Outsell James Patterson

10 stages every novel plan needs

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series How to Win at Authoring

You’re starting to see it now.

Following the first lesson in this course, you developed a kick arse idea that was going to change the world.

After lesson two, you created a host of awesome characters (plus an insufferable hero).

Armed with these, you dived into your plan, ready to craft something brilliant and unique.

That was where it all fell apart.

You finished your plot and stared upon it with the same disgust you showed your kids latest ‘work of art’.

“What a pile of shit,” you say, and once that’s in the bin and your kid’s crying, you go back to your plot and say the same thing. You watch amazing characters trample through incredible ideas and none of it works.

This can go no further. If you put this down on paper, you’ll be arrested for crimes against humanity.

But what went wrong?

It’s simple. You made the same mistake as when first trying to create engaging characters.

You thought you could be different.

You thought you could be unique. You thought you could change the world.

Well, I’m here to set you straight, so listen up.

An unnamed caveman wrote the first story way back at the dawn of human history.

We’re talking at least 300 years ago.

Since that first tale, which scored low with critics but sold like fire, there have been no new stories.

No new books.

No new films.

No new nothing.

See, every story is the same. Sure, there are slight variations on age-old tropes. But, as with your characters, it’s the same shit again and again.

And here’s the secret:

True success does not come from breaking free of this mould, but from following it to the letter.

So, grab your idea. Grab your characters. Take hold of your pen (yes you’ll have to let go of that first.) Because today, we’re going to teach you how to plan your book so it’s just the same as everybody else’s.

To do this, I’ll be using both a real-world example and a tale I makeup and plan on the fly.

So, without further ado, let’s get planning with our two novels. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; and Rodney Mullins and the Case of the Glowy Bowling Ball.

10 stages every novel plan needs


You might think your readers want excitement from the first page of your novel.

You would be wrong.

Your reader’s life is boring. So boring they need to escape it by reading stories about made up people who don’t even exist and aren’t real.

But this is about more than reading about someone more interesting than themselves. This is about seeing some ordinary Joe (like themselves) become extraordinary. Because, if it can happen to this utterly not real person in a completely illogical situation, it can happen to them. Right?

I know, but try not to laugh, these idiots are paying your bills, after all.

So, task one is to show the most boring character you can imagine in the most boring and miserable set up you can think of. They’re at rock bottom. It would be impossible for them to get any lower.

Basically, they are your reader.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: Harry Potter is an orphan who lives in a cupboard under the stairs. His guardians – aunt, uncle, cousin – are, to put it bluntly, a massive bunch of pricks.

Besides this he has to wear glasses, his hair is always a mess, and he’s crap at football. All in all, he’s a complete, loser.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Rodney Mullins works at the local bowling alley as ball polisher. He is dorky and wears glasses and, worst of all, he’s a massive Harry Potter fan.

He’s in love with his colleague, Samantha, but she doesn’t know he exists. All in all, he’s a complete loser.


Okay, well done, you’re character’s a stupid loser with no friends or romantic prospects. i.e. super relatable.

No,w something has to happen. Something which will set him on his path from loser with no prospects to loser who has achieved something semi-remarkable.

You’re about to rock your main character’s world.

Not like that.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: Harry receives a letter. He knows this can’t be from the bank because he asked for paperless billing, so it piques his curiosity.

When he tries to open he letter his dickhead uncle takes it away, telling him he will never see its contents.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Rodney is cleaning behind the pins one day when he sees something glowing in the dark. Picking it up he discovers a glowing bowling ball which is unusual if not remarkable.

Then the ball seems to whisper to him and he drops it on his foot, breaking it (the foot, not the ball). As people rush out to find him the ball shrinks and jumps into his pocket.


I haven’t talked about acts, but the first begins with your opening and inciting incident. This is then carried into act two by the first act problem.

Your character struggles to take the step from boring to extraordinary. Either because he is too afraid to do so, or because of some external force. i.e. having only three days to complete a tax return.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: The Dursley’s continue to hide an ever-growing stream of letters from Harry. This despite the fact his acceptance into Hogwarts would get him out of their hair.

Hagrid foils these attempts by hand-delivering the letter. At which point he informs Harry he (Harry) is a wizard. He delivers this message with a straight face.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Rodney recovers in hospital but realises something is wrong as strange skinny men question him.

Rodney lies to them. He tells no one about the bowling ball, keeping hold of it until he is released from the hospital. At this point, it becomes full size once more and makes him feel like a right baller when he picks it up.


The problems of the first act are overcome. Our main character makes a decision that allows him to leap the wall between the mysterious first act and the often slow and boring middle one.

Your character’s choice makes him happy. The happier the better because it will hurt all the more when things get shit in a little bit.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: Harry decides, even if Hagrid is a crazy child molester/ murderer, that’s better than a life with his family. He says “yeah, go on then, sign me up for this wizard shit.

Following this, Harry proceeds to launch a franchise that will gross enough money to end poverty worldwide by visiting some street in London then hanging out in a castle in Scotland for a while. Here he learns some pointless spells, realises he’s sick at flying broomsticks and falls behind in areas such as basic arithmetic and photosynthesis.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Rodney goes to work with newfound balls. He uses his glowing friend to play bowling against some colleagues and wins with ease.

His newfound bowling prowess lands him on the work team and wins him a date with Samantha after she reveals she is super turned on by men who are good at throwing balls at pins and doing that thing where they swing their leg behind them. The only person not happy with Rodney’s new found talent is Mitch. An old enemy who becomes determined to find the source of Rodney’s power.


Everything seems to be going well.

Time to kick your lead in the balls.

The mid-act reversal does what it says on the tin. Something happens to the main character that inverts all expectations. Sending him down a dark path that will lead to the climax.

