Let’s say you’ve confirmed your what-if idea is worth expanding into a whole story. Yay!
This is where most people get stuck after they decide they want to write a novel. They might write a few pages, or even a few chapters, and then stall out. Part of this is waning interest and competing priorities; writing an entire novel is hard and takes a long time, dammit! If you’re not committed, it’s probably not gonna happen.
Another problem—the one I’ll address here—is that many aspiring novelists fail to set the foundation for success at the very beginning. You don’t need to plot out your entire novel in advance, but you do need to have a good starting point, an end in mind, and a general idea of the major story beats. I’ve already written a little bit about this in a previous post, but I’ll expand upon it here…in excruciating detail!
Obviously you don’t have to do it this way—every writer has their own unique process, so in the end do whatever works for you—but if you’re really stuck or clueless, follow these steps to get started:
Here are the details of each step:
* Step 1: Make sure you have a worthwhile what-if idea (see previous post on what-if ideas)
You don’t want to spend a lot of time working on an idea that’s DOA before you’ve even started.
Example: What if Germany made a deal with the Devil to win World War II?
* Step 2: Pick a genre if it’s not obvious (see previous posts on genres)
If you can’t pick a genre, or can’t adhere to the universal tropes of the genre you’ve picked, then I strongly suggest you don’t waste your time writing an entire novel no one will read, or accept that you’re writing for love and don’t expect anyone who’s not your friend or family to read it.
Example: “What if Germany made a deal with the Devil to win World War II?” is a paranormal story, meaning you’ll need to go deep into worldbuilding and provide an explanation of how the deal with the Devil and other supernatural stuff works, at a minimum.
I’ve said this before in previous posts: A story is about someone who wants something, and what they’re willing to go through to get it. Who is the someone in your story—who’s the protagonist? (You can have multiple protagonists—this is common in high fantasy—but the primary focus should be on one person, at least in the beginning) What do they want? What will they go through to get what they want—what’s the main conflict? Don’t go into extreme detail here; you’ll do that in future steps.
Example: In an alternate reality where Germany won World War II, a young and naïve modern-day Nazi officer discovers the truth: the key to Germany’s victory all those years ago was due to a deal Hitler made with the Devil. He decides to undo the deal, but will have to fight through powerful Nazi leadership and demonic forces to succeed.
This step is the toughest and most involved, but the most important. It’ll tell you how your plot should go. Your protagonist’s inner journey should match the external plot. You can have a coherent story without following this rule, but it’ll be much weaker—you’ll have a “Fat Tootsie” scenario that’ll either be terrible or forgettable or both.
Forget about going deep into your protagonist’s backstory, or describing in detail how all the awesome powers work for your self-insert character (please God no). You need to figure out their key traits first: their want, their need, the lie they believe about the world, and the ghost of their past that caused them to believe the lie.
Want is your character’s primary desire. This is something they don’t currently have, something that’s hard for them to get, and something they want more than anything else in the world. It’s usually an internal desire, like love or happiness or belonging, that’s represented by an external goal, like making money or getting promoted or earning someone’s affection. The want is critical because it’s what the protagonist will work toward throughout the entire book. Sometimes the want will change—most notably at the end, when the want becomes fulfilling the need at the culmination of the protagonist’s character arc—but it’s the ultimate driving force of the story.
Example: The modern-day Nazi officer—let’s call him Hans—wants to break the deal with the Devil that Germany made back in World War II.
Many authors stop at the want; this is a critical mistake. The want needs to contrast with the need.
Need is your character’s critical internal flaw. It’s the main character flaw your protagonist must overcome in order for them to get what they want. Their inability to fulfil their need is why they can’t get what they want in the beginning of the story. It should be in direct conflict with the want, because conflict is the engine of a story. For instance, someone who wants to be rich because they think money will make them happy may have a need to accept that money won’t buy them happiness.
Based on the conflict between the want and the need, you can glean the general outline of a plot.
Example: Why does Hans want to break off this deal with the Devil? Does he feel morally obligated to do so? That’s the easy answer, but if it’s as simple as that, then there’s not much difference between his want and his need, and therefore not a good answer; there’s not enough conflict.
Here’s where you begin to use your imagination and set up the foundation for the plot. Let’s say instead that Hans falls in love with a Jewish woman and wants to be with her, but mysterious supernatural forces are keeping them apart. When he stumbles upon the secret of the Devil pact, he realizes he must break the pact in order to be with her.
This focuses our want down to something specific: Hans wants to be with his Jewish girlfriend—he wants love. So what’s keeping him from immediately attaining his goal? Let’s give him a weakness—let’s say that Hans’ critical flaw is that he’s actually scared of conflict. He’s a coward and doesn’t want to rock the boat, let alone upend the entire world order or get on the bad side of the Devil himself. This is understandable—which makes it a great character flaw.
