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Writing a Novel: Planning Your Book from Start to Finish

Updated on January 12, 2013

From Once Upon a Time to The End

Writing a Novel: Planning Your Novel From Start to Finish

Writing a novel from start to finish isn’t an easy feat. It takes time, energy, effort, and a stick-to-it mentality, so if the sole reason you’re going into writing is to be the next J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, or some other big name author, you should probably stop writing and start doing something you really want to do. If stories are buried deep down inside of you and they’re trying to claw themselves into the real world, then you need to give writing a chance. Of course, if you just like writing stories and fiction, that’s just as good. The idea here is that you can’t expect authorship to be your get rich quick scheme.

Writing a novel takes tenacity and because of that it has to be something that you like to do or you’ll just give up. Some people try for years to write their first novel but never ever get to the end.

After you start writing, there will be times when you’ll want to move onto a different story with different characters in a different world. You can do that if you’re beating yourself over the head with your book and not getting any happiness out of it, but don’t let a slip up cause you to go through a continuous road of thirty page false starts where all you have is a bunch of beginnings or parts of a story but no full book. Some of us have already been down that road. Myself included.

If you’re just starting out as an author or if you’ve been writing false starts for years and haven’t been able to finish your novel, below is a method to help you write from all the way to “In the beginning” to “The End”. This method is my method and works for me, but since we’re all different, this method may not work for you or you may have to adjust it to better suit you.

Either way the most important part of starting a novel is to plan it.


If you’re one of those people that can simply come up with everything off the fly, then more power to you, but if you’ve already been down the road of false starts, then if you haven’t tried planning, you may want to start now. Planning can be the most critical step towards reaching the end of your novel. Plus, planning brings clarity and more originality to the story. This is because when you take the time to think about where you’re writing is going you can better see where the story is taking you. You’ll avoid relying on clichés this way, and you’ll also avoid the “so now what?” scenario where you write yourself into something that you can’t write yourself out of. You’ll also avoid jumps in logic and having to edit and rewrite your work a lot after you reach the end.

This is how I plan. For this exercise, I’ll be using a pretend novel idea called Kayla’s Lost Boy. If you want to write the story, feel free, but I’m sure you can come up with an idea just as great.


First, you start with characters. Create character sketches for them. If you don’t have solidly built characters, not many people are going to follow your story. You should have a relatable main character who feels real. How do you make them feel real? You ask question after question to them and write out the answers. Where did you live? Who were your parents? Be personal. What is your greatest fear? What was the most embarrassing moment in your life? The better questions you ask the more you’ll get to know this person. Get in their heads and you’ll have a great character driven story.

Don’t just stop with the main character.

You want all of the characters to feel as if they’re real. A villain that wants to destroy the world but whose only motive to do so is that his mother wasn’t nice to him when growing up creates a very weak and unbelievable character. You want to add depth and breadth to all of the most important characters of a story.

The lover. The mother. The brother. The villain. The friend. Everyone should have a justification to why they do what they do.

Do this and make sure that whatever the main character—in whatever struggle he or she may face—changes in the end. If they don’t, you’ll have a flat character with very little point to the story. If you can do that to all the characters, then you’re an even greater storyteller than you realize.

It’s when the characters come to life that the story does too.

Example Character Sketch for Kayla’s Lost Boy:

To save some time, I’ll just do Kayla.


Q: What does she want out of life?
A: She wants to find acceptance and friendship.

Q: Who is her family?
A: She has a stepmother who hates her and a half sister who can’t stand being in the same room as her.

Q: What is her greatest fear?
A: She’s afraid that she’ll be trapped with her stepmother forever.

Q: Yada…
A: Yada…

As you can see, you can go on and on with these sketches, and you should. You should get to know your characters extremely intimately.

Check out my article about how to develop deep characters for your novel here for a more in depth topic about creating characters.


Think about theme. Why are you writing this story and why are your readers reading it? Is it just because? There has to be something learnable from the story that permeates throughout it. Theme is the interconnecting tie that connects the beginning of your book to the end. It is something that can summarize the moral of the story in one sentence.

Common Themes Include:

  • Good always beats evil but at a price
  • Love conquers all
  • Family is everything

In a way, themes are answers to the hard questions that we have in life. Themes can be simple like those I listed above or they can be even more complex, raising questions in morality and ethics. You can answer questions like:

  • Should assisted suicide be legal?
  • Does turning your back on evil things make you an evil person too?

The more complex and unnerving the question the more unique and powerful your story can be.