Make it hurt, but not so bad things can’t get worse. Cause they about to.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: As pre-teens, Harry and Draco are struggling to tell each other how they feel. Despite the fact they both proper fancy each other.

Still, they arrange a time to meet for a ‘dual’ with their ‘wands’ and Harry is able to make it. Unfortunately, Draco has second thoughts, knowing his father would disapprove were he to be caught with his hands on another boys wand. Instead, it is Filch, in good spirits because he got his CRB renewed, who almost catches Harry.

In fleeing Filch Harry discovers a three-headed dog protecting a trap door. This makes him realise something is going on at Hogwarts. It also explains why the school has scored so poorly with Ofsted.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: With his biggest game yet coming up, Samantha agrees to cheer on Rodney. She makes it clear that, if he wins, she will take care of his balls.

Yet, when he arrives he finds someone has stolen his ball. Thus, he loses the game. Humiliated he goes to find Mitch, knowing his enemy must be behind the missing ball. But, when he tracks down Mitch he sees his jealous colleague has had his face smashed in and is dead. The ball is nowhere to be seen.


Now it comes to the point where we get to do to our main character what we’d like to do to our ex-girlfriend – kick them around a bit. Make them hurt. Ensure they understand how you felt when they ripped your heart from your chest and walked out the door without a second glance. The tears. Make them shed the tears that you shed and –

Hang on, I’ve lost the metaphor.

Your character is going to rise like a phoenix in act three, but you can’t rise like a phoenix until you’ve been set on fire.

So, in this section, your main character is going to try and solve the mystery and you, you bastard, are going to pour petrol over them. Then strike the match.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: The arrogance that will come to characterise Harry throughout the series comes to the fore. He begins to investigate the situation with the big dog despite the fact people keep trying to kill him.

Things reach their pinnacle when Harry serves detention in the Forbidden Forest. This being the equivalent of your kids being sent down a mine for misbehaving.

Here he sees Voldemort sucking off a unicorn (hey, come on, none of that) and realises shit’s about to go super south.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Afraid because Mitch is dead, Rodney starts to look into the situation. He finds out the ball is some creature from an alien planet and the men in white suits are like bowling pins. They want to find and destroy the bowling ball then take over the world because that’s an easy plot to come up with at short notice.

Fearing they have the bowling ball he tries to stop them. But things take a turn when they attack and it’s revealed Mitch didn’t have the ball. He works out it was Samantha who took it (bitch!) but, before he can reach her, the bowling pin men take her.


Your character’s been hit. They’ve gone down. Things have never been worse them.

But now, in the most obvious sign yet they are not real people, they are going to get up and go again.


Because you’ve not hit your target word count yet.

In this section, your main character regroups and plans to go at the main baddy. If this was a movie, you’d put the montage here.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: Having realised Voldemort is within a hundred yards of the school, despite being on the sex offenders register, Harry decides it time to do the right thing and tell a teacher what’s happening.

However, Dumbledore has gone away to have his new hearing aid fitted, leaving Harry with only one option.

Get an Uber and get out of dodge.

Only, when he can’t get an Uber, he decides he should probably do something helpful. He plans to go down, and stop Voldemort himself.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Realising if he saves Samantha she’ll feel obliged to have thank you sex with him, even if she knows she won’t enjoy it, Rodney decides to save the day.

So, grabbing a load of bowling balls and putting them in a stolen van, he goes to do so.


This is it. Your hero takes on the main baddy. Goes up against unbeatable odds and does something no one in real life ever gets to do.


Harry practises for his future career as a dentist

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: Harry works his way through the various easily beatable traps set by the teachers and comes up against Quirrell and Lord Voldemort.

Being a knob end, Voldemort demands that Quirrell manhandles Harry, which he tries to do.

Unbeknownst to Quirrell, however, Harry has spread peanut butter all over his body, and Quirrell is allergic.

So, when Quirrell touches Harry, he drops dead.

That, or its to do with the love of his mother or something.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Rodney drives his van into the baddies warehouse and throws bowling balls everywhere. This confuses everyone but has no real effect.

Still, Rodney uses the distraction to free his friendly ball and throws him into the main super hyperpower reactor of the baddies.

The reactor explodes, killing the baddies while Rodney and Samantha escape.


AKA, the bit that goes on too long.

Your character has saved the day. The baddies are defeated. The plot is done. Your reader is no longer interested in anything else that happens.

But you’re going to give it to them anyway.

You wrote the bloody book after all. You’ve earned it.

REAL WORLD EXAMPLE: Dumbledore tells Harry what a stroke of genius the peanut butter trick was. But refuses to review his hiring policies for new teachers stating “he doubts it will be a problem again”.

Harry gets on the train and goes back to his aunt and uncles. His friends worry but he says it’s okay. They don’t know he’s not allowed to use magic, meaning he can employ psychological terrorism on them.

ON THE SPOT EXAMPLE: Rodney and Samantha decide after one average date they should probably get married and be together forever. They put on Eastenders and consummate their love, only missing the first thirty seconds after the opening theme. Rodney tells Sam the adventure has made him more confident and asserts that if she ever tries to leave him, he will kill her. Kill her dead.

They live happily ever after.


You might be thinking “surely the sequel doesn’t count as part of the ten planning stages of a novel?”

And you’re probably right.

But I wanted ten points, didn’t I?


With your plan firmly in hand, we’ll be moving on again.

Next month, we’re going to be looking at how to get through your first draft as fast as possible.

See you then.

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International worst-selling author Mark Ayre has been writing since before he could pick up a pen (somehow). An author of mystery and suspense novels including the James Perry Series of mysteries.

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