From idea to manuscript in 12 easy steps

Part 1: Develop your idea

Step 1: Decide which genre you want to write in.

How do you know what genre you should write in? Easy, the genre you love to read. This is the genre you are most familiar with, with ready examples to look back on if you need a little help and  most importantly, you should write a story you’d love to read. Walk over to your bookcase (or e-book reader of choice) and pick up the books you have read with the most passion. What genre are they? That’s the one for you.

Step 2: Develop your idea

Next, decide who this crisis will be happening to, pick your protagonist. Once you have picked your victim (don’t kid yourself, we’re going to put him through hell, he is a victim at the mercy of the author), decide on his conflict.

All stories are about some sort of conflict. We joke about setting up a newspaper with only good news, to contrast all the bad news that papers deliver. But let’s face it, it wouldn’t sell. We don’t watch movies where everybody is happy and content for 1,5 hours. We don’t pick up books about protagonists that don’t have any struggle in their life. We love bad news. We love drama. We are hypnotized when we drive by the train crash. Decide what your story crisis is going to be.

Set up at least three crises (each worse than the one before) to test your protagonist with. Keep in mind these crisis criteria:

  • It should be fitting for your chosen genre.
  • It should shake up your protagonist bad enough to force character development.
  • It should grab your imagination.

Now that you have your crises, set up the goal. What  is your protagonist going to do about the problems? Why does he bother trying to resolve them? This is your story goal and it should meet four criteria:

  • Animals (incl people) go towards pleasure and away from pain. This is the ultimate and most absolute goals of any living thing. Your protagonist either goes after something that will give him pleasure, or tries to get away from something that causes pain.
  • There should be terrible consequences if  your protagonist fails.
  • There should be sufficient motivation to endure the trials of crisis for the goal.
  • The odds must be against your protagonist.
Step 3: Fleshing out the protagonist

Characters determine the plot and plot determines character. Decide what role your character is supposed to fulfill (e.g. protagonist/ hero). Define his relationship with other characters. Define his story goal in a few steps.  These are your essentials.

Next you can flesh him out any way you like. Give him a name and a hair color. Give him a phobia or a compulsion, go wild. Make him vivid.

Step 4: The rest of the cast

First, define the opposition. This is the thing or person that stands in the way of your protagonist and his story goal.

Set up the support group for your protagonist. This is his back up. His side-kicks. The people that help him when he runs into trouble and give him the motivation to get back up when he’s down.

Next, choose whether or not your protagonist will have a romantic interest, and if so, who?

The rest of the cast is filled up with minor characters to fulfill things you need done as you go along.

Part 2: Plan and plot your story

The classic structure is the three act structure:

Beginning Middle Ending
25% 50% 25%

Another classic structure is the Hero’s Journey, which takes a protagonist into a brave new world, through the unavoidable developments that occur when finding yourself in an entirely new situation and bring him safely home again.

Form the action section

The action section is a unit of story where the (section) character must try to achieve a (section) goal that will help to overcome an obstacle and get him closer to the story-goal. There is usually also an opposing (section) character in this unit, that works against him.

Failure comes in three flavors:

  • Not achieving the section goal.
  • Not achieving the goal but also making things worse.
  • Achieves the goal but finds out there is much worse obstacles
Action Section Chart
Action Section #:
Section character:
Failure (unless opposition):
New goal OR reaction chart:

The reaction

Here the (section) character reacts to the failure from the preceding action section. The reaction goes in phases: emotional (anger, insult, frustrated, etc) –> rational (analyze, new action). When finished, he will set a new goal and another action section follows naturally.

Step 6: weaving together story-lines


  • your protagonist & the main story line
  • your protagonist & the subplot
    • e.g. personal goals separate from the story-problem
    • e.g. romantic relations
  • storyline for each viewpoint character used

Subplot shows that life is complicated and people do not chase dreams in a vacuum. Plot-lines from other (not-protagonist) shows ways in which the lead may not perceive the world or situation objectively or realistically. The second important function of a subplot-line is showing information the protagonist can’t have access to, thus giving a superior position to the reader.

