Solving the Story Maze: 4 Compass Points for Planning Your Novel

image of maze and crumpled paper for Planning your Novel cover image

When you begin planning your novel, there are a million details you could consider. At the start of every idea lies an endless labyrinth of possibilities, of different directions your could take your plot. Some writers prefer to figure out as much of their labyrinth as they possibly can before they even think to put pen to page. They’ll have lists and outlines, binders of research, or character sketches full of backstory. Other writers prefer to figure out the maze as they go. They’ll start off with their grain of an idea and chase down different paths as they write. But whichever method you choose, mapping ahead or exploring as your go, it helps to know a few basic details before you begin.

Here are 4 compass points to keep in mind while planning your novel:

1. The Where: Choosing a Setting

Every story must take place somewhere, and the setting of your story will influence the way you tell your tale. Different story worlds will provide you with boundaries to work in, limiting what action, background elements, or experiences will be believable for your characters. A few things you may want to consider when you’re picking your setting include:

  • Genre Expectations = Your genre may impact what setting will work best for your story, as well as the types of world building you’ll need to focus on most. For example, historical fiction novels will need research on the time period, daily life, technology, and more to accurately portray the world. Fantasy and sci-fi, on the other hand, often require creating your own society, magic systems, and/or landscapes.
  •  Environment & Atmosphere = As you pick your setting, think about what tone your want your story to have and how the environment of your story can contribute to that tone. A secluded cabin will have a very different feel from a bustling city, even before any other elements come into play. The environment will also impact the action, changing the way you would write a car chase for example, whether you’re in the mountains or in the desert. Considering what overall mood and types of action you want can help you decide what setting will be most appropriate.
  • Research = As Nancy Sanders wrote in her recent post “Amazing Hack for Writing the Setting of a Story“, thinking about how much research you want to do and how familiar you already are with a setting can save time in your writing process. The more familiar your are with a setting, the less focus you’ll need to place on your research.

2: The Who: Creating your Characters

As you create your characters, the most important aspect to know is your characters’ core motivations. What do they care about and what do they want? As you figure out their motives and goals, you build an understanding of what drives their actions, helping you create a more believable plot. If their every action stems for a clear desire or aspect of their personality, readers will have an easier time connecting with them and investing in the outcomes.

While we often focus on the main character’s goal, it’s good to also consider the motives of our secondary characters and especially our antagonist. We don’t necessarily need as much detail on these other characters, but we still want our supporting cast to feel like real people (or animals) with full stories of their own. Having a basic understanding of their motivations gives us a taste of that depth.

Other aspects which help us build those motives and goals include a character’s worldview (what they believe about themselves and the world), a character’s personality and abilities (which may impact their views or desires), and a character’s personal arc (whether they change or learn through the course of the story). Even if you don’t know all of these elements at the beginning, asking yourself questions about your character will prompt you to weave details about their core person into the story.

3. The What: Planning your Plot

Planning your novel and the overarching plot can be intimidating. While some authors love the process of outlining their chapters, others find themselves not knowing where the story is going until they get there. In both cases, figuring out where the character will start their journey and where they are trying to go is essential to deciding what your story is about.

As you start to think about the structure of your story, there are a few main aspects you’ll need to decide.

First, you’ll have to determine the core conflict, which is the driving force of your novel. You character wants something or has a problem to solve, but something keeps getting in the way. The obstacles that arise will push the story forward, while also being a catalyst of the character’s development.

Next, you’ll need to decide on your stakes, which are the consequences your hero will face if they don’t solve their problem. The seriousness of the stakes is often heightened by knowing our character’s motivations. For example, if our character’s goal is to win a race, losing the race might not seem like high stakes unless we establish why it matters to the character.

Once you know your conflict and stakes, you can start thinking about some of the key events you want to happen. What is the inciting incident which will set your story in motion? What are a few obstacles you want your character to face? In the end, what will bring the tension of the story to it’s climax?

Finally, you can consider the sub plots of the story. These secondary storylines could follow another character trying to solve the same or a connected problem from another direction. On the other hand, the subplot could follow a second problem the main character is having to solve along with the main conflict.

4: The Why: Determining your Theme

What is the theme or overarching story question that you want your reader to come away with? Why are you writing this story, and what is at the core of the character’s journey? Figuring out your main theme will help you stay focused as you write. With every scene and character action, you can work toward conveying a specific truth or a general idea depending on what you want the reader to find.

Often as Christian writers, our stories will convey elements of our faith, such as the reality of God’s love or the value of life. Kindness, joy, even beauty can become the focal point our stories build on.

Final Thoughts on Planning Your Novel

As you think through these four compass points and start to navigate your novel, remember that your story will shift as you go. No matter how much planning you do, new ideas will crop up, other questions and plot points will be hidden around the corner. Don’t be afraid to jump in and get started, because until you begin traveling the maze, you’ll never discover all the wonder your novel has waiting for you.

What is the hardest part of planning a novel for you?

(For more information on the key elements of a story, check out Dawn Stephen’s recent post “Stories Grow From Key Elements“.)

Karley Conklin

Karley Conklin is a librarian by day, a writer by night, and a bookworm 24/7. On her blog, she discusses literature of all sorts, from poetry to picture books. Her goal is to use the power of stories to remind others of hope and joy in a world that all too often forgets both.

5 thoughts on “Solving the Story Maze: 4 Compass Points for Planning Your Novel

  1. Love these pointers! I think the hardest thing about planning my novel is realizing the time commitment…I’m working on a 4-book series and finished the first book’s first draft, but am feeling daunted by the timeframe of writing the next 3…I sincerely admire writers who can pump out several novels in one year!

    1. There is so much that goes into writing, it’s amazing that some people are able to finish multiple works in a year! I’m always impressed by that too.

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