How to Plan a Novel: The Complete Step-by-Step Guide

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Before you can write a novel you need to know how to plan a novel.

Story Grid has many tools that can help you through the process. Follow along with this post as we walk you through it.

How to Plan a Novel

Writing a novel can be rewarding and a tremendous amount of fun. It can also be a struggle. For me, I like to avoid struggling by planning my novels so I have an anchor to what my goal for the novel is. I actually do this for all the writing I do.

I like to start with the plan instead of an outline since an outline is more of a micro-level detail and it can be challenging to know all the details before you start writing.

Here are the 9 steps to plan your novel:

  1. Brainstorm Things to Write About
  2. Figure Out the Length of Your Novel
  3. Decide on Your Global Genre
  4. Schedule Your Writing Time
  5. Decide on the Tools to Use
  6. Plan the Time and Place to Write
  7. Organize Your Writing Prompts
  8. Write Your Character Studies
  9. Create Public Accountability

Plan > Outline

For me, the plan on how to write a novel is the high-level guide to your detailed level work. For example, if you had a plan to write your novel during NaNoWriMo, then the logistics of writing 1,667 words a day (50,000 words / 30 days) has to be part of your plan — independent of what you write about.

The direction you might take with your novel, especially early on, will be in flux. If your plan accounts for that, then those adjustments will be a lot less disruptive. Plans are also a great way to focus on intent and give you a base in which to launch from.

How to Plan in a Novel

Generally, a high-level plan for your novel will consider the following aspects of the writing process as well as creating a plan of record. More on that later.

#1 Brainstorm Things to Write About

It’s always a good idea to have a list of things to write about. Even if these are not on theme for your novel. Brainstorming a few things will get you thinking about what your novel might be about. One of the best things to write about is a funny or sad part of your life. These life moments make great stories. They also provide some great ideas for characters. 

For one of my novels, I created a character that was a mashup for three real-life people. I took the best of all three and made one super quirky person.

#2 Figure Out the Length of Your Novel

It’s good to have a general target for the number of words that your novel will be. Of course, this estimate might change once you start writing but it’s good to set a baseline for what you need to shoot for.

Novel lengths vary depending on the genre and the author. If you’re just starting out, then I’d suggest between 50,000 words. The sweet spot for a novel, according to Reedsy, is about 80,000 – 90,000 words. This length does depend on genre. Below is a list based on the Reedsy article. Note these are marketing genres and not content genres, which I know can be confusing:

  • Commercial and literary novels: 80,000 – 100,000
  • Science fiction and fantasy: 100,000 – 115,000
  • Young adult: 55,000 – 70,000
  • Middle grade: 20,000 – 55,000
  • Romance: 80,000 – 100,000
  • Mystery: 75,000 – 100,000
  • Thriller: 90,000 – 100,000
  • Memoir: 80,000 – 90,000
  • Western: 45,000 – 75,000

Of course, these are only guidelines and you should follow the muse for what’s best for you.

#3 Decide on Your Global Genre

Far too often, authors have too many great ideas for a novel and then they try to pack it all into one book. The thinking being that if it’s a good story, why does it matter that I have six different stories going on?

Truth be told, it matters a lot to readers that a novel has a specific content genre that it’s being written in. This is different from the marketing genes above. This global genre is an important part of the plan since it will guide you in what scenes are required and what other masterworks in your genre you should study. 

These masterworks are great resources for not only ideas but for inspirational writing prompts to help you when you’re stuck.

#4 Schedule Your Writing Time

If you’re in the NaNoWriMo crowd, then you got 30 days to write your first draft. For others, you might want to take a little longer. Regardless of your length of time, pick a time frame to a first draft. That way, you can plan your novel with nice micro milestones to keep you on track and motivated. 

#5 Decide on the Tools to Use

Before you start to write, setup your writing toolbox. This could be your favorite program like Heminnway or Scrivener. It might even be buying a bunch of notebooks to free write in along with your favorite pens. Once you pick your tools, then set them up ahead of time so that there is little distraction dealing with tools.

