As part of my “How to Write a Novel” series, I’m doing my next post on fleshing out your idea. My goal is to break down the steps involved in writing a novel. Now, they won’t apply to everyone and my focus is always going to be on YA, but these steps might be helpful for those of you who are interested in forging ahead with little concept on how to do just that. Here’s some free information to use at your discretion!
Zombies Eat Flesh: Fleshing Out Your Novel
So, you’ve got your idea in your head, those two sentences or so we talked about earlier. We’ve worked out your genre and the general ages of your main character. Where do we go from here?
Well, this is actually the fun part! Here, we start the brainstorming process. We begin fleshing out your idea so that you’ve got a firm grasp of what your story is and where it’s going. It answers the W’s. The who, what, where, when, and why of it all. (Sometimes the how, but we can leave that for later if you want.) In my last post, I used the example of Jill, the special girl who suddenly sees faeries surrounding a dead body in Central Park. We decided she was sixteen and that the genre was YA Urban Fantasy. So where do we go from there?
Anywhere we want!
The brainstorming process is one of the best parts, because it’s where you have the most freedom. You don’t have to be bogged down by things like full sentences and perfect grammar (though you might use them anyway). You can enlist the help of bullet points, venn diagrams, sketches, maps – whatever you want. The point of this portion of novel writing is to get to know your characters and your world. It may be enough Fantasy that you’re not sure where to start, or so mundane that you’re afraid it will be boring. Here’s where we work some of that out.
As I said, this is all about the W’s, so let’s start there.
The Who (and not the band)
Who is your protagonist? You’ll have several main characters, but we should focus on one of them more heavily than the others (even if this isn’t a first person POV). EX. In the Harry Potter books, we get to know a *lot* of characters, but we follow the trio the closest and within them it’s all about Harry. He’s the one we follow, he’s the one we see. So he’s our protagonist, even if Harry, Ron, and Hermione are our main characters.
Jill is our protagonist. We know she’s 16 and in high school – what else? What does she look like? Where does she come from? What sort of personality does she have? Does she have any deep, dark secrets or is she completely ordinary? An example of how to answer some of these questions:
Jill is sixteen and goes to Corn Grove High. She’s a Junior and will be seventeen in the spring. She’s lived in Corn Grove all of her life, but she’s known that she was destined for more than this small town. She spends her time daydreaming and as a result doesn’t have many friends, but that’s okay. She doesn’t need them. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s a changeling, switched at birth for her human counterpart. But that counterpart is back and wants her dead…
So this example does a few things for us. It tells us a little of what she’s like. Small town girl with big dreams. Isn’t overly social, bit of a recluse, maybe a little conceited or self-important? It also tells us some of the things that she doesn’t know, but we as the author should keep in mind. We haven’t covered what she looks like yet, but a quick physical description will fix that:
Only about 5’2” in height, has long wavy brown hair that is dark enough to almost be black. Her eyes are green – until her faerie heritage awakens and her features shift as the imitation spell releases. Then they turn a bright golden color. She has dusty caucasian skin with a smattering of freckles. Her build is willowy.
It doesn’t even have to be that detailed, but you get the idea. Keep this description handy and make a note if you change it (like, suddenly you want brown eyes instead of green – make a note of that). You should have a basic description for most of your characters, that way you won’t get confused and there won’t be inconsistencies later on in the writing process.
The what is a little bit easier if you look at it from a plot standpoint: What’s going on? What is your story about? What’s the main goal? Etc. For our idea, we had Jill discovering that she can see faeries and stumbling over a dead body. So what story are we trying to tell with that?
Let’s break it down further to one basic question: What’s your problem?
At first, the problem seems like it would be the dead body, right? And it might be, but I think the dead body looks more like a hook. It’s there to get the ball rolling. The faeries, however, are our main problem. Because they shouldn’t exist in our world and yet Jill is seeing them. Which leads to potential conflict: Is she going crazy? Are they real? Can anyone else see them? Why can she see them? There’s more than can go with that, but that’s enough for now. It tells us that the faeries actually afford us a bigger problem with the body.
So our problem is the faeries. (Or their being real, something along those lines.) As we’ve discovered in our basic description of Jill, she’s faerie, but hasn’t figured that out yet. So probably our ultimate what is going to be something like this:
Jill finds a body and the faeries. The faeries are floating – but then they’re not. Now, suddenly, they look just like regular kids her age. Except this is a small town and she doesn’t recognize him. But she does recognize the body. “What happened?” They run and she gives chase. But when they disappear in the woods, she’s wondering if she even saw them at all. The police think she’s in shock. Her parents think she’s crazy. And Jill? Jill is wondering if maybe the first thing she saw wasn’t the truth… Now she’s on the hunt to find the faeries – and figure out why she can see them. But also to discover the (subplot) reason they were standing over that body.
