A Quick Guide to Organizing Your Fantasy/Sci-Fi Novel
I'm going to try and briefly cover World Building specifically for Fantasy and Science Fiction (though it will apply in general to any setting), both major and minor Characters, and some basics of Timeline here. I am not going to walk you step by step through how to write your own story, but you should (hopefully) get some useful tips out of this.
I never used to organize my novels before I started writing. I have so many stories in my head, I would just pick one and start writing. I didn't have trouble keeping to the same details of a given character because I knew them so well. But after taking such a long break from writing Missing Puzzle Pieces, I really needed to do some serious work. I don't remember all the details I had in my head back when I started... in fact, I've completely forgotten the original ending. For those of you who don't know my story, which starts here, I'll be using it as an example in parts of this (along with a few snippets from my other work) because it's a story specifically about how much information the reader has and when.
Briefly: In my introduction and first chapter I introduce the cast of major characters and the setting. My setting is the year 2189, with society now in space. Earth is now only a tiny fraction of a universe dominated by multiple cultures. The humans are mostly part of the Royal Fleet, with the ruling Russian Royal Court on Earth and multiple solar systems in the purview of the Fleet. (You can think Star Trek if you must, I know a lot of people will, but I've some considerable differences.)
My narrator is Fleet Lieutenant Samuel Aleksandr Katarn, who watched his best friend Karina try to shoot herself, though he managed to slap the weapon away enough that her aim was off. Now Karina has amnesia and no idea what happened before she woke up in the hospital.
So you can no doubt see where my major hurdles are, which are the major points of this guide. First, my setting isn't here and now. (Pretty self-explanatory.) Next my characters are all members of a military force that doesn't exist. (Nor do I know much about any military, for that matter.) And lastly, my readers and my main characters are out of sync with my timeline. Events have occurred that they are unaware of. Even more, they make guesses as to what happened that may or may not be accurate. So my chapter story-line does not match my overall timeline.
World-Building for Fantasy and Sci-Fi
So it's been done a million times before, and it'll be done a million times more yet, right? If you're going to think like that you've already failed. Your setting, the world of your story, needs a few factors, which I've just realized make a set of rather handy ABCs. Your setting must be:
Your audience must be able to understand what you're writing about. If your science fiction setting depends on long and involved quantum physics descriptions, your audience is only rarely going to fully comprehend what you're talking about. (If your target audience is all quantum physicists then you might be okay, but I rather doubt that's your target.)
Writing fantasy and science fiction can be hard because your audience doesn't relate to the times. If your character has three dragonlings for pets, your reader is either going to relate them to three cats, or they're going to get confused. If you say the dragonling 'curls up on Amy's lap', then the image of a cat comes to mind. The basic assumptions about a world are that, until proven otherwise, the world is like a stereotype, whether that's reality in the 21st century or a stereotype of the magic-filled worlds your reader likes to read about. Don't fool yourself into believing that your readers don't make comparisons like that.
Your world must make sense. If you rewrite the laws of physics (you push something off a table and it hits the ceiling instead of the floor), you're going to have to have a damn good explanation for how that works. If you push three rocks off a table and the first two hit the floor... the third better hit the floor, too. You can't just do what you like, when you like, it doesn't make sense to your reader. This also applies to consequences. If your character publicly insults the President of the United States and no one cares, your readers are going to drop your story and go find something worth reading.
I had to research naval rankings in the US and different countries before I came up with my list of ranks for the Royal Fleet, which is a 'navy' in an expanded sense. My narrator, a lieutenant, can't order around a captain, it just doesn't make any sense. Even if I explained that a captain was a lesser rank, my reader still would get confused every time I said it, because our understanding of the word 'captain' means the person in charge of a ship, and 'lieutenant' is under that. Again, your readers have assumptions when they begin. Words need to mean the same thing as in the Oxford Dictionary, otherwise you're confusing people.
You need to cover all the bases, and preferably do it before you're halfway through your story. It needs to be a whole setting, not just a few ideas that don't connect. (Dragons in Manhattan, for example, doesn't work unless they've either A-always been there, or B-someone finds/wakes up a sleeping dragon like in Reign of Fire.) Patchwork settings just cause trouble in the long run.
