The Building Blocks Of Your Novel

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 9: The Building Blocks Of Your Novel


Writers Write creates writing resources. This post is about choosing the building blocks of your novel by breaking your story up into scenes and chapters.

Welcome to week 9 of Anthony Ehlers’s series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week’s post here.

Goal setting

  1. Breaking your novel up into individual scenes or chapters.
  2. Deciding on a timeline for the completion of your first draft.

Breaking it down

You’ll need coffee for this …

This week is all about planning, so it’s time to dust off your left-brain thinking and have a view of the long term.

Last week, we achieved a major ‘Yay!’ moment in our journey. We have a detailed working synopsis. It’s time to break that long document into the individual scenes that will make up the novel.

Think of these scenes as the little Lego blocks that will build your bigger story. You’ll need quite a few of them to make up the finished ‘product’ – into something that looks like a complete story. And they will have to fit each other perfectly.

You can’t write a book from start to finish in one sitting – not unless you have a Superman costume hiding somewhere in your closet. But, as the old saying goes, ‘With patience and saliva, the ant eats the elephant.’  Or you could say with careful planning and copious amounts of caffeine that you can write your book.

What you can do is ‘chunk’ your book up into manageable segments, in either chapters or scenes. I prefer to focus on scenes — because each has a specific goal and an outcome. Each scene moves the story forward.

From the inciting incident onwards, your lead character has to have a big, overarching goal to achieve. For my novel, Jenna and Matt, my main characters, have to overcome and survive the threat of a stalker — to save their relationship and possibly even their lives.  But I’ll need to look at the synopsis to break that goal down into more than a hundred scenes or so, each with a smaller goal. I’ll also have to ‘chart’ the course of the smaller subplots as the story unfolds.

So how do we eat this damn elephant? 

Preparing the elephant buffet

Let’s say you’re going to write a book of about 80 000 words. That’s a lot of ground to cover — so you have to break it up.

You can safely divide this word count up by four. Why four? Because the middle of your book is by far the longest stretch and should be at least two quarters of the narrative. The first quarter would be your beginning — although this could probably be a shorter section because you want to get the story started quicker. And the last quarter would be devoted to your ending. Again, this could be a shorter section.

So, you’d have four sections of roughly 20 000 words each. Is that still a bit daunting? For me, it is. I would go a step further. Take each of those sections and halve them, so that you have two 10 000-word sections for each quarter. You’d have four 10 000-word sections for the middle of the book, which is far more manageable. We’ll look at each of these segments more closely over the next couple of weeks.

I guess the next questions to answer are: How long should a scene be? Well, it could be between 500-1 000 words. And how long should a chapter be? I think it could be between 2 500-3 500 words.

So, you need either 160 500-word scenes or 80 1,000-word scenes. You could also break it up into 32 2,500-word chapters or 22 or 23 3,500-word chapters.

This week you need to work out what length of book, chapter, and scene you’re going to be writing — and here it is a good idea to look at the typical books being published in your chosen genre. How long do you think your novel will be in its final format?  

Cutting up the calendar

Now that you’ve divided up the elephant, you need to schedule your meal times. (OK, I think we’ve stretched the elephant metaphor as far as we can take it, haven’t we?)

You may plan to write two scenes or a chapter a day. If that’s too much, maybe you want to stick to one scene a day — I think 500 words a day is a good average to aim for. Some of us prefer to write every week day and keep our weekends free, others don’t like to ‘put the brakes on’  and would rather keep the momentum — it’s really up to you. I think it would be good to aim for the end of September to complete the first draft.

So, for the month of March, we’re going to take our synopsis and start developing the outlines of each scene or chapter in our novel. These outlines can be as short 20-50 words or as long as 100-150 words, depending on the detail you wish to include.

You can outline in bullet form or just give a quick thumbnail of each section, but you should think about the following: What does the character want in this scene? What is both the external and internal conflict? Where does the scene take place? What or who is going to stop them from achieving their goal? How will the scene end? 

Timelock — 1 month

Use March to outline each scene or chapter in your novel.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Buy a pack of 8×5-inch ruled index or record cards. Write out your scene outlines on the cards. You’ll be able to shuffle the order of the scenes — or add in new ones as you go along.
  2. Watch music videos on YouTube. Often these tell a short little story just in visuals — notice how the director moves us from scene to scene to achieve this.
  3. Try to see your finished book in your mind. See your name on the cover spine in your mind, feel the heft of its pages in your hand. Visualise the cover.
  4. Do a crossword puzzle or Sudoku to engage your left-brain and unleash your inner planner.
  5. Write your big central story goal on a sheet of paper. Stick it up at your desk to remind you what the story is really about.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘No one can write a book. J.K. Rowling can’t. Tom Clancy can’t. All you, I, and those others can do at any one time is write part of a book.’ — Gene Perret

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 10: Your Next Move

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

by Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 8: Untying The Knots
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 7: The Moment of Truth
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 6: Overcoming Your Fear of the Middle