How to Turn an Arbitrary Scene (or Two) into a Full Novel

The first novel I wrote after high school started with just a dream.

I woke up with an idea for one specific scene somewhere in the middle of the book. So what did I do?

I wrote that scene!

Then, every couple of days, I would repeat the process. Wake up, write a scene from a dream I’d had, then forget about it. I felt like I was on the road to fully completing my fourth (albeit, unpublished) novel—and my confidence was through the roof.

Until the day I went back to read the four or five scenes I’d written and realized that none of them had anything to do with each other. It was just me living out my subconscious fantasies by putting them on paper. There was no story there. Just a collection of events (think Tom Sawyer).

That said, I knew I wanted to create a full novel. So I got to researching and figured it out the hard way how to bring all these unrelated chapters together, and now I’m here to share my methods with you!

If you’re in a similar position and wrote a bunch of arbitrary events that don’t seem to go together, here’s how to meld them together one a cohesive narrative:

Step 1: Stop where you are and backtrack.

You’ve already climbed over the first hurdle of novel writing: you’ve got something on the page. But once you’re done patting yourself on the back, it’s time to get real.

Ask yourself: what is your story about?

Maybe you want to write an epic love saga, or the lengthy quest of a hero, or a fight to the death between two made-up alien species. All are cool—but you need to pick one central storyline that you’re going to be working with.

It may take you a few days to decide what you want to write and develop your story, and you’ll likely have to go back to the very basics: prewriting.

Go through the 9 steps of prewriting one-by-one and learn your own story. During the process, you’re going to have to make some decisions—but doing so will get you headed in the right direction toward a cohesive novel, so it’s worth the time it will take.

Step 2: Get to know your characters.

If you didn’t fill out a character questionnaire during the prewriting phase, it’s time to do one. Learn the ins and outs of all of your characters—from your protagonist to her un-mentioned mother. Decide their likes, dislikes, flaws, motivations, goals, and backstories. You want to know everything about these people (or animals, or creatures, etc.) moving forward.

You may find that this is easier if you go back and read what you’ve already written about them. Did you give your main character blue eyes in one of the scenes? Make sure you mark that down so you don’t end up with a continuity error!

Somewhere along the way of creating your characters, you’re going to find yourself envisioning the story you want to tell—or at least part of it. That’s where step three comes in!

Step 3: Create your story arc.

Now that you know who is in your story, it’s time to decide what is in your story. What’s the plot? Where does the story start? Where does it end? What happens in between?

To help work through this, pull up a sample story arc from Google and create a similar one for your story. You know your characters’ aspirations—so what is stopping them from getting there? What hardships do they experience along their quest? Most importantly: what is the most heightened point of tension—the climax? And how are all of these things resolved in the end?

At this point, your arc doesn’t need to include everything that may end up in your novel, and it definitely doesn’t need to be in paragraph format, but a general idea of the arc of your story will go a long way when you head into the outlining phase.

Step 4: Make an outline.

Once you know the basics of the story you’re trying to tell, it’s time to create an outline. You can do this in whatever format you prefer, but you should try to be as thorough as possible. You can do this by working from big to small.

Start with just the bare minimum of your story arc. Outline the general plot from start to finish, and don’t worry about the minor scenes or details yet. Once you’re done, then you can go back in and add individual scenes, conversations, and even subplots.

Anything that you know about your novel at this point should go into this outline, so don’t be afraid to write it by hand or print it out when you’re done so you can rearrange things, cross things out, and add little notes in the margins that you’ll want to remember later.

Step 5: Revise or cut out whatever doesn’t fit.

You’ve finished your outline, you know your characters, and you’ve got the plot nailed down. So what if some of your scenes don’t fit anymore?

Your first option is to change them a little bit to fit the new, full story. Maybe just altering the outcome will allow this event to keep its place in your novel!

Alternatively, you might have to cut the scene out altogether. If it doesn’t serve any purpose in moving the plot (or a subplot) forward, then it’s got to go. But don’t be afraid of this! It just means that you have more stories to tell, either in a sequel or in an entirely new story.

After all of this, you are now on the path toward a structured, cohesive story! It’s an uphill battle from there, but you’ve got this—just keep trucking and moving forward. You’ll get there!

Have more tips for your fellow writers? Share in the comments below!

Michelle sign off

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