For my story Missing Puzzle Pieces, I researched the design of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ships, using that terminology for when I designed my spaceships. There is a 'quarterdeck' where things happen, also a 'bridge' where the officers stand. I looked at where the captain's cabin fit into a ship in relation to the other areas, and worked out that some of my ships would have just a small cabin (more like an office) right off the quarterdeck and/or bridge, with the captain's sleeping quarters elsewhere, and some of my ships have the captain's quarters (sleeping, living, working) all right at the bridge for ease. I can't just pick and choose some things without having a fair reason for why the captain is or isn't near the quarterdeck. Since my readers are ground in the facts of reality, I need to work with the same facts to elaborate my world.
Similar to believeability, your world needs to be dependable. Does gravity always work? Do peasants always get insulted by nobles? If you're going to have gravity stop working, it needs to happen for a reason (ie. you're now in outer space with no artificial gravity), or make that the rule (no gravity ever, everyone flies around). If you break a rule, gravity being the easiest example, it must make sense, and either go back to the way it was (you have a hovercraft that settles back to ground when you turn it off) or you have to make it consistent and deal with all the consequences of making that change. (If gravity doesn't exist, what keeps people from floating off into outer space? Does everyone tie him/herself into bed?)
Instead of making everything not-like-now for my novel, going with what is understood as "normal" was far easier. There is always gravity, whether artificial or regular, and the instance that I haven't written yet where they arrive on a planet with different gravity than the 9.8 m/s we're accustomed to on Earth requires explanation of exactly that. The characters discuss the boots they wear that help them stay stationary instead of flying around when they take a long step; they also discuss the best stride to maximize contact with the ground. They take precautions for the different gravity, and so when they arrive, my reader isn't surprised by the break in gravity norms. Each and every thing involved in the world is consistent.
Your readers are going to have expectations based on how you set up your setting. If they're wrong, they're going to have to stop and rethink your setting, which breaks the flow of reading, and is more likely to turn them away. If you say 'Peter walks down the street', your readers are thinking of an average street, with either houses or shops, and Peter is probably walking down the sidewalk. If you then proceed with 'He floated into the aero-suit store to replace his malfunctioning suit', your reader blinks and has to process the thought. What kind of street has an aero-suit store? If he walking on a sidewalk, why does he float into the store? He's obviously not wearing a t-shirt and jeans if he's buying an aero-suit, whatever that is.
I have trouble with this in my novels, often because I'm trying to make what I see in my head match what people assume. My descriptions of uniforms in Missing Puzzle Pieces, while excessive on some levels, make it easier to refer to someone in 'duty uniform' and have my reader understand what I mean. The same is true of my fantasy work, because I need to establish what 'normal' is. Women wear skirts, men wear breeches, okay. Now I can talk about my character doing something abnormal (a woman in breeches) and the reader understands that a young boy is going to stare at her, I don't have to explain why.
So, more or less, you need to decide on a time, place, and culture to go with it. You need to follow the above ABCs to lead your reader through the world, especially any places that differ from reality.
Tip: If you're not sure your world is understandable, ask someone who doesn't normally read your genre to read through the first chapter. If they can follow along without getting confused, you're doing well. Non-genre feedback is good for the places that readers will trip... even if most of your readers follow just fine, they're likely to have to pause to think (breaking the flow) at the same places that your non-genre critic pointed out.
Major and Minor Characters
Your characters need to cover the same bases as your setting. Your readers aren't going to relate very well to an androgynous Martian coming to Earth because its looking for a mineral that isn't found on Mars... the closest they'll get is understanding what it is to go looking for something.