Now we can pinpoint a need: Hans needs to stop being a coward. He won’t get what he wants—love—until he grows a backbone.
The Lie is the incorrect thing your character believes about the world that’s causing the need.
Example: Hans believes sticking your neck out will only get your head chopped off. The system is too big to fight, and all those who try are doomed to fail.
Finally, the ghost is why your character believes the lie. It’s the backstory of how they became the person they are at the beginning of the book.
Example: Hans watched the Nazis brutally murder his family when his parents tried to revolt against the evil regime. He therefore grew up (in an orphanage) keeping his head down, desperately trying to blend in, and constantly afraid that he or someone else he cared for would meet the same fate as his parents if they stepped out of line.
This is basically deciding if you’ll have a happy, unhappy, or bittersweet ending. A happy ending is if the hero gets what they want and what they need at the end (ex. the vast majority of Hollywood movies). An unhappy ending is if they either get what they want but not what they need (ex. The Godfather) or get neither (ex. 1984). A bittersweet ending is if the hero doesn’t get what they want, but they do get what they need (ex. Up).
You can decide to change the ending later, but the tone should be consistent throughout your story. This means if your story is largely upbeat and fun, then an unhappy ending would be jarring and piss off your readers; vice versa for a depressing story with an out-of-nowhere happy ending. The best endings are the ones that make sense, i.e. are tonally consistent with what came before.
Your strengths as a writer and the nature of the material you’re working with matter here, too. For instance, I’m good with humor, and anything involving a deal with the Devil is not gonna be super-serious…but then again, a story that involves Nazis won’t be a laugh riot, either (unless it’s a satire ala The Producers, but that’s not what we’re doing here).
Example: The tone throughout will be dark, but softened with a lot of black humor to keep things from becoming unbearably dark. The ending will be bittersweet; the woman Hans loves will die or leave forever or something, but he’ll save the world anyway—he won’t get what he wants, but he’ll get what he needs.
…Important note here—the plot point of a woman dying so the male lead can grow as a person is a tired and sexist cliché, so if I were to actually write this story, I’d need to avoid that particular outcome. I’m not sure right now what I would do instead, but I’d figure it out later.
Depending on your genre, you might need to do a little, a lot, or none. Fantasy, sci-fi, and paranormal all require a lot of worldbuilding, while the other genres might only require a detailed understanding of people’s relationships to one another—internal worldbuilding, you could say.
Example: …I’m not gonna do this here because it would take forever, since paranormal requires a lot of worldbuilding. Suffice it to say I’d answer the following questions at a minimum, in a little or a lot of detail depending on how important I thought the answers were: What year does this story take place? How exactly did Germany win WWII with the Devil’s help? What are the terms of the deal? How far does Germany’s influence expand? What are world politics like? What happened to the Jews? What happened to Hitler? Is the world aware of the paranormal, or is it a secret? Do other countries have deals with the Devil, too? Are there demons & angels running around? Can you trick the Devil? Kill the Devil? Are there multiple devils? How could the deal ultimately be broken? What happens if/when the deal is broken?
Here’s where you can finally get specific with the details of your main character. For some reason people like to obsess about what their protagonist looks like, but you shouldn’t bother putting a lot of thought into their physical appearance unless it’s important to the story or signals something about their character. For instance, if a woman has scars on her face but spends a lot of time covering them up with makeup, that detail suggests past trauma she’s trying to hide, which is significant. If she has brown hair…whatever. Make a note of it so you don’t forget in case you need to reference it later and move on.
What’s really important is what your main character is doing at the beginning of the story. Where and when is this story taking place? Where exactly is the protagonist physically in the world? Why are they there? Who are the people around them, and who’s important to them? What are their hopes and dreams? What are their hobbies? What’s their average day like?
Example: Hans lives in an alternate reality version of Munich in “modern day” (around 2020), where the Nazi regime controls everything. He’s a low-level clerical worker at the Ministry of Control, a branch of the government charged with investigating and containing strange occurrences throughout the country, like if The X-Files was an entire ministry instead of just Mulder and Scully (…I borrowed this idea from the excellent video game Control…great artists do it all the time!). It’s Hans’ job to simply catalogue strange objects into a database. At work he keeps a low profile and has no ambitions to rise the ranks or do anything else with his life other than survive. He lives in a small apartment and has a roommate (a lifelong friend he met at the orphanage) and a circle of friends he spends a lot of time with (and maybe a drinking problem), but he makes a point of staying out of politics and keeping his head down. He has a violin that he plays sometimes (or maybe a guitar…I dunno, will go with violin for now though it might become too maudlin); it’s the only thing he has left of his family.
He has brown eyes (always sad) and blond hair (always disheveled), is in his mid-20s, on the taller side with a slim build. Attractive, but not a heartthrob.
