So you have the big picture of your novel – a story hook, the main characters, perhaps a few important scenes. But how do you get from this place to a premise that will span a 300 page novel? You’ll need to spend time getting to know your story. There are countless ways to do this, but here is what works for me.
One of the first things I do is set out my characters. I’ll start out by listing what I already know about them. Sometimes, I simply make a decision. At others character qualities come to me fully formed. I hear them talking. I see their abusive father. I feel their core of quiet strength.
I fill the page with everything I can think of – their academic and work background, their family background, their Meyers-Briggs personality type, information about their faith, voice, gifts, weaknesses, appearance, interests and personal goals. I also look for a single key to each character’s story, for example a drifting character who needs their artistic genius recognized or a character who’s living by the rules but needs a more colorful life.
I list all of the scenes that I already have in mind. I call these scenes “kernels,” a term I borrowed from Diana Gabaldon. They’re not fully formed scenes, but I have some vivid images, actions, snatches of dialogue, etc. When I first begin, I may only have a small handful of kernels, but as I get to know my characters and let the story simmer, my list grows.
This is inherent in the premise, but it’s important to add dimension. What causes the conflict? What makes it worse? What is surprising about it? Are there sub-conflicts?
You probably know where the story is going to happen, but adding as much detail as you can will help the story grow. And this means not just describing the place in detail, but how it affects the characters and what role it plays in the story.
This is something I discover as I write, but I like to make a few notes about things like the voice, mood and style I’m aiming for before I begin.
Finally, I write a few scenes. Although I typically write in order, when I’m writing test scenes, I grab the scenes I have the strongest connection to. I’m writing here to get to know the voice, the characters, the style of the story. Sometimes the scene falls flat, and that’s okay. I tend to find that if I come back to that scene a couple of weeks later that it works better than I realized at the time, and with some distance from the writing I can now see what is missing.
Ideally though, the scene takes off. The voice sings. The character walks off the page, sometimes so much so that I go back and redo an entire character sketch. I may change a quiet character into a mouthy one, or even the gender or age of a character. Because characters and events that walk off the page are usually more engaging to write.
At this point, I have a good sense for the breadth of my story premise, and with a little research, I'm now ready to get my story mapped and ready to write.