Preliminary Documents for Planning a Novel

Preliminary Documents for Planning a NovelPhoto license

Some experienced writers say you shouldn’t have any plan for your novel except the one in your head. This is called seat-of-your-pants writing. “Pantsers” come up with a story idea, sit down, and write until it’s done. If you begin your manuscript writing life with this method, you’ll have several book attempts that fall short on length. With practice, you will learn to imagine a book-length story and the method will work.

If you want your first book to be full length, you need a plan. What are the documents you need to prepare before writing your book?

There are two ways to go with planning documents. The simple method is to have one specific story in mind and that’s the novel you’re going to write. You’ll only need one of each document. The more complex method comes along when you plan to write many novels. In that case, you’ll write many of each planning document.

Story Ideas

A story idea is one or two lines explaining an idea that could become a novel. These are kept together in one file or notebook. The best ideas get turned into synopses.


A synopsis is a few pages explaining the major events of your future novel. Who does what and where? What complications arise? What questions need to be answered? The synopsis is a condensed version of the novel.

Writing a synopsis before you begin gives you a chance to notice any major story problems before you’ve done much work. Once the synopsis is in good shape, it’s time to write a bullet outline.

Bullet Outlines

A bullet outline is a short summary of what happens in each chapter. It’s main purpose is to help you find your way around your novel. For example, the main character goes on a hunting trip to Grampa Tibor’s cabin early in the novel. When they need to return to the cabin later in the novel, you’ll want to find that earlier chapter quickly to make sure the setting is the same.

The ideal bullet outline has only one or two lines for each chapter. The details will go in the full outline.


Outlines cover every important detail that will happen in each chapter. The general rule is that it should be a tenth the length of your target. One trap to avoid here is expanding on points in order to increase the length of the outline. You’ll do enough of that when you write the book. Stick to summarizing what you’re going to write.

Even an outline doesn’t guarantee you’ll finish with a full-length book. How many pages will you write for each page of outline? Many write that one page of outline equals ten pages of story.

I get a higher count of story pages. My 7500 word synopsis seems to be just right for a 100,000 word novel. A ratio of 1 / 13.5.

James Patterson claims a lower story page output. His 50 page synopses produce 400 page novels. Given all the white space from the short chapters, I expect they are the usual 100,000 words long. That would be a 1 / 6 ratio.

Only practice can reveal what ratio will work for you. It is better to err by going long than going short. It’s easy to cut; difficult to add.

Character Bios

Who are the people in your story? They can’t all be versions of you. They can’t all be stereotypes either, but you can use stereotypes to make the minor characters easier. The dumb-dumb. The smelly guy. The beautiful woman who knows it. The tough humorless character. The take-charge woman. The conformist.

Your main characters need back stories to explain how they became who they are. Even if you don’t use the stories in your novel, you need to know so you believe in them. If the dumb guy stereotype becomes a main character, you need to know why he’s dumb. Born rich, never worked for anything, watches TV all day while drinking beer. Why are characters the way they are? What do they want?

What characters want may be the most important question to answer. It’s their motivation.

Character Monologues

A short monologue by a character creates text you can use to get into their head before writing about them. Show how a character is three dimensional. For example, one of the characters in my current novel hates everyone, except when he’s talking to a man who needs medical attention.

Group Descriptions

Who is the leader? What are the members’ roles? How does the group make money? Why does the group exist? What’s their mission statement? What will the group be doing when they’re around and the story is advancing? The story is the central theme you will be writing about, but the group will still be working toward their goals.

Location Sketches

You can write these as you write the story and get the layouts from your novel. By recording the details, you give a consistent picture of places when they are revisited.

Plot Threads

This kind of document is only necessary if you have a lot of plot threads. If there are only a few, you can show the threads using different color text in the outline. If the threads are happening in alternating chapters, you don’t even need to go that far. Leading each chapter outline with the name of the active character will do the trick.

Character Participation Spreadsheet

When you write a story with a lot of characters, a spreadsheet is the easiest way to track who is present in the current chapter. You also don’t want a character to die twice. Given the time it takes to write a novel, you may forget who’s dead and kill them more than once. Your readers will notice a mistake like that. It can take a year to write a book but only a day to read it. You can read the first draft yourself of course and then fix the problem, but why not eliminate that problem early?

A Relationship Map

I don’t use this one. Forgive me if I’m not dead-on with the description. The idea is to put all of the story’s characters on a white board and map out their relationships. Groups are straightforward, but then you have entanglement. Why does one of the good characters care about one of the bad ones? Why does the blackmailer have friends in the police? Why are enemies spending time together? Who is related to who? What are the overlapping groups?

I cover this kind of thing in the character bios and group descriptions. Some writers swear by it. Maybe you will too.

That’s a lot of documentation. Don’t let it intimidate you. An outline is all you need to get started writing. You can create the other files as you go. Did I miss anything?

Preparation can seem like procrastination, but victory favors the prepared.

Article by Ivan Izo.

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