Fiction Writing

Mark’s Magic Novel Planner: A Free Tool for Writers

Written by Mark McElroy

A simple spreadsheet conceals powerful ideas for scaling, pacing, and structuring a novel.

“Writing into the dark” — or “writing by the seat of my pants” — contributed to the death of many of my early novels. So: I’m not a “pantser.”

On the other hand, outlining — working out all the details of a story before writing it — doesn’t work for me, either. Writing a detailed outline for a book kills my passion for finishing that book. So: I’m not a “planner,” either.

After thirty years of frustration, I finally hit on an approach that leaves me room for creative discovery … while also providing enough structure to keep me on track. I call it “Mark’s Magic Novel Planner.” I’m sharing it (and the assumptions and routines that make it effective), just in case it can help you, too.

You can get a blank Mark’s Magic Novel Planner template here, and then use it or modify it however you like. Alternatively, you can see Mark’s Magic Novel Planner loaded up with milestones and plot points from Parallel Lines, my just-published debut novel. (Be aware the sheet contains major spoilers for the book!)

Getting Started

In the upper left corner of the spreadsheet, you’ll find fields for a series of critical values. These are always the numbers I have in mind when I start a new novel. Some of these are pre-set; others can and should be changed based on your project’s parameters.

Book Length in Words. This is just the total anticipated length of the book I’m planning. I want to write books weighing in between 60,000 and 75,000 words. (You should change this number to suit your personal plans.)

Target Scenes. I’ve got this set at 60, which is about average for a novel. The structure of the Magic Novel Planner assumes 60 scenes, so for now, please leave this set to 60. (Even if you assume sixty scenes as a guideline, it’s perfectly okay to write fewer scenes … or create more, of course!)

Words Per Scene. This is a calculated field, dividing the total words in your book by the number of scenes. Don’t change it.

Target Words Per Day. In this field, you can enter the number of words you expect to write per day. My current quota is 1000, but yours can be any number that works for you.

Project Start Date. Enter here the date you plan to start drafting your novel in earnest, in MM/DD/YYYY format. The sheet will assume that you write every single day. (You’ll miss days. You’ll get behind schedule. That’s okay!)

Project Completion. This is a calculated field, displaying the date you can expect to compete your project if you meet your quota of “Target Words Per Day.” This calculated date won’t make sense or look right until you’ve typed in the Project Start Date.

Magic Novel Planner Assumptions

There are a bajillion books on novel structure out there. For example: you can Save the Cat, practice Story Engineering, crystalize your novel with The Snowflake Method, or depend on the clockwork of Tick Tock Plots.

But, in the end, most novels are made up of a series of milestones and plot points. A novel’s structure arises due to the fact that these “tent pole moments” occur in a predictable order at predictable points within the story. After taking three decades of notes on every structural model I’ve come across, I’ve blended these together to create the set of structural assumptions that lie at the heart of Mark’s Magic Novel Planner.

Three Acts. (Sort of.)

Aristotle’s observation that a successful story has a beginning, middle, and end still holds true. Most story models call the beginning Act 1, the middle Act 2, and the ending Act 3.

In this classical model, however, Act 2 tends to be double the length of Acts 1 and 3, making it a bit harder to wrangle. (I personally think this weird asymmetry is why many writers abandon their novels in the second act.)

Mark’s Magic Novel Planner incorporates a three-act model … but it’s really a four-act model I adapted from Dramatica Theory, with each act comprising about 25% of the story:

Act 1 – The Normal World: How Things Are, The Call to Action, the Embrace of the Quest.

Act 2a – The Promise of the Premise: Fun and Games, Rising Complications, Rising Pace.

Act 2b – Things Go Horribly Wrong: Henchmen Attack, The Whiff of Death, and the Turnaround.

Act 3 – Final Secrets Revealed: The Climactic Battle, Six Things Fixed, and the Afterglow.

Ten Milestones. Mostly.

In this hyper-compressed look at Mark’s Magic Novel Planner for Parallel Lines, you can clearly see the milestone moments — functioning as “tent poles,” supporting the narrative — as vertical blue highlights.

Many guides to novel structure mention ten or so “tent pole moments” that support the narrative over three acts. A book’s rhythm comes from placing these milestones and plot points at specific locations in the story. Generally, these moments occur at very predictable places in the text:

1. The Curtain Rises. Within the first 2% of the book, you should establish story mood, tone, place, and POV.

2. The Hook. An intriguing action or event gets the Main Character’s attention about 7% into the story.

3. The Catalyst. An inciting incident connected to that hook has the Main Character debating taking up the quest (preferably, a quest related to the MC’s deepest wants and needs). This happens about 10% into the story.

