Welcome to my Preptober series on planning and outlining a novel! My plan is to post a blog once or twice a week and develop an outline for a fantasy novel (genre chosen by poll in the last blog – thanks to all who voted!) over the course of the month. I’ll be using this calendar from Writing.com as a starting point, as I’ve used it in the past, but adding a few of my own twists and updates.
No one part of the outlining process is easier than another for me. The beginning is just as hard as the end. In the past, though, I have found that skipping sections or saying “I’ll figure it out later” leads to problems later in the process. Now that I have a system that works, I try to adhere to it as closely as I can.
If you’re following along at home and trying these steps, I encourage you to experiment and find what structure works best for you! There’s no need to post anything here or on the original calendar site; the work is solely for your benefit. Feel free to chat about the challenges and successes you’ve faced on the blog, my Facebook, or Twitter, if you like. I’m always happy to bounce ideas and talk about writing.
Now, let’s get to it! In this blog, I’ll cover Concept, Premise, and Theme.
The first step is the biggest leap. Define the concept of your story.
Concept refers to the central idea that powers your novel, a one-sentence summary sometimes referred to as an elevator pitch. I confess, I usually have a story idea or concept in mind when I start outlining. I rarely start completely from scratch. There are a lot of ways to come up with a concept, from writing prompts to title generators.
In this case I’m going in without a solid idea! My blog readers chose fantasy as a genre for me, and tbh I don’t write a lot of fantasy these days. So I’m going to brainstorm a concept based on what I’ve been loving lately.
Specifically, I’ve been playing a lot of BATTLETECH by Harebrained Scheme. I never played the tabletop or minis games, but I quickly got obsessed with building my stable of mechs and stomping on other mechs with them.
Battlemechs aren’t fantasy, though. I could merge them with something fantastical? Like… mechanical dragons? With wizard pilots!
I really like that idea, but probably because it’s a lot like WIREGIRL. My protagnoist in that novel has a cyber implant that turns her into a virtual reality car. So piloting giant dragon mechs hews a little close to that.
But I like the idea of giant metal dragons. Maybe they’re not piloted – maybe they naturally develop like that? Machine dragons doesn’t sound fantasy, though. They could develop into some more fantastical material though—mithril, or some kind of magical element, or gems.
(Side note: I was 14 when I wrote my first book. It was called “The Gemstone Dragons” and had the hero fighting a series of dragons made of gems, starting with amethyst in the south and moving through the spectrum to ruby in the north. I’m tempted to rewrite that book, but I don’t think I could not make it Steven-Universe-inspired.)
Let’s go back to mithril for a second. I kind of like the idea that ancient dragons develop scales of mithril or other magical metals, maybe rare non-metallic elements too. Maybe it’s the ONLY way to get those metals. So wizards have to hire knights and adventurers to kill dragons and “mine” them for raw magical materials.
Hey, that’s a cool concept! It’s not a story yet, but it’s a good idea.
In a world where dragons turn to rare metal as they age, wizards hire knights to slay dragons and harvest their corpses for valuable reagents.
I’m digging it.
You’ll find a variety of definitions for a novel premise out there, usually some variety of an expanded concept or multi-clause statement. In general, though, you’ll find most premise definitions include
Some definitions link “protagonist” with “goal,” and some conflate “conflict” with “antagonist” or “resistance.” For simplicity’s sake (and because it’s what works for me), I detail each of these three concepts with a short paragraph or two. These are generally stream-of-consciousness that allow me to refine the elements of my outline.
Setting: Well, it’s a fantasy world. One with dragons, magic, and metallurgy I guess. If there’s a high demand for dragon bits as magical reagents, maybe magic is more like alchemy in this setting. Or wizards can get a certain level of ambient magic naturally, but can use rare components to focus/amplify their power. I like that idea. Are there other fantasy beasts? Perhaps, but dragons are the strongest. I don’t know if I want to write a setting where there’s an industry of fantasy animal bits. It’s a little grim, and seems like it could easily become silly.
I guess there will probably be kingdoms, rulers, nobles and peasants, etc. If magic is really powerful, though, maybe wizards are the rulers of kingdoms? Maybe that lends an urgency to their need for dragon bits; it’s for the defense of the realm! Sure, let’s go with that for now.
Protagonist: Since it’s more interesting to write about fighting dragons than it is to write about hiring people to fight dragons, my hero will be a dragon hunter. Not a famous dragon hunter; maybe someone starting off in their career. Or should they be more experienced? There’s something cool about the idea of someone building their career slaughtering dragons, then suddenly learning that was a bad thing to do (wait, was that the plot of Dragonheart?). But I also like the idea of the hero being a beginner, maybe pairing with a beginner wizard, and together they learn that hunting dragons is a horrible thing to do.
(Why? I don’t know yet, but it seems like it would be a bad idea! I want the conflict to be more than “the hero has to fight a dragon and might die.”)
So let’s have a young dragon-slaying hero and a young idealistic wizard who wants to make a name for herself. Or himself. A woman dragon slayer and man wizard? Or both women? TEMPTING. I’m writing a lesbian fighter-and-mage combo for a different project though (which is a weird coincidence now that I think of it, but that book is sci fi and set in the future with no dragons).
I usually write women protagonists, and I want the dragon slayer to be the viewpoint character, so let’s go woman dragon slayer, man wizard for now. (Because they are definitely going to fall in love, I can tell you that right now.)
Conflict: The dragon is a big one. Killing it is going to be tough. But the real conflict, I think, will be the hero figuring out some dark secret about the dragon-hunting industry. Like dragons are peaceful, intelligent creatures, not mindless beasts. Or the attacks on helpless villages were just dragon propaganda (which is like Dragonheart but sideways). That seems like a bit of an obvious reveal, but I like the idea that dragons and humans are fundamentally unable to communicate (either by artifice or by nature).
That reminds me of the Outer Limits episode “Hearts & Minds,” which I’ll try not to spoil (though it came out in 1998, and I think Black Mirror remade it?) What if a curse or some kind of environmental condition makes humans think dragons are mindless ravening beasts and they’re only killing in self defense? Plus they get all these awesome item drops from the dragons! The plot could start with the dragon slayer figuring out that dragons are good individuals and trying to make contact with them… only to find the dragons think humans are mindless ravening beasts and have no interest in talking. Oops. The next part of the plot is the dragon slayer and wizard duo trying to figure out a way to communicate with dragons and potentially end the generations-old conflict.
I admit straight up, I don’t always “get” theme. I was never good at those school assignments where you have to analyze a book and come up with the theme. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
As I’ve developed as a writer, though, as I’ve read more books and consumed more media and appreciated more art, I’ve gotten fond of theme. I find it easier to identify and it often steers me in a good direction during the outlining and writing process.
The calendar I use links to this list of universal themes from San Diego State University. I’m already thinking from what I wrote so far that some form of “it’s bad to pillage the environment” theme is likely to come out. I like to skim this list and pull out anything that seems appropriate. The ones that catch my eye in this case are
- price of progress
- quest for knowledge
I’m going to keep those in mind as I work on the next few sections. In the meantime, “don’t hurt nature because it will hurt you right back” seems awesome and also very timely.
Well, this worked out better than I was expecting. I love what I came up with here. Thanks for suggesting fantasy as a genre, I think this is really going to be fun!
In the next blog, we’ll tackle Exposition, Protagonist, and Antagonist. See you then!