Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 6, 2024

4 Planning Strategies to Write a Compelling Novel

by Sandy Vaile

Plan your novel, typewriter with Chapter One

You are in the right place if you are preparing to write a novel and want to set yourself up for success. Whether you're a seasoned writer or taking your first steps into the world of fiction, one truth remains constant: successful storytelling begins long before the first words grace the page.

Beneath the romanticized notion of dreaming up an idea and penning a best seller, lies the reality that the path to a compelling story is paved with careful planning, deliberate choices and meticulous attention to detail.

But, forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.

If you are aware of what to expect from the writing process, you can focus on the exhilaration of creation instead of getting bogged down in uncertainty.

When preparing to write, here are four planning strategies to consider:

  • Solidifying a vague idea into a compelling concept.
  • Understanding the boundaries of the project.
  • Make a realistic plan to write the book.
  • Understanding essential concepts so you don’t fall into common traps.

Vague Idea to Compelling Concept

Picture yourself in a cozy writing nook, bathed in the soft glow of a desk lamp, the faint scent of well-worn books in the air. Your fingers dance across the keyboard to the soothing backdrop of rain tapping against the windowpane. This is the joy of bringing imaginary worlds to life, but there are a few vital questions we need to ask ourselves before diving headfirst into writing.

Sculpting a vague idea into a compelling novel requires digging beneath that first spark of an idea to uncover the underlying themes, conflicts, and characters that lie dormant.

To give all of the shiny ideas swirling through your mind a purpose, it helps to understand the following.

Why you want to tell this story?

Recognising what is driving you to tell a particular story helps clarify what you aim to achieve. Entertainment is rarely the only reason to write a story. Our beliefs and interests shine through the themes we choose to explore. Some authors want to open minds to a new way of thinking, others like to expose social inadequacies, make a statement about corruption or unethical behavior, inspire others, or challenge commonly held assumptions.

Other reasons your "why" is important:

  • When we have something to say about a topic, it influences the decisions we make as we write. Your underlying message can tether everything in the story.
  • Being passionate about topics gets us fired up to keep writing even when the going gets tough.
  • Aligning our story with our values and passions enhances our sense of purpose and satisfaction, making it easier to imbue our unique voice into the book.
  • We write for like-minded readers, so these motivations can help us connect what we want to say to our audience, compelling them to invest time between the pages we create.

Whose story it will be?

In my opinion, it’s vital to determine the focal point of a story. The ONE character whose story you’re telling.

There might be other main characters with imporant roles, their own goals and motivations, but it’s that one character who determines what belongs in the story and what doesn’t. Everything serves to help or hinder their journey towards their goal.

This clarity creates a cohesive plot.

What story are you telling?

There are infinite possibilities for the direction of each idea, so knowing what aspects are important to you will help narrow the direction of the narrative. Without a clear purpose, stories may meander aimlessly, lacking the resonance and depth needed to captivate readers.

Articulate the essence of the story through one or all of these:

  • A story concept states central themes explored in the story. For example, The Three Little Pigs premise might be that foolishness leads to death and wisdom leads to happiness.
  • A dramatic question is a query that centers around the main character’s central conflict, which your story will answer by the end. (Ex: Will Romeo and Juliet ever be together?)
  • A story premise is a high-level paragraph of what the story is about at its core. It highlights details that are unique to this story, including who (main characters), what (conflict), where (location), when (if the era is important), and why (motivation, which also hints at the stakes).

Example: When Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard and the chosen child, he not only has to learn magic but defeat the all-powerful "he who must not be named."

Example from my own work

Below, I take the initial idea for my book Inheriting Fear and create a premise to guide the direction of the story.

  • Idea – A tough, independent woman who rides a motorbike and is in danger from some bad people.
  • Dramatic question - What if a fiercely independent woman had to rely on others to survive?
  • Premise - A reclusive motorbike-riding chef is stalked by an enemy from her past and forced to rely on a cocky detective who thinks she’s his best suspect, to avoid becoming the next victim.

Understand Your Project's Boundaries

Once you've unearthed the essence of your story idea, it's time to breathe life into it by fleshing out its key elements.

If you are a plotter, there are lots of decisions to make and brainstorming to be undertaken before you start writing. (If you are a pantser, most of this gets done in the second draft.)