4. Plot Point 1. About 25% into the story, the Main Character embraces the call to action by doing something that rejects the everyday world and embraces the quest. No turning back now!

5. Pinch Point 1. The Main Character confronts the Impact Character or antagonistic force, but indirectly, producing an “Ah ha!” moment that leads to a plan of action before 40% of the story has passed.

6. Midpoint. A false victory gives way to big trouble, and ruin is foreshadowed right at the halfway point.

7. Pinch Point 2. The darkest hour, often accompanied by the “whiff of death,” produces an “all is lost” moment that almost makes our hero quit about 60% into the book.

8. Plot Point 2. A lesson is learned, the emotional story or B story yields an important insight, and the Main Character shifts from being chased to doing the chasing about 75% into the book.

9. Climax. Ninety percent into the book, we reach the climax or victorious finale (except in tragedy, where the Main Character faces a final, devastating blow.) The antagonistic forces are overcome! (Except in tragedy, where the bad guys win.)

10. The End. The new normal is the “after” to the first act’s “before.” We see growth, and final resolution is achieved.

Does every novel include these tent pole moments? Nope. Does every novel have to use these points in this order? Nope. Are the percentages rigid and binding? Nope.

While these ten waypoints exist for a reason, they’re just guidelines or targets. They inform my work, but they never constrain it.

Four Throughlines (Strictly Optional)

In addition to tracking four through lines, I like to give each a description.

Because my mental model has been influenced (or, as some would say, contaminated) by Dramatica Theory, I suspect all successful stories are really four stories in one:

An Overall Story: the objective story, or the view from 50,000 feet. This is the story at its most abstract. For my debut novel, Parallel Lines, the OS storyline is: “An unfaithful gay man uses a stolen technology to spend a day in four versions of his own life, each based on different romantic choices.”

A Main Character Story: the transformational story, as told through the Main Character’s eyes. For Parallel Lines, this is Thomas’s story: “A sex and pornography addict grapples with the forces that ruin his attempts at relationships.”

An Impact Character Story: This is the resistance story — the antagonistic forces that actively oppose the Main Character’s progress. In Parallel Lines, Thomas’s quest is opposed by Davina (who wants to shut down his unauthorized romp through tangent universes), but also by the tangent universes themselves (which generate increasingly dangerous circumstances in response to Thomas’s unwelcome presence).

The Emotional Insight Story: The ongoing tension between the Main Character and the Impact Characters produces a thematic, emotional insight.

In Parallel Lines, the friction between Thomas’s attempts to overcome his relationship-sabotaging addictions runs up against Davina’s machinations and the tangent universe’s. The result is a story about being honest with ourselves and others: “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”

*Note that my current interpretation of the Emotional Insight story’s theme differs from the one I originally plannedand that’s okay.

Personally? I like thinking about all four of these throughlines as separate but interdependent stories, each with a three-act structure of its own.

If you like this idea, try it out. If you don’t like it, you can stick with just the Objective Story throughline and ignore all the others.

Getting Started

At this point, a “pantser” would start writing by simply plowing into the narrative, and a “planner” would start outlining each and every scene. Me? I spend a little time envisioning how the ten “tent pole moments” might look for each of my four throughlines.

With Parallel Lines, I started by thinking about “The End” — the final tent pole moment for each throughline:

OS: After a long and arduous journey through parallel worlds, Thomas returns safely home and the technology is safely shut down.

MC: Thomas overcomes his addictions and finds himself in a happy, healthy relationship.

IC: Davina’s work as a resistor is done, and Thomas’s return to the Prime Universe ends all the disasters that have plagued him throughout the book.

EI: Thomas, having embraced the truth about himself and having committed to being an honest person, is rewarded with a happy family life.

Knowing how I want the story to turn out makes envisioning all my “The Curtain Rises” moments easier! They just need to be the opposite of the values at “The End.”

OS: Thomas is unaware of the world-jumping technology and lives in a mundane world.

MC: Thomas is in denial about his addictions and lies easily to himself and everyone around him.

IC: Given the normal state of the world, there’s nothing yet for Davina or the tangent universes to do.

EI: We see how Thomas’s addictions and infidelities are destroying his chances for happiness: arguments, missed opportunities, helplessness, erroneous beliefs, a future alone.

Of course, I have to get Thomas from A (“The Curtain Rises”) to B (“The End”). I’m comfortable envisioning these plot points for any throughline in any order, as they occur to me. In addition, I don’t feel like I have to envision all plotpoints for every throughline before I actually begin writing. At this point, I come up with as many as I can, don’t sweat the others, and have faith they’ll occur to me in time.