…This is good enough for now. If I were actually writing this story I’d flesh out Hans’ backstory a little more, but not too much more…the act of writing will fill in a lot of the details.
Now that you know your protagonist’s want, need, lie, and ghost, you can flesh out other people who should logically be in the story (sometimes called a character web). You don’t need to go into extreme detail with these characters, either. They don’t all need separate wants, needs, lies, and ghosts, though this might be the case for the most important ones, like the primary antagonist.
What’s important is how they relate to the protagonist. They help or hinder the protagonist by encouraging them to change or not to change, either implicitly or explicitly.
Example: Hans’ roommate is his best friend and enabler. He likes to party hard, and encourages Hans to maintain the status quo (he’s an ally, but also a hinderance).
Hans’ love interest is a singer who’s also secretly Jewish and working for a resistance group. She’s brave, and encourages Hans to go against the status quo by using his position in the Ministry to help her cause (she’s an ally as well as a benefit).
The main antagonist is a high-ranking Nazi officer with paranormal abilities, who is tasked with keeping the deal with the Devil a secret and eliminating anyone who might threaten the established world order (he or she is an enemy as well as a hinderance).
…Again, if I were actually writing this story I’d expand more on these characters, but this is good enough to get started. The act of writing will fill in a lot of details.
Finally! Fleshing out a plot comes down to filling in the details of how your protagonist gets from their want to their need. The story beats are defined by the conflict between the want and the need, with the protagonist trying to get what they want but running into resistance both internally and externally because they don’t have what they need.
Example: Hans wants love, but he needs to stop being a coward in order to get it. This means he’ll constantly face situations where he’s required to be brave, but will either be only partially successful or fail completely until the end, when he finally succeeds. From this simple description, we can see the broad outlines of a beginning, middle, and end to the story.
Act 1 will go something like this: Establish Hans’ current life and enough of his backstory so we understand why he’s where he is (avoid info-dumping—reveal info as needed, not all at once). We meet his roommate and other friends. Establish Hans’ weakness—he’s a coward—by showing him faced with a few minor obstacles in his life and at work that require some bravery on his part, but he fails to overcome because of his cowardice—this establishes his need & the lie he believes about the world. Also make it clear why he’s a coward; show him playing his violin and thinking about what happened to his parents or whatever (it’s important to make him sympathetic; cowards aren’t sympathetic unless you know why they’re the way they are)—this establishes his ghost.
Build the world through Hans. As we follow a day in the life of Hans, we establish what this alternate reality is like and the rules of the world. We’ll either do a 3rd-person tight POV, or a 1st-person POV, to establish that Hans has a wicked sense of humor—this will give the story some levity, and make Hans likeable (everybody likes a person with a sense of humor). He goes to work, gets ragged on by his terrible boss, goes home and parties with his friends, tries (and fails) not to think about his terrible childhood, etc. At some point we might catch a glimpse of the main antagonist, but right now the antagonist doesn’t care about Hans, so the antagonist isn’t a main part of the story yet.
Inciting incident, i.e. what shocks Hans out of his daily grind: Hans meets and falls in love with a Jewish woman at some point within the first 20% of the story. Maybe they meet when he sees her singing at a club, and they bond over music because he also plays the violin. Eventually he realizes she’s Jewish and living under a false identity. He wants to be with her, but the Nazi regime forbids it and they’ll eventually find out who she is—this establishes the want. There’s also some kind of supernatural force keeping them apart—part of the pact with the Devil—that I’d flesh out later.
Plot Point 1: Sometime soon after, through his job at the Ministry of Control, Hans stumbles upon the Nazi’s big secret, their pact with the Devil (figure out exactly how later). He realizes the pact is why he can’t be with the woman he loves (again – work out the specifics of why later), and he therefore needs to break the deal. However, doing so will require bravery on his part—fulfilling his need. End of Act 1!
Act 2 is a bunch of Hans trying to learn more about the Devil’s deal and put an end to it. Sometimes he succeeds, but mostly he fails due to his cowardice. His girlfriend pushes him forward, while his best friend and the antagonist try to hold him back. Stuff happens in a one-step-forward/two-steps-back sort of way (as in the stakes keep rising, things keep getting harder), until Plot Point 2/Beginning of Act 3 (don’t know what this’ll be yet).
Act 3 is the culmination of everything that’s happened before. Don’t know exactly how it’ll end, but somehow he’ll finally find his courage and break the deal with the Devil, either destroying the Nazi regime in the present day or resetting the timeline back to our own where the Nazis lose WWII (maybe he’ll wipe himself from existence, and that’ll be his big final choice and ultimate act of courage…I’d probably go with that).
Notice that Act 1 is by far the most fleshed out, which makes sense because that’s the whole point of all these steps. Once you know how your story will begin, the rest will flow from there…that’s how I do it, anyway.
And that’s it! You’re ready to start writing! Go nuts!