How to Plan a Book | Writing Out The Story

By Colin Sharpe

August 20, 2020

Hey there, hi there, ho there, hello there. And welcome back to our exceptionally silly series on how to write a book. In this article, we’ll be focusing on how to plan a book. 

Now this article is where we really start to get into the weeds of the book writing process, which is different for each person. You’ll see throughout this guide that I actually don’t focus much on the specifics of how to write, but rather the various problems of planning and motivation and strategy around writing.

Cause when it comes down to it, the words, the events, the ideas… they’re all yours, and whatever system works for you is the best one. 

So we’ll do two things in this article. First, I’ll talk in broad strokes about the two directions to plan a story from. And second, I’ll touch on my personal process, which might be a bit of a jump start to discovering your own process.

The Two Tools As You Plan a Book

For me, the ultimate goal of planning a book is to end up with two things: killer ideas, and an order that connects them together. I call that an ‘enhanced outline’, which is pretty much the least creative way to name it, but they can’t all be gold. 

Now, there are two different angles of attack for coming up with this enhanced outline, and I recommend using both in tandem. 

The first is a piecemeal, scene-based approach, sort of like a band jamming in a studio, or a more traditional ‘raw brainstorming’ session. 

You’re looking strictly at character moments, emotional moments, specific scenes, really granular ideas here. There’s no concern about where the pieces fit together. You’re just drawing from raw creativity and getting those fresh ideas out there to weave together later.

I call this the “bottom-up” approach. 

The second angle of attack is an outline/overview-based approach, sort of like laying out a strategic plan or making a checklist. In this type of approach, you lay out the main plot points that you want to hit. Then you lay out a logical order for them to flow together.

Then, you use those logical points to decide on outlines, then repeat the process. You hit major beats, then progress logically through the story. 

I call this a “top-down” approach.

Both elements, the logic and the raw creativity, combine to create a wonderful story as you plan a book.

Moment and Scene-Based | Writing from the Bottom Up

This type of writing often feels more creative, because it’s more free form, it’s raw, it’s unstructured. You’re right there in the weeds bringing moments and scenes to life, and this kind of planning can seem dang-near god-sent. 

To me, in the early phases, this process can be the most fun, and the most inspiring. I keep a master brainstorming document (literally called Master Brainstorming) and a notepad around me whenever I can. 

Then, any time I have a conversation, listen to a song, see a video, watch a show, or read something that sets those sparks flowing, I immediately hop over and write it down. That’s the raw, creative material, and those moments are exciting! They’re fun! 

This is how I see raw creativity

Sometimes, I’ll even write out a whole interaction, or a scene. They’re just little fragments, but they capture these fragments of magic that we’re all chasing.

You don’t need much for this, just a place to keep down your ideas, and a willingness to stop what you’re doing and note things without feeling silly.

Overview and Outline-Based | Writing from the Top Down

Equal and opposite of bottom-up writing is top-down writing, which focuses on techniques, logical progressions, and outlines. This is like figuring out a puzzle, trying to organize the major moments, character beats, and story points into an order that makes sense and has a natural flow. 

Though it’s not as raw and visceral as coming up with moments and emotional pieces, I actually tend to get lost in the outlines (in a good way) even more than I get lost in the pure creative portions. Because from the top-down, you actually get to plan a book, and see a story coming together into a cohesive whole. 

For this angle of the process, I lay out the major beats, and I try to consider some of the classic elements of structure to provide a framework. 

There’s the traditional three-act structure, there’s the hero’s journey. You can follow some of the techniques like Dan Harmon’s story circle, Brian Sanderson’s outline process

Or you can even draw from familiar material as inspiration. For example, in the very beginning of planning for The Seventh Valkyrie, I used the bones of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s three season structure. 

Obviously, it’s changed quite a bit since then, but having somewhere to grow from was very helpful as I set out to plan a book series.

You Need Both

Like many things, writing a book is a happy medium, and I think the best pieces of literature come from a mix of these strategies. 

A book that’s written exclusively top-down leaves little room for spontaneity. But on the other hand, a book that’s written exclusively bottom-up risks not making any sense, and can lose pacing and organization

That’s why when you plan a book, you should use each as a tool in tandem on your way to creating your enhanced outline. We’re looking for something that has the fresh ideas of bottom-up brainstorming and the organization of top-down perspectives. 

I think of it as working on a project that requires different tools

When you’re feeling sterile or not excited, getting into the specifics on the ground level can really help. When you’re feeling lost or disorganized, looking from the top down can help. They’re both powerful tools when coming together with your plan. 

I use both tools extensively back and forth when I’m coming up with my enhanced outline. The goal is for something with the raw ideas and magic, but also a sense of organization and structure for an overarching story. 

I’ll take a moment to explore how this comes to life in The Seventh Valkyrie.

Case Study on How to Plan a Book: The Seventh Valkyrie

Now, I’m writing a big series, so things are slightly different than for a single volume, but I find that the planning process has much more in common than you might think. And once you’re into the weeds of a single book, the process is the same. So if you want you can skip to the next subsection.

Bonus Tips: When Writing a Series

I started this all with a short story, and a brainstorming sheet of major moments I wanted to have. I ended up taking about 4 months filling out that sheet, which became the cornerstone of my bottom-up efforts. 

