some writers start with their climax and work backwards to plan a novel.

When planning your novel, it can be helpful to start at the end and work backwards.

Plan a Novel Backwards

Since you already figured out your central conflict, write down how it ends. From there, you can work your way backwards to map the rest of the story. One of the easiest ways to do this is to follow your protagonist’s character arc backwards. You know how they finish their tale, but how do they get there from the content, unadventurous hobbit they were at the beginning?

If you’re following the Three-Act Structure or any other story structure, you can also use the story beats to retrace your steps from the climax all the way back to the exposition. Remember, some beats contain multiple scenes, while others contain just one.

Something else to keep in mind: outline your novel as much or as little as you want to.

You can choose to outline every single scene from the exposition to the denouement of your story, like you would in the Snowflake Method. You can choose to write down one sentence for each story beat so you just have a guiding light to help you in your journey.

The latter is too wild, too adventurous, for me personally, but it is perfectly valid. No matter which route you choose, you’ll find your story will experience some organic growth along the way. Plotters will have less of it, while pantsers can have a lot more of it.

Do what works best for you.

Choose an Interesting Setting

Structure? Check.

Characters and conflict? Double check.

Plot? Mega check.

There are a lot more things you can do to plan a novel, like think about themes, build an entire world or language, create timelines and religions, and more, but the last thing I’d encourage you to do before you start is to choose an interesting setting.

Your setting is where your story takes place. It’s where your awesome characters face their conflicts and experience the plot you’ve created. Setting might not be as critical as character or plot, but it still plays a large role in your story.

When planning your book, make your setting serve your story. It should complement the tone of your writing and be suitable for the conflicts taking place. The heart of a volcano is a strange place for two advertising executives to fall in love.

Think about how your setting can improve your overall story. An isolated forest spanning hundreds of miles is a great setting for something spooky. An undiscovered island is perfect for an action-adventure story. A middle-of-nowhere town with a rundown inn inherited by a city slicker is exactly what you need for a fun romance.

If you’re using a real-world setting or a setting that could feasibly exist in the real world, you might need to do some research as you’re planning. I know that might sound boring, but your readers are savvy and smart; they will catch lazy worldbuilding and happily call you out on it.

Take Tips from your Genre

Lastly, take a gander at your favorite books in the genre you’re writing in. This should be easy, since writers love using reading as an excuse to “research” for their book.

When looking at other books, keep some of these questions in mind:

  • What point of view do they use? Is the book in past or present tense?
  • Can you identify the story beats throughout the narrative?
  • Which archetypes and conflicts work with your genre?
  • What elements of your favorite stories do you want to incorporate into your own style of writing?
  • What didn’t work in your favorite books?

There is nothing wrong with using other works, especially works you love, to inspire your own story. That said, don’t plagiarize other books. Make your story your own and make it awesome.

Start Writing

Some hard truth time: you can’t plan forever. There comes a point where you have to realize you’ve planned your novel to the best of your abilities (or as much as you want to), and now the fun part begins.

Start writing.

Take everything you’ve pulled together to make an awesome story. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing worth doing is, right?

One of the best ways to put your  novel plan into action is to set a deadline, hold yourself accountable, and make writing a regular part of your day. We make that as easy as possible with Dabble’s goal tracking.

With Dabble, you can set a deadline for when you want to finish your first draft and determine how long you want your book to be. You can even mark some days off from writing if you know you won’t be able to write. With all that, Dabble crunches the numbers for you and lets you know how many words you should be aiming for each day and then congratulates you with a tasteful explosion of confetti when you reach that goal.

That feature, along with easy access to Dabble’s Plot Grid and all the other notes you’ve made while planning your novel, is free for you to try with a 14-day free trial of Dabble Premium, no credit card required. So what are you waiting for?

Happy writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.