What to do with a great idea? Let’s sit down and map out a novel. Writing in the dark is a popular way of writing short stories. We get an idea. We pull out the laptop. We write until everything is on the page. As we write, we don’t know where the story will lead and this suspense and feeling of surprise keeps us writing, it builds adrenaline, and keeps us guessing as we finish a story. But there may need to be a different approach when it comes to a 25 chapter novel.
I’m not going to tell anyone how to write. We all have our nuanced approach. But what I’m going to do is share with you how I go about writing my novels. And where novel writing can be different and similar to short story writing. We’ve all gotten to the point where we’ve asked ourselves: How do I write a novel? Do I outline? If so, how do I outline multiple chapters to create an interesting story arch? Do I write in the dark for 80,000 words? If so, will my novel have deadly and boring lulls?
Do a little cross compare with my approach and fill in with your personal style. Make the process your own. That’s one of the important components to any creative approach.
First thing I do: Create a OneNote file. The tabs work great to create space for each individual chapter. I always have a “development” tab, where I create multiple pages for subjects like characters, plot, subplots, story arch, etc. But I create a tab for each chapter so I can brainstorm elements within each chapter. What I need to consider for one chapter is not going to work for another. If there is a clear build up and tension to the novel, then every chapter will need a lot of space to create the nuances.
Example: If the main character is taking a child into custody in the first chapter, then I’ll need space to brainstorm her approach, which will be determined by the other characters confronting her and how she will overcome that confrontation. This is radically different than the second chapter, where the main character might be confronting a whole different situation, like children adjusting to a new foster home.
Also, I like to have all the tools in OneNote. I can draw out the build up as you can see in the image above. I can also write text boxes for each idea I need to address for development. I can also move those boxes around.
So once I have the space established to develop my novel, I then go into writing a “synopsis” of sorts. It’s a line by line breakdown of the novel. It’s not a full synopsis by any sorts but it gives me a quick snapshot of the progression of the main character’s obstacles. Also it gives me an opportunity to consider subplots. In a novel, it’s important to establish subplots that mirror or give us a break from the main story line.
Example: If the main character is a young man who is trying to overthrow his corrupt boss, then the reader will need to take a break from the ugliness transposed between the two. We can see him with his family and his family gives him stress relief as he battles with this boss, but it will simultaneously show the family putting pressure on him to be successful at work. The subplot shows a different side to this young man, and it also adds to the tension while giving the reader an alternate storyline to follow.
So I had to “shear” the screen because the above image is a screenshot from the current novel I’m working on. I don’t want to give away any details in the novel before it reaches fruition. But as you can see in the above image, it shows a “list” of each chapter from chapter one to chapter 25. I’d also like for you to notice the different colors on each line. There are chapter breakdowns in black, red, blue, and purple. The black represents the main plot line, the red is a tightly related subplot (a subplot closely aligned with the main plot), while the blue and purple are subplots that show a seperate but nuanced mirror to the main plot (gives the reader an emotional “break” from the plot while also increasing tension).
You’re probably asking why I go to such lengths to map out my novels. For me the pleasure of writing isn’t only in the initial creation of a piece. I like the practice of “writing in the dark” when it comes to short stories. But when we’re trying to hold someone’s attention for a long period of time, there needs to be numerous components to keep the reader entertained. This is the reason I write. For other people to have as much pleasure reading the novel as I had creating it. When it’s two fold, we as writers get more in return because then we have happy fans who are eager to talk about and share our writing. In order to reach that goal, there is a lot of layers to create.
I enjoy the macro development as much as the micro. As I create the big picture, outlining chapter by chapter how the main character will survive all the obstacles I throw in her way, the concept building can be euphoric. It’s a physical reaction. After I’ve written the first draft and I’m finally ready for the details (the micro), I’m getting adrenaline from witnessing the spirit of the novel come alive in the words. Suddenly, my idea that corruption can be beaten becomes emotionally tangible when the main character throws a fist full of contracts into an evil boss’s face. It all comes together.
There is nothing more exciting than seeing the DNA of a novel build word by word into a complex living system. And it takes hard mental labor to structure a story so perfectly that someone can read your work and suddenly choose to transform their worldview to include people you know and experiences you’ve lived. To make that connection, it’s worth all the time, thought, and energy spent.