Things like:

  • Genre: Your genre helps you understand reader expectations and any specific conventions for that genre (e.g. structure, word count, and world-building).
  • Point of View and tense, which can be influenced by genre norms and personal preference.
  • Central character goals. Their external goals and internal desires will motivate them to keep striving for their goal even when it seems impossible to reach.
  • Worldbuilding. This is especially vital if the story is set on a different planet or era, so it’s clear what the physical, magical, psychological, cultural, flora and fauna look like.
  • What rules guide characters, what myths and legends are important to them, what governing and commerce structures are in place?
  • An outline of the plot, though no essential, can provide a foundation upon which to build the narrative. Some authors like to know exactly where their story is going. Others prefer to discover as they write. Many are a blend of the two methods.
  • Knowing the starting point of the story. There are a variety of methods for choosing the opening scene, but the main goal is to immediately hook readers by showing the characters in action.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t stress too much at this point. Revisit this decision after writing the manuscript, because you’ll have a better idea of will draw readers into the story by then.

Make a Plan.

Making a plan to write the book might include the following:

  1. Tools or resources you need
  2. Learning about story craft
  3. Determining how much time you realistically have to dedicate to writing each week around work and family commitments. If you have a deadline in mind, calculate how many words you need to aim for each week.

A good formula for this: Total word count divided by weeks = word count goal per week.

  • 80,000 ÷ 13 weeks (3 months) = 6,150 words per week
  • 80,000 ÷ 25 weeks (6 months) = 3,200 words per week
  • 80,000 ÷ 52 weeks (12 months) = 1,540 words per week

Essential Novel Survival Concepts

Writing a novel is a challenging endeavor that requires dedication, persistence, and resilience. Understanding what to expect and having realistic expectations certainly helps.

1. You are writing a 'first draft' and they are as messy and unruly as a teenager finding their way in the world.
  • You won’t always know what comes next.
  • You may write yourself into dead-ends and spend weeks pondering a particularly gnarly plot problem.
  • It’s all part of the process.

The only goal of a first draft is to get to ‘the end,’ so push through until you have a whole, gloriously imperfect manuscript.

2. Finishing a first draft is only part of the writing process.
  • Revising is likely to take just as long because there will be plenty of problems to solve, research to be done, scenes to be moved or (God forbid) cut, and feedback to seek.
  • Don’t underestimate how long it will take you to do countless rounds of edits.
3. DO NOT give up your day job with the belief that it’s easy to pen a best-seller and you’ll be able to replace your income with one book.
4. Gathering a community of like-minded authors around you can be invaluable when it comes to maintaining momentum.
  • Whether you prefer to join a face-to-face or online group, or have a few author friends to supplement the support of friends and family, having people to bounce around ideas and enthuse about your wonderful characters with, is priceless.
  • Seek out accountability buddies, support groups, critique partners and uplifting communities. And always come back to your purpose for writing this story.

Final Thoughts

Immersing yourself in the purpose, characters, and world of a story provides a solid foundation to craft a compelling novel. Making a realistic plan to write the first draft will enable you to reach for tangible goals that suit your lifestyle. And by understanding key concepts surrounding the process, you can be better prepared to keep the joy or writing alive and make it to the next stage, which is revising.


If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish, never submit or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. Sandy runs a nurturing community for female authors of contemporary fiction, which is packed full of tips, resources and free events to keep you motivated and writing quality books. Join Sandy’s community here.

What strategies do you use to plan your books? Do you just start writing, or do you have other structures you employ before you begin? Are you a "plotter" or a "pantser?" Please share with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Sandy

Sandy Vaile

Sandy Vaile is a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body.

Her romantic suspense is published by Simon & Schuster US, but most of her time is spent supporting female fiction writers to finish contemporary novels traditional publishers can’t resist. She shares her decades of experience with others through fiction coaching, courses and developmental editing.

Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.

Top photo purchased from Depositphotos.

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30 comments on “4 Planning Strategies to Write a Compelling Novel”

  1. It was a pleasure to write this post for the wonderful WITS community.
    (And don't hesitate to ask questions or share your own experiences.)

  2. Enjoyed this article, as I do most of the articles from this source. I had an idea 20 years ago and it sat for 19 years. I am a retired teacher so as I picked up my idea again, I researched and researched how to write a book and even a book on discovering your motivation for writing. I'm writing a 3 book trilogy geared towards teens about choices they all come in contact with and showing them results instead of telling them what to do. I seem to have good instincts and love reading to remind me of things to keep in mind. I'm basically 1/2 way through the 2nd book and find that by following all that I've learned, this is a self gratifying process that means more to me than publication. I just signed up for your Facebook page and am curious as how I may participate and the help I will find with this new venue. Thanks. Barbara

    1. Hi Barbara,

      Good luck with your trilogy. 🙂 I'm glad you're finding the project gratifying, and I'm glad you're here. The WITS community is great--supportive, affirming, and always interesting.

      By the way, I'm a retired teacher too.

      Best wishes, Christine

      1. My past principal is one of my best retired friends. She laughs and the fact that I took myself up as a student!

    2. Hi Barbara
      Yes, WITS is a fantastic source of information.

      Wow, that's fantastic that this book has been in your mind for two decades.
      It really will be gratifying to see this project come to fruition.
      I look forward to following your journey and helping in any way possible.