Theme Example for Kayla’s Lost Boy:

Don’t let the wicked things of the world destroy the good person inside of you.


Think about where your story takes place. People aren’t just going to be walking into the same four white-walled room over and over again right? Map or draw it out if you have to. Every room is different and every room has a story of its own. Some rooms have pictures with people of the family. Some rooms are covered in gothic art and posters. Some rooms are empty with cobwebs in the corner because no one has been in there for a long time…

Of course, not everything is in rooms. Sometimes, things are outside or in tents or campgrounds, but every place has a story of its own, and you should know what that story is. Setting is important, and you’d do well to know yours.

Setting Sample

Kayla lives in a huge two story house that her late father built right on a precipice of a small cliff whose view takes in the Pacific Ocean. The house is located in Oregon and is hidden to mostly everyone but the few beachgoers she sees. She has no neighbors because of it and is homeschooled by her teacher/nanny Mrs. Price. Because she lives on the beach, she loves the ocean and the hidden caves that are near to her house.


When writing a novel always remember there has to be a major conflict. There also has to be conflict throughout the entire book. In everything that the characters do! This is a must. If you have a scene and there is no conflict and nothing changes, cut it.

Planning your plot from beginning to end gives your brain the opportunity to rationalize how your characters get from start to finish. What is the big thing that changes in the scene that makes the story more whole? How does it affect the characters, especially the main character? How do these characters change because of it?

Before you put pen to paper or start jabbing away at that keyboard, you should always know how you’re going to start and how you’re going to finish. Create an outline by starting with where the story starts and ends then flesh out the middle as much as possible.

Example Plot Outline for Kayla’s Lost Boy:


Kayla finds a mysterious boy lost in an underground cave near the beach. The boy has no memory of where he has come from.


  • Kayla starts to feed the boy but doesn’t take him to her house because her stepmother is her caretaker, and she’s a nasty old woman that despises her stepdaughter.
  • She steals food to try to feed the boy, trying to avoid her stepmother and her half sister.
  • She starts to hide the boy in her closet and give him scraps.
  • Two mysterious men start looking for the boy, and she secretly watches them as they pick up his shoe in the cave.
  • Kayla finds out the men had kidnapped the boy and were holding him for ransom.
  • She finds out the boy’s name is Kenneth.
  • Her half sister finds the boy and tells Kayla’s stepmom.
  • And yada yada…


Kayla returns the boy, Kenneth, to his father who happens to be a powerful senator. In the process, she helps stop the start of a nuclear war.

With an outline similar to the one above, I can figure out where the story is going and write towards that. Knowing what happens from chapter to chapter or in middle scenes helps too also get your brain working at rationalizing scenarios so things seem more believable. It also makes it more likely that you’ll create foreshadowing in your novel, which will make your story stronger and feel more whole.


  • Write because you like to write. Not for any other reason.
  • Write the first sentence of a scene that you really want to write. Don’t write anymore of that scene until you get there in your book. That scene will drive you to write more and more until you get there.
  • If you get stuck, take your characters out of the book and throw them in some crazy scene from their past, like when their mother was murdered or when they first discovered they had the ability to read minds.
  • Write just a little every day. If you write 500 words or one page a day, you’ll have a novel in about half a year. Every little bit counts
  • Always leave the writing knowing what you’re going to write tomorrow. This will give you motivation to write the next page, and it will allow your subconscious to work through tough story points as well.
  • Don’t give up. You’ll get there.


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    • anthonykz profile imageAUTHOR

      Anthony Zullo 

      5 years ago from Lakewood, WA

      Thank you. I suppose, you could focus on planning the conflict first, but it probably just depends on your priorities. I think the biggest killer of stories, after horrendous grammar and spelling, are weak characters. If you build your foundation on them, they'll help you shape the story by making big decisions for you. That way if you kind of have a sense for what they'll do you can see how they would better react to the main problem.

      Also as for your peeve, I concede that living by a beach doesn't necessarily mean that she likes it, but it can be a reason that she loves it. For her character, seeing the beautiful ocean everyday and sitting with her family in the sand on warm summer days... Oh, yes, she definitely fell in love with the ocean. :)

    • Autumn Renee profile image

      Autumn Renee 

      5 years ago from Midwestern US

      Very nice. I'm just looking into planning because I have a million and one starts. I read another article that said to start with the problem/conflict/antagonist when planning.

      I have one peeve (which doesn't matter because your story is hypothetical). You say, "Because she lives on the beach, she loves the ocean and the hidden caves that are near to her house." But living on the beach isn't a reason to love it.


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