Six subplot-line guideline rules:

  1. Your protagonist has more sections than any other viewpoint character.
  2. Rotate plot-lines regularly to check in with your other characters.
  3. Always leave a viewpoint character (Except the opposition) with a failure.
  4. Remember time passed since you left a character when you pick him back up.
  5. A section in which a character merely appears, does not count as a section for him himself.
  6. Don’t let subplots outweigh your main story line.
Step 7: Surprising the Reader (plot-twists)

Plot-twists are pleasant for readers because it shows them there is more to the story than they knew and that they best stay sharp. A good surprise will make him pay more attention. It also shakes up the story. A strategic writer places them to prevent the story from becoming dull. Here’s where to put them:

  • Surprise 1 – end of part 1
  • Surprise 2 – exact center (middle) of part 2
  • Surprise 3 – at the end of part 2

Surprises come in four kinds:

  1. a discovery
  2. an action by a secondary character that affects the protagonist
  3. a revelation
  4. an event that has a bad effect on the protagonist’s situation

A surprises raises the stakes. It always makes matters worse. Example:

Bad situation Jane decides to divorce John. John doesn’t want to loose Jane. John goes to Jane to beg her to take him back. He argues the divorce would have terrible consequences for their daughter and that they should give it on more try for her sake.
Surprise Jane informs him he is not the real father of the child.

Let’s look at the lay out of the book you have so far, section and all:

  • The beginning of the story
    • The story-problem happens
    • Surprise #1 happens
  • The middle of the story
    • Reaction to failure and surprise
    • Action in response to failure and surprise
    • Pick up subplot from another character
    • Surprise #2 happens (worse than #1)
    • Reaction surprise
    • Weave main and subplots
    • Surprise #3 happens (worse than #2)
  • The ending of the story
Step 8: The ending of the story

 Narrowing story options

There are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Limit successful routes
  2. Eliminate characters
  3. Rule out courses of action
  4. Let the opposition block the protagonist in

The Worst Failure

Continue make things worse and worse. Make it so bad that your reader seriously doubts whether it will end happy or badly (even though books usually have happy endings, make it bad enough to have them doubt). Bring them to the point of hopelessness, where all seems doomed.

The Saving Act

In response to hopelessness, the protagonist comes up with an entirely new approach. This is his path of victory (or at  least partial victory if you want to please your audience).

Harshly put, if you want to sell the book, give them a happy ending. Readers want the hero they cheered for 400 pages long to win. Editors want happy endings. Happy endings make for happy people. Happy people make for sales. Subplots do not need to have happy endings, as long as your main plot-line does.

The Wrap-Up

Resolve the main storyline and all subplots. Answer all questions you made the reader ask himself. Fill all the plot holes.

Tada! There is your story!

Part 3: Write the story

Now comes the task of filling it in. This part is rather easy when you have the plot worked out, since you know exactly where you’re going.

Step 9: Pick your viewpoint and get going!

Remember to add conflict to every scene. It doesn’t have to be massive drama but there should always be some sort of conflict or tension.

Step 10: Remember to update your reader.

When switching viewpoints and plot-lines, remember to update the reader on what has happened to the character when you pick him back up again. His life will have continued while you looked more close at someone else.

Space-break connector

Hit enter twice to create a white line when switching to a different viewpoint. You can also use this to indicate time has passed.

Using F-A-D

Feelings (and thoughts) generated Action. Action generates dialogue.

Step 11: Set up a writing schedule

Whatever works for you, set it up. Make sure you are left alone during the writing. Turn off your cellphone, inform your family not to disturb you unless for emergencies. Turn off the internet. Sit down and write. No distractions.

Part 4: Revise your story

Put it away for a few days then pick up your first draft again and read it. Try to read it with fresh eyes. Give it out to trusted friends to read. Gather feedback. Play editor for yourself. Revise your draft as many times as needed til you have a decent manuscript.


Source: The Mashall Plan for Novel Writing: the 16 step blueprint to take you from idea to completed manuscript in 30 days or less by E. Marshall 1998