After about 4 months, I started to pick the best moments from my brainstorming and tried to organize them with a common set of themes. A common thread as it were. That was my top-down angle.

From there, I arranged them into a three-act plot, loosely based on some favorite trilogies. As I continued to come up ideas (bottom-up), I would try to add them and make them fit with my plot (top-down). 

Eventually, the three books split into five, and later into more pieces for like thirteen total books, but that three-act structure helped start.

Connecting ideas together into a plot, and looking at how to tie them together (top-down) then inspired new moments (bottom-up). Those new moments would then slot into the new outline (top-down) and in turn spark new ideas (bottom-up). 

After a long time, I ended up with four or five different documents of various fidelities touching on the major ideas, outlines, and organization of the series, one which I’ve been refining for the past 8 years or so. 

Some pieces are more firm than others, some allow for some leeway, and some are just notes like “Omg, I want this to fit to Molly Hatchet’s version of Freebird” or “I Need a Hero(?)” 

But overall, it’s basically a series of gates and major events that have to happen within the series to reach the end. Within that series overview, I ended up knowing where I wanted to start each book, finish each book, and the major moments that had to happen within. 

So I’d created an enhanced outline of the series. Now, onto how to plan a book.

Repeating, on a Smaller Scale

Now, with a single book, this is the exact same process, only more compact and hopefully more efficient. 

Within a series, I already had some general outlines for each book, but you can start this from scratch too. 

Use bottom-up thinking to build out your most powerful moments, and top-down thinking to organize them into a structure that makes sense.

For example, I start by laying out the major beats I want to hit for each of the main characters. It’s bottom-up, more creative, and free form. 

Then I start to arrange those moments, which is top-down and more logical. Arranging the major moments sparks new ideas for connections, and sometimes inspires other major moments, in a much more bottom-up process. Then, I fold those into the outline, in a top-down process.

Eventually, I have a big list of emotional points, plot points, conflicts — basically everything that’s gonna happen to them. 

Once I’ve got all of my major beats for the characters, I arrange a general timeline. I like to keep things chronological cause I’m hopping back and forth between characters, so this process is kind of weaving those separate moments into an overall narrative to be paced correctly. Top-down, logical, but made from bottom-up moments. 

To me, the planning process is done when I have a list of bullet points and notes for each chapter that I think captures the events, as well as the emotional, character, and plot purpose of it. 

I stop there though. I used to detail interactions extensively ahead of actually writing, but I found that that was more trouble than it was worth. When you actually put words on a page, things never turn out quite as you planned. 

And that’s wonderful. That’s the magic of writing. 

Here’s an example of my enhanced outline for Chapter 1 of A Fallen Star

Chapter 1 Seventh Valkyrie | Enhanced Outline

Personal Notes: We have to introduce Cyrus’s location and condition (clueless and from Valgardia), get him and Bram to know each other, and then send them off towards Sunsetton

  • Cyrus washes up on shore
    • Add the scene with the watcher in the darkness here. Make sure we’re setting up that Cyrus has some mystical origin, or at least something that’s related to a mystery
  • Cyrus gets discovered
    • Bram’s incredulous, but he’s seen a lot, and Cyrus is definitely nonthreatening. Bram’s a good guy, and funny, so they have good chemistry here, and the banter is mostly good-natured
    • Valgardia is the sticking point here, cause Cyrus is from there, but Bram thinks it’s a myth. Hold on that a little bit, let’s explore what that would be like
  • Bram invites Cyrus to join him
    • Add a touch of danger here that forces the two together. Bram’s a good man, but he’s still reasonable and isn’t super charitable. Maybe the threat of the forest is a good thing to lead into the fact that this world is dangerous

And with that, I feel pretty comfortable starting to write, because I feel like it gives me enough guidance that I can stay on track, but also enough flexibility to have fun and let the writing breathe. 

As I mentioned, in the past I used to go an extra level of granularity on planning and write these really in-depth chapter summaries detailing exactly what happened, but they made the writing feel like work and less fun.

So now I just kinda figure out the major points, details, emotional beats for each chapter and let them rip.

The Final Word

This part is where the creative heavy lifting really starts, and from here on out we’re in the thick of writing your book!

But thinking of it with top-down and bottom-up gives you some tools to solve problems as you plan a book. If you’re lost, just think — do you need some more top-down? Or do you need some more bottom-up? 

This is also a great time to find what gets your creative juices flowing. For me, it’s being active, especially swimming and spending time underwater. For you, I’m sure it’ll be different.

Moving, shifting your environment, watching a good movie, listening to a great album, talking to friends, it can all help. So this process of planning is a good time to figure out what makes your juices flow!

My challenge at the end of this article is to take those ideas you’ve been working on, the ones we discussed in the last article, and practice this process for a few sample chapters. 

You don’t have to do the whole thing, just get used to the balance between bottom-up and top-down writing. 

Introduction and Table of Contents

Part 1 — Should I Write a Book?

Part 2 — Finding Things to Write About

Part 3 — How to Write a Good Book

Part 4 — How to Plan a Book

Final Notes

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Love y’all, and until next time!

Colin Sharpe

About the author

Hey y'all, my name is Colin, and I'm the writer and creator of the Seventh Valkyrie Series. Born in raised in New Orleans, currently on a tour of the world writing wherever I go, and turning it all into stories. Hope y'all like reading them as much as I enjoy writing them!

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