How to plan a new work of fiction – Could one well-crafted line be the only plan you need?

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) when writers around the world set themselves the challenge of writing 50,000 words in one month. It’s a tricky thing to do, but I’ve succeeded three times now. I’ve learned that the more a story is planned the easier this challenge becomes. I also believe using a plan will give a better end result. So in the following weeks, I’m going to outline some tips and tricks for planning new works of fiction.

Could one well-crafted line be the only plan you need?

If you do nothing else to plan your novel try this one simple and effective idea. Start small, and think of one perfect line that sums up your novel and makes it sound interesting. This has to be a line that’s detailed enough to show the heart of your story. This line might reveal what makes the characters compelling, the central action of the story, the conflict, the themes. It probably won’t cover all of this ground (that’s a big ask!) but ideally it shows the strengths of your idea, the aspects that make you and your reader excited to read the finished work.

Define your story in this short form and write it on a post-it note to stick on your laptop, this will ensure you don’t wander off course when you write.

The reason one good line describing a story works as a perfect story plan is because it means a writer will focus on the crucial building blocks of story: character, action, conflict, and theme.

A ‘less is more’ approach keeps a story tightly focused, it also ensures the writer understands the strengths of their story before they begin writing. Take a look at the following three approaches to writing.

Writer A: The instinctive writer. Writer A is writing a novel about six characters in a jungle, two of whom fall in love, there’s a dangerous encounter with a dinosaur, there’s a flashback to an incident with a fatal car crash… Writer A gets to the end of his novel and someone asks what this book is about. This writer spills out lots of exciting incident, it’s an enthusiastic answer full of plot details. The listener nods, a little bemused, but they don’t really understand the story. Writer A doesn’t really know the strengths of his story, and they certainly don’t see that there is a difference between plot (incidents that occur in a narrative, the detail of what happens in a scene) and story (the overarching narrative drive, the big picture of a character getting from A to B.) The book might be a great read, but most likely it’s full of elements that don’t tie together particularly well.

Writer B: Putting premise first. Writer B spends 10 days honing a one or two line description of her work. She has lots of ideas for characters and scenes and plot, but she knows that every element of the story has to serve the overall concept. They decide the story premise is, ‘A love story about two adventurers hunting a long lost dinosaur in the jungle, one wants to save it and one wants to kill it as a trophy; how can two people with very different values get along?’ This short summary of the story will guide the whole novel. Whether the writer does any more planning or not, this one small sentence, if followed, can guide their course when they write.

Looking at just this short line the writer can ensure that all story elements connect to the love/hate relationship between the characters, and the theme of different values. This short premise also suggests the genre of the work is a love story, so the writer knows they need to consider the conventions of that genre. So can you see how useful a carefully worked premise can be?

So, what to do if you have a vague idea but find it hard to define a premise before you write?

Writer C: The willing to put the work in writer. Writer C feels drawn to write a story about a woman struggling with a relationship. They have an idea or two, but they know it’s best not to be set on any one idea, they know they shouldn’t just get going and hope to add conflict and story detail as they go along. Our hard working writer decides to think carefully about one or two lines to describe their novel before they begin to write. They will reject all the story premises that don’t sound compelling – they’re probably not going to be novels worth writing. They will hone their ideas until they have a line that offers character, conflict and action, and, crucially, sounds intriguing too.

Here are Writer C’s first few attempts at writing a novel plan premise.

A teacher is struggling with her relationship as she deals with trying to win promotion. – This story sounds a bit dull and lacking conflict, it’s hard to see how the motivation to do well at work connects to her relationship.

A busy woman struggles to deal with her relationship as she spends her time fighting to save her failing cafe. – This character doesn’t seem sympathetic, she’s just obsessed with work, and there’s conflict due to the failing business, but, again, it doesn’t connect to the character’s goal.

A busy woman struggles to deal with her relationship as she spends her time fighting to save her failing cat cafe. – Just one extra word puts a new spin on this premise, don’t you think? A woman running a cat cafe is much more sympathetic… What happens to the cats if the business fails? Does she care more about the cats than the relationship?Still not perfect, but a little better.

A politician struggles to save her relationship, determined to rebuild it using the one night each week she doesn’t have any meetings.

This premise works well because it tells us about character, and motivation, we get a feel for a career politician who wants it all, and yet we know she also wants someone in her life. It also tells us about story action, we know the novel will centre around the one crucial date night each week. It also suggests the story conflict, surely one night isn’t going to be enough to save this relationship? Will she value her relationship enough to save it? The premise should seek to inspire a question that will be answered in the story’s conclusion. The question here is: Will the career politician save her relationship?

I hope these examples show that a whole novel can be usefully condensed to just one line. If you need two lines that’s ok too!

So why not try to develop a short, focused description of your key story elements? I think this sort of clarity can help to craft a better book. An ability to see your novel clearly and describe it succinctly shows you understand the main drivers of your narrative – strong character, compelling conflict, and a hero who needs or wants something. Readers engage with characters who are imperfect, active, and have clear motivation.

If you want to explore techniques to write a one or two line premise try visiting Story Planner’s ‘log line’ section, there are plenty of template plans to help you write a short premise. Learn more HERE.

Randy Ingermanson developed the Snowflake Method which suggests the starting point of any novel should be one simple premise, and the story should grow from this to 5 sentences describing the key plot points. If you want to try the Snowflake Method we have a plan to write your outline at Story Planner. Explore the Snowflake Method HERE.

Check back in the coming weeks to find more about planning your novel. The first part in our series looked at generating ideas. You’ll find the tips HERE.