You can add more here if you want, or less. Just include the main points of what you want in your plot. You can line them up as such if it helps:
- Jill sees faeries
- Jill is questioned about the body
- People think Jill is going crazy
- Jill sets out to find faeries
- Jill learns more about the dead body
Right now, it doesn’t have to be detailed, but you should have a good idea. (We’re going to do outlining later on in our novel writing process, so don’t worry if you don’t have it all worked out yet.)
We actually already answered this question in our previous exercise when we described Jill. We decided that she was from Corn Grove. But be more specific. Where is Corn Grove? Is it in Iowa? It’s a small town – so is it in the middle of nowhere? When is this? Modern day, ten years ago, fifteen years in the future?
I’m going to make the setting the following:
Corn Grove, Illinois present day (2016). Small town with blackbirds as their mascot. The “Corn” in Corn Grove is for a last name, not the maize.
And like that, we have a very basic setting. We can add in more details like it’s surrounded by woods and edged by a river, or there’s a gorge just a mile out of town or maybe a mine. These details can be important, but you might wait to see more about where your story is going first.
*Note: Originally, I’d set this up in Central Park if you remember. Obviously this has since changed. And you know what? That’s okay. If Corn Grove works better, go with it. If you need to adjust it again afterwards, you can do that, too. Just go with whatever flows right now. It doesn’t have to be set in stone.
So we actually addressed this in the above. We’ve set it in the present day, but if you’re going to have things like flashbacks, you might mention them here, too. Like flashbacks to Jill’s parents – her real and human ones – since she was switched at birth. You don’t need to so long as you know the date the present is set in, but if you want you can include this. Whatever’s helpful for you.
This one, like the what is a little tricky sometimes. The why is about a bunch of different things, but mainly I like to think about it like this: why is this happening to me?
If there’s a serial killer in your story, your why might be “Why is he trying to kill the main character?” Or “Why is he a serial killer?” This shifts what kind of story you have on your hands, so think about this a second before you put it down. (You can shift it later, but this is going to go into your plot, so changing it might be more difficult later depending on how far in you change it.)
For Jill’s story, the why might be:
Why did Jill’s faerie parents exchange her for a human baby? And why does Jill’s human counterpart want her dead? And why is that boy dead?
These three questions address three of our “main” plot points, two in the present and one that is in the past, but affecting the present. Now that we’ve asked these questions, we should consider answering them. You don’t have to have *all* of the answers now, but if you’ve got a good idea of the answers, then go ahead and fill them in. These questions are meant to guide you, but you may not be that far along in your story yet and sometimes that means it’s difficult to *have* an answer. That’s okay, but don’t lose these questions. You want to be answer them eventually.
Here are some possible answers for Jill (not that she’ll know it for a while!):
In the Faerie Realm, human babies are priceless. Their humanity gives life and brings peace to the Realm. But only for a time. Living in the Faerie Realm drains a human of their humanity and eventually turns them evil. When that happens, if a human stays in the Realm, they can bring strife and death. Jill’s parents swapped her out, because the human baby was worth more to them – but the human parents can never know that their baby has been taken. Eventually, the human must be returned before they become completely devoid of humanity. But just as they were swapped at birth, they must be swapped again to return. Rules are rules.
The above example answers two of our why questions. It explains Jill’s baby swap predicament and it also lets us know why Jill’s counterpart wants her dead. Because she’s a) evil without her humanity now and b) because she knows that Jill is her replacement.
These answers can bring up more questions (why did they wait so long to return Jill’s human counterpart? How can they expect Jill to just go with the Faeries?), but that’s fine. Those will help us figure out more of the story, so write them down and we’ll figure out if they’re relevant later!
Notice that we still have one question left over. One that’s not unanswered: What about the body? I can probably scrounge around for something to answer that, but right now, I’m just not sure. So I’m going to leave that hanging in the wings and see if we don’t come up with an answer as we move through our novel writing process. After all, that’s how it goes!
That’s all of our W’s. These will give you a really good idea of what kind of story you’re telling and a bit of an idea of who you’re using to tell it (our lovely Jill). But you don’t have to stop with the W’s. You can use character sheets (you can find oodles of them online for free!) or writing prompts, venn diagrams, doll creators (you know, the online paper doll thing? I know it’s not just me…), anything you might find helpful to keep in mind the W’s and important things about your story. The important thing is to let yourself get creative. You might find out that Jill has a scar on her left hip that’s in the shape of a butterfly. You don’t know why yet, but maybe eventually you will.
So concludes the second round of my How To series! Hope you guys found something helpful in here and tune in next time for No Time Like The Present, focusing on managing your writing time and avoiding the pitfalls of procrastination! If you guys have any comments or questions or think I might be of some help, feel free to comment below!