Importantly, at no time do I feel bound to these plot points. They are guides, not constraints. As I write a story, they are very likely to change as the things I learn from my characters influence the direction of the tale.

But when these changes occur, as they inevitably do, they don’t cause the entire novel to collapse … because while the nature of a moment I envisioned might change drastically … the structure of that moment (the type of milestone it is, the functionality it supplies) does not.

In short: this process lets me “pants” enough to take advantage of new ideas and insights, while “planning” enough to maintain structure in the face of new information.

The “Magic” in Mark’s Magic Planner

Mark’s Magic Novel Planner generates its magic by pairing calculations about the number of words I should have written by a certain day with the structural assumptions about what should be going on at various points in the book.

When Writing

For example: let’s say I’m writing 1000 words a day toward a 65,000-word novel (like Parallel Lines). Thanks to Mark’s Magic Novel Planner, I can see that, on the very first day, I need to write a scene that pretty much paints my “everyday world” as completely as possible.

By the second day (2167 words in), I’d like to see my theme, as I know it now, appearing in the mouth of some character.

I know that, on my fifth day of writing, I want to create a scene that extends an invitation to my main character to leave the everyday world and join an adventure.

Because the model naturally predicts about how long a scene should be, my work automagically takes on a pace and a rhythm that’s directly tied to the length and overall structure of the book.

In other words: the magic comes from combining word-count targets with structural and thematic targets … because, when I do this, I’m less likely to be spinning my wheels, generating a bunch of text I’ll end up tossing out later.

When Revising

The model also gives me great comfort in that it makes revisions easier. Knowing that a certain milestone moment (like Pinch Point 2’s “The Darkest Hour”) needs to fall at about the 40,000-word mark can help me better sequence the scenes taking place around that point in the book.

And later, when I’m reflecting on the completeness of my story, I can analyze what I’ve written by considering all four throughlines … and whether or not they have their own tentpole moments in or around all the right places. Are my characters doing, feeling, thinking, and realizing the right kinds of things in the right kinds of places in the story?

Very often, when something feels “off” about the story I’m building, I’ll discover I’ve overlooked or misplaced a specific milestone moment in a specific throughline.

Benefits of the Model

Mark’s Magic Novel Planner lets me write freely, retaining maximum flexibility to go where a story wants to go … while also having a very clear sense of what kinds of things should be happening at various points along the way.

When I sit down to write, instead of facing a blank page, I have an idea of where I’m going … and the kinds of things that should happen in today’s work.

Do I still write some things I have to set aside? Of course! Do I throw out some early assumptions and replace them with new ideas I’ve gleaned along the way? Certainly! And that’s okay! In fact, that kind of learning and pivoting is part of a smart writer’s process.

Perhaps the biggest benefit the novel planner offers me is this: when choosing a project, I can quickly determine if what I have in my head is merely a concept (with no clear idea of how the story will progress) or a real story (with characters and situations that change and evolve over time).

If I sit down to think about an idea and cannot generate a decent number of OS and MC plot points … or if I can’t imagine how one of the four throughlines will work at all … I know I have more noodling to do before embracing that project in earnest. Without the model, I might have to write several thousand words before having that insight!

The model embraces this kind of interaction with the story as it’s written … but keeps me from losing my way (or wasting time).

What’s Next?

Feel free to copy or download Mark’s Magic Novel Planner and experiment with it. Maybe it will give you the confidence and insight you need to make faster progress on a book of your own!

As for me, I’m currently using Mark’s Magic Novel Planner to plan my second novel. I’m also rethinking and refining the model and how it’s formatted. Right now, for example, while I’m aware the horizontal formatting mimics a left-to-right progression of the story through time, I’m also aware that a sheet this wide (even with freezing panes and splitting windows) can be awkward to use.

What might happen if I formatted the sheet so that it’s more vertical, with story points progressing down the page? Would that retain a sense of progression … while also making the sheet easier to work with and review? I’m not sure — yet.

In the meantime, I hope this post has given you some insight into a process and tool that works for me … and gives you ideas you can adapt for use when writing a book of your own. Good luck!

About the author

Mark McElroy

I'm a writer and professional facilitator. I'm the author of a dozen or so non-fiction books and hundreds of corporate video scripts. As a professional facilitator, I coach individuals, committees, and teams to change how they meet, make decisions, and plan, so they can get out of their own way and do work that really matters. I use this site to write about writing, adaptive strategy, travel, and spirituality ... and to "learn out loud" by sharing works (and what doesn't).