So… here I am, not long after writing an article about the whole stupid “plotters versus pantsers” debate… writing an article about how to plan (again). I like to plan in advance, and if you think you might too, then this is for you. If you’re a plotter, feel free to read and see what us wacky plotters do. But per the spirit of my previous article – just do what works for you!
You may also have seen my article about how I planned my first book – I recommend reading that, too. It has a much simpler method than I employed for the second novel, so if you aren’t looking for something complex, you might want to start there.
Why didn’t I use the same process, you may ask? For two reasons, really. One, that method was useful for planning a simple story with a few main characters and a single story arc, and this time I wanted something on the grander side of the scale. In short, I knew this method wasn’t helpful in terms of world building. And secondly… because it was the first process I used, one that was very simple for the needs of a beginner, but I knew it wasn’t likely what I needed (personally) to get me where I wanted to go with this new novel.
Where did I start?
At first, I started with some very general notes on Google Docs – genre, a couple of little ideas about where I wanted to take things. As you may be aware, I’m writing a sci-fi novel at the moment, but I didn’t want it to be too epic. If you’ve read Pyramidion, you know I write a fast-paced story, and I wanted this one to feel similar, but follow the story arcs of 3 or 4 main characters. As a result, I didn’t want too many crazy new alien factions and so on getting in the way of the action.
And then? Then I watched a series of lectures by Brandon Sanderson. They are long, and Brandon Sanderson very much teaches his methods, but I found them very useful for working out how to write better characters and better stories. Here’s a link to the first one. There are 11 in total, plus Sanderson has a bunch of other videos on his YouTube channel that you might find interesting.
Anyway, I used a method of his referring to “promises and payoffs” – the story needs to make promises in its subtext. There needs to be a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. And there needs to be progress towards those promises – major progression events that let the player know that the story is moving in a direction. And it all needs to pay off in the end – you need to keep your promises.
This also applies to the characters – they need to have some personal connection to the plot; they need to make their own progression or journey along the way; and something about them needs to change. This could mean they learn something as the plot progresses, or something more grand. But more importantly? They need to be likeable… and that’s the hard part.
Using all of this basic plotting structure, I came up with the skeleton of what my final story will be (and note that I’m still only about 25% into writing the novel, so there’s still a lot that is missing from my plans). using that plot structure, I then decided on who my main characters would be, as well as any other important characters that might influence this storyline. I gave them each their own story and basic background… and then I jumped into the worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding… where to even start?
Ok, I need to preface this section – this is written by someone very new to worldbuilding, and is intended as a reference for others that are also new to worldbuilding. I am not an established builder of worlds. What I say now may embarrass me in years to come, but so be it. We all have to start somewhere.
And considering I’ll still be using Brandon Sanderson’s advice, it’s probably still useful. Again – watch his lectures. You don’t have to follow them word-for-word, but it will absolutely help. Especially if you are new to writing.
Anyway – worldbuilding. Given you need to create a whole new world, it can be quite complex, but the biggest takeaway I had from Sanderson’s lecture was this – if something isn’t going to have any real impact on your story, you don’t need to build it in advance. He suggested making a list – and I’ve copied it below for your reference – and then choosing a few that might matter to your story and working on them.
For my current novel, I only focused on two in the physical realm (races and terrain) and about seven in the cultural, as this is where my story differs most from the “norm” (gender roles, religion, economics, history, social heirarchy, languages. and military). I fleshed some of these out briefly, but others – history, for example – I went into great detail around. The main point – don’t try to do everything or you’ll never finish. Remember: never stop never stopping.
Where to from here?
This was far from the end, of course. Being a sci-fi novel, I had planned my story to play out over multiple planets, so I needed to create some minor worldbuilding for each of them as well, and then I needed to work on what I strangely found to be the most difficult.
Naming characters in a fantasy or sci-fi novel can be hard. I use a few methods – history and meanings of names in various regions, and websites such as Fantasy Name Generators and Behind the Name. These are both quite useful for different reasons and I recommend you check them both out.
Oh, there’s another difficult component of books with multiple characters… timing! How do you plot things that happen in your story and keep track of them? How do you plan the chapter order so that you have the right things happening at the right time – and with the intended effect on the reader?
This took me some time to figure out, and in the end I developed something myself, which actually works really well. Using a spreadsheet, I plot the time in arbitrary units along the columns, and the individual characters along the rows. In each cell, I describe what happens in one or two words (“Introduction” for example or “Conflict”, “Moon”, and so on – words that have meaning to me in context of the story and the character arc, but don’t take up too much space in the table.
It ends up something like this:
And then I plan out my chapters in order of time, but avoiding two chapters with the same character sequentially – C1-1, C2-2, C1-2, C3-3… and so on. I actually map this out below the table in the spreadsheet, with chapter numbers as this helps me visualise things better (and I use the character’s name so it’s less confusing – John1, Jane2, John 2, and so on). It also allowed me to split the story into three parts as I could visualise what happens and when, which makes sense from what happens in the story and helped me break things down further. Very useful for me, but your mileage may vary. (And note the info I’ve put in that example has nothing to do with my current story.)
To be honest, every chapter I write tends to see me adding more notes to my plan – I flesh something out in the story which adds to the worldbuilding, and I feel I need to keep it all together in one place, or I’ll lose it in the story. Or I’ll just think of a great new idea throughout the day. Or I’ll create a cool new character as I write. The worldbuilding doesn’t stop.. probably until the book is done.
Also… much of the middle section of my story is missing – I know where the story goes, and I know some of the set pieces required to get there, but exactly how and when that happens? Still to be confirmed. But that timeline/spreadsheet? That will help immensely.
So there you go! My current method for planning my second novel, which is going to be considerably more complex than my first, but written with the same pacing. In truth, I still think this second novel is quite simple as compared to many sci-fi and fantasy novels that I’ve read, but I definitely need all of this panning in order for it all to make sense. To be honest, I don’t know how others could write something like this without planning ahead. Smarter than me, I guess.
And I’m actually planning on writing a LitRPG at some point, which will be FAR more complex. So… we’ll see how things go with this method, but so far, so good! And if you don’t know what LitRPG is… go look it up. It’s fascinating.
Good luck! I hope this has been useful!