How to Write a Novel – The Lewis Method

How to write a Novel The Lewis MethodWelcome back to our final post in our series describing how you can write your next novel. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series so far and have learned several ways to write a novel and maybe a few ways not to!

If you missed the previous posts, here are the links.

Today, I’m describing what is currently my favorite method of planning stories.

The Lewis Method

I’m definitely more of a pre-planner than Danielle. While I do spend a lot of time thinking  about characters and the story, I like to start taking notes and writing plans immediately.

While the more intense portion of planning unfolds in a certain way, the early stages are pretty flexible. If, for example, a story starts with an idea for a character, I write down everything I know about the character from the first encounter with them. That can include age, background, family or professional status, or may involve a specific event. It may be as little as “A history professor who’s afraid of heights is researching a mountain railroad for his next book on American history” to a full page of narrative.

Other stories begin with a Big Picture idea or with a specific scene or event. I start wherever the idea appears and work from there in pretty much all directions.

I follow these ideas in thought and in writing until the story reaches a point of “critical mass.” At that point, there’s enough information available to begin more organized planning.

Development by Summary

One of the first organized things I try to do is write a single-sentence summary of the idea. Most of the time, the single-sentence summary is pretty vague (see above) because I don’t always know who the main character is, what their goal is, or what obstacles they face (all important parts of the single-sentence summary). I work with the sentence throughout the early developmental stages because it’s helpful in discovering what the story is about.

The next step is fleshing that sentence out into a paragraph summary. The paragraph summary is made up of five sentences as follows:

  • Sentence 1 sets up the story.
  • Sentence 2 covers the first act and ends with the first major turning point.
  • Sentence 3 covers the first half of the second act and ends with the second major turning point.
  • Sentence 4 covers the second half of the second act and ends with the third major turning point.
  • Sentence 5 covers the climax and end of the story.

Next comes a one-page summary in which each sentence is expanded into a paragraph.

For these first three steps, I’m focusing on the main character and his or her story journey. There simply isn’t room for developing other story or character threads in a one-page summary unless the font is very small. Since I have to read it, I don’t like fine print!

I continue developing the summary into a four-page summary by beginning to pull in other characters and subplots. The focus is still on the main character, but I’m beginning to see how other characters affect the main character either by helping or hindering.

After the four-page summary, I continue expanding the summary, fleshing out details and making adjustments to the story and the characters as the story grows.

When the story starts feeling complete, I expand the narrative into a chapter outline, with scene descriptions for each chapter. If a snippet of dialog or a scene come to mind at this point, I include that in the scene description.

By the time the chapter outline is complete, the story is also as complete as I can make it and all I have to do is write the scenes.

In the Background

While all this summarizing is going on, I’m also developing character histories and backstory, working on story world (if necessary), and writing charts, lists, and spreadsheets like a good pre-planner.

By the time I’m ready to write the novel, I have a solid of idea of where it’s headed and how I’m going to get there. In many cases, I can write the novel itself in 30 to 60 days.

Room for Detours

I enjoy writing with this method because it allows me to work out a lot of the details without worrying about writing the story itself. It’s like painting an under painting in half tones before glazing color over the completed painting (which is how I paint).

But it still allows for unexpected twists and turns. Most of the stories I’ve developed this way have stayed pretty true to the chapter outline, but none of them have followed it exactly.

The Major Disadvantage

Sometimes, I end up with a complete, five- or six-page (or longer) summary that goes no further. I’ve put weeks or maybe a month or two into an idea that has enough spark for a narrative summary, but not enough to ignite a novel. I have to start over with something new.

That also happens to be one of the benefits of this method—for me, anyway. I’ve just spent six to eight weeks on an idea that went nowhere. That’s a lot better than working on the story for several months, only to reach the same conclusion.

The bonus is that I have those completed summaries in the queue. The next time I’m ready to start a new story, I look at those complete summaries first. Maybe a new plot thread or a change in character is all that’s needed to make the idea viable. The work isn’t wasted.

No time spent writing is ever wasted.

That concludes our series on how to write a novel. As I said at the beginning, we’ve only skimmed the surface on this discussion. There are as many ways to write a novel as there are writers or novels.

Try any of these methods that look helpful to you. Discard what doesn’t work for you. Keep what does work and find ways to make it work better for you.

Then go ahead and get that next—or first!—novel started.

Thank you for your attendance! This is our final series for 2015. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and all the other courses, as well.

What topic do you most want to see in a future story clinic? Let us know in the comments below. We may just use YOUR idea! 

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