How to write a novel: don’t lose the plot

Step 2: Award-winning novelist, Lucy Atkins, says let your imagination run wild this month, and don’t get too tied down by thinking of a plot, just yet…


How to write a novel: don't lose the plot

You’ve had a month to explore ideas and characters that interest you, and you should have a few floating about in your head. So what now? You might decide that the answer is: ‘Think of a plot.’ But what if you can’t?

Many a brilliant novel has been crushed at conception by plot paralysis. But you don’t need one yet. I’ve no idea how I came up with the storylines of my novels; they emerged from the subconscious. The trick is working out how to find them.

Let things evolve

Your story will be very important, eventually. But, for now, you don’t need a clear idea where you’re going. One of my novels The Night Visitor, is a multi-layered story involving two character viewpoints, complex backstories and an historical subplot. But I never sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to write about a glamorous history professor/TV presenter and an awkward 60-year-old housekeeper who knows her darkest secret.’ In fact, all I had – for months – was a gut feeling and some burning curiosities.

I had been introduced to a scientist at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and, as he showed me tray after tray of tiny, perfect dung beetles, I knew that one of my main characters would be a beetle expert.

I was also fascinated by a sleep disorder called sleep paralysis, and an unsettling story someone told me at a dinner party about a child and a pair of scissors. I didn’t know where any of this was going, so I wrote some scenes involving a beetle expert. Slowly, her character started to take shape. Then others emerged. After nine months of this, I had two protagonists, settings, and some key scenes: a first draft. It was only then that I began to think about plot: to redraft and rework it.

Of course, not all writers approach plotting like this. If you already know your story, by all means create a chapter-by-chapter outline, and produce a long synopsis. I know novelists who write each scene on index cards, or use spreadsheets, to plan out their story.

It’s all in your head

So, get a notebook and jot down the scenarios, themes or characters in your mind. Write scenes for your characters and see what they do. These don’t have to hang together, but keep going, because you’ll find ways to link them. Trust that your story is already in your head. If you play around, giving your subconscious room to breathe, you’ll begin to find it.

Read the first part of Lucy’s 12-month plan to writing a novel here

Lucy Atkins is running our FREE ‘how to write a novel’ course on every Friday at 1.30pm

Lucy is an award-winning author, journalist, Sunday Times book critic and Costa Prize judge who tutors at Oxford University’s Creative Writing Master’s degree course.  Lucy has written four novels: The Missing One (£7.99), The Other Child (£7.99) and The Night Visitor  (£14.99, all Quercus) and her fourth novel, MAGPIE LANE, a literary thriller in which the daughter of an Oxford College Master goes missing, is just out – to rave reviews. Buy the book here: 


Photograph: iStock

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