Remember that basic idea you had way back? By this time it should have grown from a seed to a full-blown plant, with structure and substance. If you look back you will find it difficult to remember the original seed. It has expanded and changed so much, like the Big Bang at the instant the Universe began. That analogy is very much like the development of a novel from basic idea to completion.
No, you won't have the entire novel already fixed in your imagination. (It might exist complete in your subconscious though, but that is another article). There is much work to do yet before your work resembles anything like a novel.
However you may already be able to visualise the opening scene featuring your key character. This is important. The key character should be presented to the reader from the start. As has been said before, the reader needs to attach himself to a character, to feel empathy, and be willing to see the book through to the end because that character is so engaging.
As well as being able to visualise the first scene, the last scene in the novel, the denouement, may also be firmly in your mind; an exciting opening and an exciting finish. What about the middle of the novel, though? There is nothing worse for the reader to have their expectations raised by a good opening scene only for the book to go as flat as a pancake in the middle. That book has failed because the writer has not done his job properly.
Your first reader will be your target publisher's commissioning editor. You must impress him or her or your book will never see the light of day. How to avoid a flat middle? Careful planning and plotting is the answer.
There are basically two kinds of writers, the inspirational kind who wing their way through the novel without any careful plotting, just a vague notion as to what will happen, and the careful planner, who has an outline to follow, rather like the route map of a journey.
The inspirational writer can be brilliant; the epitome of spontaneity but it takes practice and confidence. Winging it can end in disaster in the form of writers' block. The careful planner can get bogged down in his outline, thus becoming inflexible and perhaps predictable.
The ideal way to go is to be a little of both. A basic outline of the plot from start to finish is recommended, but the writer should remember that the outline is not carved in stone, and can be changed at a moment's notice. An instance of how this might happen is during the writing of dialogue when the characters are in full flight. Enthralled, the writer feverishly types down everything they say. Then, all of a sudden, one of the characters says something the writer had not bargained on, something that, if acted upon, will take the plot in a completely new direction. The writer stops, scratches his head. Where did that idea come from? Do I want the plot to down that path?
This new idea, which the character has brought forth, is, of course, something from the writer's subconscious mind. At this juncture the writer should think carefully, weighing up the merits of this new idea. Again it is a matter of 'legs' and 'meatiness'.
What should the plot outline look like? To understand this we must touch on the subjects of structure and construction. How is a novel constructed? A new writer might answer - a novel is constructed out of chapters.
No. Forget chapters. A novel is constructed almost entirely of scenes. Apart from words, the basic building blocks are dramatic scenes. Therefore your plot outline must be built in scenes, that is to say, skeletal scenes. The meat is put on the bones when the writer is actually writing the scene.
Think in scenes throughout. Chapters will look after themselves, as it becomes obvious to the writer which group of scenes belong together - in a chapter. A chapter can contain one scene or twenty.
Likewise, scenes can be of any length, but they must not be static with nothing happening. Keep description to a minimum. The reader wants to get in on the action, so do not disappoint him.
The structure of the novel depends on how many 'threads' you intend to have in the novel. The main thread is, of course, the story of the key character. However, a one thread story will give a thin plot. To create meatiness and variety in the plot it is advisable to have at least two threads. This means there will be another main character whose story is running concurrently with that of the key character. At some point these threads must cross i.e. be relevant to each other.
The writer might be confident and brave enough to include a third thread featuring a third character. This however will require a very detailed plot outline so that the writer can keep track of everything that is happening. There can be no loose ends at the end of the novel - every character and plotline must be accounted for. If at the end of the book the reader has to ask - 'Whatever happened to Charlie...' the writer has fallen down again.
Do not be confused between the number of threads and the number of characters in the plot. Many characters will come and go in your novel. Don't forget to account for their going. Don't create characters for the sake of it. Each character, no matter how minor whether named or unnamed, must have a purpose for being there; a part to play. Whether these characters should have a point-of-view will be discussed in another article.