The reason it’s important to get your tools right to write is that it removes distractions and excuses. I for one, have wasted hours picking the right font or template to write with because I did not want to write. Removing that form of resistance will help you achieve your writing plan and stay on track.

#6 Plan the Time and Place to Write

Researchers on habits suggest that in order to form a new one, it’s best to consistently perform the habit at a certain place and a certain time. They also recommend adding your new habit to an existing habit. The reasoning is that it’s easier to add something to an existing habit than to start from scratch.

As a writer, we all know what gives us the best changes of writing our novels is minimizing resistance. By being consistent with your writing time and place, you push resistance back into the shadows where it belongs. Better still if you attach your time and place to write to an already established habit like writing after you get home from the gym, you’ll have a better change of doing it.

#7 Organize Your Writing Prompts

When I wrote a novel during NaNoWriMo, I found it helpful to have snippets of beats and scenes in which to riff on. Some of these writing prompts were as simple as a scene type like Talking Over Coffee or Family at a Dinner Table or Boss Makes an Inappropriate Joke. All of these writing prompts I came up with ahead of time because I knew that when I got stuck, I did not want to have to think of them.

One of the reasons I use the Story Grid Framework for my novels and nonfiction, is because it has baked in writing prompts. For example, when you pick a genre in the Story Grid Framework, Obligatory Scenes and Conventions come along for the ride. These baked in writing prompts make it a lot easier to get unstuck. As an example, when I wrote a love story, one of the Obligatory Scenes is that The Lovers Breakup scene. This prompt helped me navigate a tricky transition by adding a breakup scene and then, a little later on, The Lovers Reunite scene — another love story Obligatory Scene. 

#8 Write Your Character Studies

This one may seem a bit cart before the horse but I have found it tremendously valuable to write 150-500 word character studies about the characters in my novels. I know that sometimes you might not know all the characters but if you can write down a character study for the protagonist and the antagonist, you’re off to a good start.

#9 Create Public Accountability

All good plans have a method or metric that publically keeps you accountable to stay on plan. While the “public” part does not need to be a shout from the rooftops, your plan should be shared with others to keep you accountable. Ideally, you’d find an accountability partner that is also embarking on a project, so that both of you can help each other stay engaged and excited.

With the above answered, you can now write your plan of record, which sounds a bit corporate because that’s where I got it from. This short statement of your plan is a great way to solidify your novel writing plan into a tangible form that keeps you accountable and reminds you of your goal.

Before we do that, let’s go over some rules of thumb to help you plan.

Rules of Thumb

Like all rules of thumb, these are based on my experiences and those of my writer and editor friends. Mileage may vary but it’s always better to have some rough ideas as to how to plan your novel so you can complete it. 

Since I’m a Certified Story Grid Editor, I also took a lot of these rules from this post from Shawn: How Many Scenes in a Novel.

  1. 80,000-90,000: Number of words in the average novel.
  2. 250: Number of words on an average page.
  3. 3: Number of acts or parts of a novel. This is based on the classical 3 act play.
  4. 25%: Percent of the novel that’s Act 1 or the Beginning Hook.
  5. 50%: Percent of the novel that’s Act 2 or the Middle Build.
  6. 25%: Percent of the novel that’s Act 3 or the Ending Payoff.
  7. 15: Number of core scenes or beats in a novel.
  8. 1,500: Number of words in the average scene.
  9. 33: Number of scenes in a 50,000 word novel.
  10. 250: Average number of words a person reads a minute.
  11. 200: Average number of pages in a 50,000 word novel.
  12. 1,667: Number of words a day to write a 50,000 novel in 30 days.

I’m sure you’ll find more rules of thumb for your writing. As you do, keep a list of them so that the more plans you create, the better they become.

Plan of Record

Now that you have a good grasp of the answer to the questions above and some general rules of thumb for planning, it’s now time to pull it all together and write a plan of record.

