Planning A Heart-Stopping Story
By Holly Lisle
Part VII of the 8-Part BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE Series
Over the last six lessons, you've figured out your theme, and you've
worked out at least one and possibly several subthemes. You've learned
how to use blended scenes, intercuts, and cliffhangers to work both
themes and subthemes into your work. You have great conflict waiting to
happen. What do you do next?
All of our discussion of themes and subthemes comes down to this. It's
time to figure out how your story is going to go.
After more than 17 years of writing novels as my full-time job, I've
tried every method I could find for getting my stories into order
without so overworking them during the outline process that I no longer
wanted to write the book. This is the method I currently use, and am
still refining. It's simple, it's quick, and it's flexible---all three
advantages which make writing more fun, and keep your work fresher for
you. This is going to seem like the strangest imaginable way to get a
passionate, compelling, suspenseful story on the page...but it
completely blows away waiting for your Muse to inspire you in terms of
I am a heavy user of plot cards---3x5 index cards or the software
equivalent--upon which I write one single sentence for each scene. That
sentence outlines the characters and the conflict that will occur in
(Don't understand scenes? The Scene Creation Workshop will help you get
the hang of them. http://www.hollylisle.com/fm/Workshops/scene-workshop.html
To write your novel, you'll need to know:
• How many plot cards/ scenes you'll need for your book,
• Which theme or subtheme (or blend) you'll be dealing with for each
• Which characters will be in each scene,
• Who the POV (Point Of View) character---the person through whose eyes
the story is told---will be.
You'll start with basic arithmetic plus your themes and subthemes to do
this to figure out how many scenes you'll need.
An average first novel in the current market is around 90,000 words long
(if you're writing for the adult, not children's or YA markets).
• So we'll start with 90,000 words as our target length.
For this example, we're going to assume that you have one main theme and
two subthemes that you've decided will each run the complete length of
• Theme: HEROINE sets out to win a writing contest and prove to her
dubious husband that her dream of being a writer is not a waste of time.
• Subtheme #1: HEROINE meets man at work who encourages her writing, and
her pursuit of fulfillment, leading her to consider leaving her current
• Subtheme #2: HUSBAND watches his wife's life change as she pursues her
dreams, and he starts wondering what happened to his own dreams.
Let's further say that you've decided your scenes will average a
thousand words each, so you'll need about ninety of them to get a
full-length novel. (In real life, the math is rarely this easy--mine
scenes generally average 1500 to 1750 words each, but every book and
every scene is different.)
• Target Length of Book ÷ Average Length of Scene = Number Of Scenes
• 90,000 ÷ 1000 = 90 scenes for the book (PLEASE NOTE: This is an
APPROXIMATION. Books are not so cut and dried that you'll end up with
exactly ninety scenes, nor will they each be a thousand words long.)
You want to give a lot of the story over to your main theme. We'll
figure 50% because it's a nice, easy number, but it could just as easily
be 60%. Or 73.8%, if you like to make things complicated. Let's not go
• 50% for the heroine's main story.
Then we'll divvy up the other half of the book between Subtheme #1 and
Subtheme #2. Say you decide that you want the heroine to dump her
husband for the man at work. You'll probably want to give #1 more time
and space than #2. If you want her current relationship to grow stronger
because her pursuit of her own dreams has inspired her husband to pursue
his, then you'll want to put more work into #2. And if you want to keep
the reader in suspense about which way she's going to jump, split them
down the middle.
I think the suspense angle is interesting, so I'm going to give:
• Subtheme #1 25% of the book, and
• Subtheme #2 25% of the book.
Multiply 90 (Total Number Of Scenes) by .5 (50%--the percentage your
main theme gets). You'll get 45.
• 90 x .5 = 45 Main Theme Scenes
Now multiply 90 (Total Number Of Scenes) by 25% (the subtheme
• 90 x .25 = 22.5
You'll get 22.5, which basically means you round up for one subtheme,
and round down for the other one. Or write two short scenes. Or don't
worry about the remainder, because this is just a rough technique to
give you a quick picture of how you're going to break up your story.
I'll give subtheme #1 22 scenes, and subtheme #2 23 scenes, just because
I've decided the husband reawakening his own dreams is a better story
than the dude at work hitting on someone else's wife, and at the end of
the suspense, I'm going to have the heroine stay with her husband.
• 22 Subtheme #1 Scenes
• 23 Subtheme #2 Scenes
Anyway, I now know I'll need 90 3x5 index cards on which to write out
plot cards, and I'll have 45 of them for the heroine's pursuit of her
dreams, 22 for her entanglement with the man from work, and 23 for her
relationship with her husband.
NOTICE that nowhere in here have I addressed POV (Point Of View)---that
is, which scenes are shown through which character's eyes. The theme and
subthemes do not select POV for you. As you write out plot cards, you'll
have to select the best POV based on what is happening in each scene.
Let's do a few now, and I'll show you what I mean.
• Jenna, cleaning the attic on a rainy Saturday afternoon, discovers one
of her journals from her teenage years in which she promised herself
that she'd be a famous novelist by the time she was 25, and something
stirs in her at the sudden, sharp memory of that dream. [POV-Jenna]
• Kevin Hobart hears Jenna talking to a co-worker about her crazy desire
to write a novel, and does a good job of faking casual as he invites her
to a meeting of a writers' group to which he belongs. [POV-Kevin] (Subtheme
• Mac watches Jenna reading through piles of books about writing, taking
notes and writing things down, and tells her she's going to get her
feelings hurt when she does all that work and no one wants what she's
done. [POV could be either Mac or Jenna] (Subtheme #2)
• Jenna meets Kevin at her first meeting, and even though she brought
something she wrote to read, is intimidated by the process and refuses
to read when her turn comes around. [POV could be either Jenna or Kevin]
(Blend of Main Theme and Subtheme #1)
You may not get all 90 scenes when you first start outlining. That's
okay. You may not, in fact, get much beyond the first third of the book.
That's fine, too. You have a plan, and you can build and change things
as you go. The greatest advantage of figuring out and using plot cards
is that when you discover a better direction for your story, you can
toss a 3x5 index card or two, and replace them with better, rather than
tossing several thousand or more already-written words.
I realize it's unnerving to look at the mechanical processes behind
creating edge-of-the-seat fiction. It's more romantic to imagine typing
like a wild thing, writing without a plan, tossing balled-up pages in
the wastebasket from across the room...and dressing all in black, and
drinking espresso in a coffee house while lamenting being blocked, too.
Passion is in what you put on the page, though, not in how artsy you
look while you're doing it.
In the final installment of BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE, "Life,
Passion...Deadline," you'll learn how to hold on to your story and its
heart while working to a deadline.
About the Author
Full-time novelist Holly Lisle has published more than
thirty novels with major publishers. Her next novel, THE
RUBY KEY, (Orchard Books) will be on shelves May 1st. You
can receive her free writing newsletter, Holly Lisle's
Writing Updates at http://hollylisle.com/newsletter.html