  3. Sandy, every single one of these strategies, which here you apply to fiction writing, is applicable to my research-based nonfiction WIP. So good to have them all together. Thanks!
    PS: Never have I been under any illusions about my written works bringing riches. I'm keeping my day job!

    1. Hi Anna,
      That is awesome that you can also apply these strategies to your non-fiction project. It's true that a little thought ahead of time can help keep us focused on our project and writing regularly. (Not always an easy thing to do.)

      LOL, you are right to keep your day job. I think many of us dream of a best-seller and movie deal, but in reality those things are few and far between. It's so important to keep the LOVE of writing alive in our hearts.

      Happy writing.

  4. Hi Sandy,

    Thank you for this article. I read it because I am trying to solidify the plot for my next novel while finishing the 5th draft (hopefully the submission draft) of my current WIP, a YA fantasy. The next novel is an (unintended) sequel to the current story, Music of Dragons.

    I had planned for the next story to be about the aunt of Music of Dragons' protagonist, Siobhan, when she was a teenager. She has a great backstory and I had worked out the details of her story while writing Music of Dragons. But a necessary 4th-draft change to the resolution of current novel made clear to me that the next story had to be about Siobhan and the consequences of her actions in the novel's climax. The plot, at the moment is nebulous. Your questions are a helpful guide to developing the details.

    I want to thank you also for making clear that the words-per-day plan only applies to the first draft, and that "countless rounds of edits" will follow. I know that from experience, but I'm dealing with well-meaning family members who do not understand the writing process (especially the process of writing a novel).

    My brother-in-law used an article from a self-publishing company to argue that I should have "finished this thing" within 12 weeks. He insists that I just need to make a words-per-day plan and get the book written already! I tried to explain that revision--especially tightening scenes and cutting the word count--is a difference process, but to no avail. He's never written a novel (or a short story) but feels the article (which never mentions revision) proves I should have completed the novel long ago. I have an MFA in Creative Writing, by the way.

    I don't feel a need to show your article to him. Your reminder just helps me to remind myself that I'm not clueless about writing.

    Thanks again for your article. Best wishes! 🙂

    1. Christine, you owe nothing to your well-meaning and clueless family members, friends, acquaintances, or anyone who asks you about your work. All too easily we warm up to what sounds like genuine interest, only to get caught. Explanations to such intruders only uses up energy that you can better use for your writing. A brief, instant, all-purpose reply (Thanks, but the process doesn't work that way") followed by a change of subject can get you out.

      1. Thanks, Anna,

        I appreciate the affirmation. In response to your comment about having no illusions about your "written works bringing riches," it's spot on that writing books is never going to be a way for most of us to make a living. That said, it brings its own riches--a joy that non-writers will never understand.

        Wiahing you all the best. 🙂

    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Christine.
      It sounds like you have lots of fabulous ideas for stories. I am a new dragon fan (after reading "Fourth Wing").

      "Music of Dragons" sounds like a fabulous story and I love that it is an unintended sequel.
      I'm glad you found the questions helpful.

      Oh yes, I found that personally word count was very demoralising after the first draft because there was a lot of time spent problem solving taking words out and putting more in.

      I had a giggle at your brother-in-law. Let's see him write a book in 12 weeks! A lot of non-writers have no idea that it takes at least as long to edit as it does to write the first draft.

      Stay your own course. You have got this!

    1. Thank you, Candance.
      Sometimes we know these things already, but it's nice to have a little reminder.

      I particularly like to hear the same information in different ways, because I'll often find something new clicks.

      What fabulous story are you whipping up at the moment?

  5. Many great thoughts in this, but the one I'm going to keep on my motivation board is, "focus on the exhilaration of creation instead of getting bogged down in uncertainty." Man...no matter how many novels I've written, I still have a at least a few moments of getting bogged down in every one. Thanks for the reminder, Sally.

    1. Excellent idea, Lynette.
      Sometimes when we are in the thick of problem solving or characters just aren't behaving, it's easy to lose sight of "why" we love writing.

      I've even gone so far as to journal about what it is I feel and love when I start a new story and have a great idea. Then I can refer back to it.

      It's nice for other authors to hear that writers who have written many books still go through cycles of "this is brilliant" and "I a terrible writer and no-one will ever read this". All in a days work for an author.

  6. I'm a bit of a plantser. Part pantser and part plotter. I have goals written down, things that need to happen, characters, etc... but I also write as I go.

    1. Hello, Denise.
      I think most authors are a blend of the two. A bit of planning and a bit of discovering as they go. Some even do different amounts of each depending on the story/genre.

      I'd love to hear about your latest writing project.

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