A plan of record is a short paragraph or two that focuses on what you’re going to achieve. It’s like a high level goal narrative that should crisply and cleanly capture how you’re going to achieve writing your novel. Below I have written a couple of examples.

NaNoWriMo Plan of Record

In 30 days, I’m going to write a 50,000 word novel in the Love > Courtship content genre that is based on my first girlfriend in highschool. I’ll need to write 1,667 words a day, which is a little over a scene a day. I’ll have to write a total of 33 scenes with about 8 scenes being in the beginning and end and 16 scenes being in the middle. Before I start writing, I’m going to create five character studies and set up Scrivener with their standard novel template. I’m going to share my progress with the NaNoWriMo community to keep me on track and inspired.

Draft in a Year Plan of Record

My goal is to write a 125,000 word novel in the Action > Labyrinth content genre that is like Ready Player One. I’ll need to write 345 words a day, which is about a scene every 5 days. I’ll have to write 84 scenes with about 21 being in the beginning and end and about 42 in the middle. I’m going to use Google Docs to write so I can easily share my progress with my best friend Jim. Before I begin, I’m going to do ten character studies and outline the beginning hook so I won’t get stuck.

Trilogy Plan of Record

My goal is to write a three novel trilogy. Each novel will be 75,000 words. I want to complete the draft of the first one in six months. That means, I need to write 465 words a day, which is a scene about every 3 days. I’ll have to write 50 scenes with about 12 for the beginning and end as well as 26 for the middle. I’m going to use Hemmingway as my authoring tool (desktop version). Before I begin, I’ll write a high level outline of all three books so that I can build the world in book one. 

Discipline Equals Freedom

Planning can feel like the resistance taking over to prevent you from writing. I know for me, when I’m stuck, I revert to doing mundane tasks like formatting text, messing with my tracking spreadsheet or reading blogs. That does not mean you should neglect planning.

Planning how you’re going to take on the massive undertaking of writing a novel is time well spent because it gives you a sense of the discipline required to get that first draft done. This discipline, surprisingly, will give you the freedom to create the novel you want. The reason being that when you work your plan, you’ll make progress. Incremental progress is the single biggest motivator to finishing a hard, long, and complex task. It’s the daily, little wins that make the daunting task manageable.

I have a plan. Now what?

Now that you have a plan of record on how you will write your novel, it’s time to take the next step and nail down some of the marco parts. The best method I have found and use is the Global Foolscap Method. This method is part of the Story Grid framework to create stories that work. For me, it makes a lot of sense to start macro then to focus on micro. That’s what the Foolscap does. Another method that seems promising, which I have not yet used, is the Beat Sheet from the book Save the Cat Writes a Novel. It’s based on the classic screenwriting book Save the Cat.

What’s interesting about both of these macro-level approaches, is that both the Global Foolscap and the Beat Sheet have 15 core scenes/beats that make up a novel. That’s encouraging since this shows the universal structure of story. So pick something that works for you and get going.

Whatever method you use or find, the important point is that you now have a plan of record in which to monitor your progress, stay motivated, and finish your novel. Good luck! 

I’d love to see some of your plan of records. Feel free to share them in the comments.

If you want to connect with me directly, follow me on Twitter @TheDailyMBA or checkout my blog, thedailymba.com.

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About Jarie Bolander

Jarie is an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. He has over 25 years of experience bringing innovative products to the market, which gives him a unique perspective on the power of storytelling for businesses. He is a Certified Story Grid Editor who uses his editor training to help all tech startups tell better stories. He has published six books with his latest being a Big Idea Nonfiction book called The Entrepreneur Ethos. He is also the host of The Entrepreneur Ethos Podcast which explores the traits, values, beliefs, and skills of all sorts of entrepreneurs. He is currently working on The Story Funnel, which is how to nail your next launch without wasting money, annoying customers, and creeping features.