Depending on your setting, you may need to work out how to make the above ABCs fit. Personally I hate character sheets, I don't think they help organize the important part of a character, but sometimes they can be necessary. I designed a Character Sheet specifically for Missing Puzzle Pieces, because in a society built partially around a military standard, I'm going to need to know some of the data that a military might record. Parents names and birthplace is pretty benign, but when I get into their academic record (which I've set up as different from 21st century schooling) I need more details if I'm going to keep it the same. It doesn't hurt to have some of the usual character sheet info (height, eye color, etc) for any of the main characters so that their eyes don't abruptly turn blue midway through the story, but I'm less concerned with that. We're accustomed to writing a brown-haired male as continuously a brown-haired male. If I decide his father's name is Vladimir, I might not remember that later on.
I keep the same data for any character that gets involved in the plot. Ensign Chyornov is mentioned once in Chapter Six, but not again, so I don't care if he's white, black, or green-skinned, and his height doesn't matter at all. But I need to know my narrator's mother's name and father's name, and that his mother is a research scientist, while his father is an Admiral in the Fleet. So the character sheets I keep are all the same. I occasionally will note down a minor character's mother's name if I used it in dialogue, just so I don't forget it if it comes up again. But I don't write up a whole character sheet.
My character sheet design for the Royal Fleet involves statistics on one page, and then a blank page to write in whatever I need. Most of my characters have a 'timeline' page that I'll explain in more detail below. But I want to make sure I remember that my narrator graduated the Academy at 20, so I don't change that later. I also need to be extra careful with the protagonist, Karina, because when we first meet her in Chapter One, she doesn't know her father's name or anything important about him. So I write down "Chapter Four: learns father's identity" as I go along. This also applies to my narrator, who tries to hide that he likes Karina (poorly) until he finally gets around to admitting it in Chapter Six. ("Chapter Six: in love with Karina" goes on his blank character sheet page.)
I would encourage anyone whose story's society is not like current 21st American society (I'm in the US, maybe you're in Spain and need to think in terms of 21st Spanish society) to create your own character sheets for your story. What is important in your society? I know something of Russian culture, and for a time at least, the middle name was a patronymic (a name derived from your father's first name). So do I need to know the first name of my main character's father, so I know what the patronymic is? Or do I need a full name for each of my character's parents and relatives so I can explain why my character chooses to take her mother's last name instead of her father's? If all my characters are generally blonde-haired and blue-eyed, I don't care too much about hair or eye color unless there is a character who has green eyes. I'd encourage you to look around at what other people have used for their sheets, and pick and choose what information is important to your character in your society. Knowing their favorite food is all well and good, but if they never eat in a scene, what's the point of writing it down?
Creating a Consistent Timeline
The timeline of a story needs to follow the ABCs more or less, but they're less important because we assume that your character's fifth birthday comes after his second birthday. We accept that time flows in one direction. (If you play with time travel, you're going to need to focus on consistency, however.) Perhaps I should say instead that one of our basic assumptions is that events happen in order. For 99% of stories, that's a fair assumption.
And then you get stories that start somewhere other than the beginning. There's a movie called Memento that really struck me when I saw it the first time, because it's all about a man with no long-term memory. We see a scene, and then we see what happened before it, and before that, etc. The scenes have been rearranged backwards so that the watchers don't know any more than he does.
This is a similar issue to mine with Missing Puzzle Pieces, where we start in the middle. I avoid the use of flashbacks except for during the short introduction, where we learn that the narrator is three-months past a painful day when his best friend tried to shoot herself with his gun, in front of him. In chapter one I establish that Karina knows only what she has been told about anything that happened before she woke up in the hospital. So I have two lines to deal with here: what actually happened/happens in chronological order, and the line of the story that starts more or less in the middle.
I'll note here that my timeline inconsistencies are all based on my characters. I don't have setting timelines needed (like having dragons in Manhattan) that would be for me to write down why my setting makes sense. I don't deal with the timeline of the Royal Fleet at all in this book, though I might in a later one.
My solution to character-based inconsistency was to have a page entirely devoted to personal timelines. My preference was to work based on which chapter I was in, so I'm plotting out the story timeline, not the entire timeline. These pages all look similar, with scribbled notes of "Chapter One" and then "Chapter Two", etc. If I reveal something vital about Karina, I write that down. If Sam remembers something about what happened, I write that down too. Since I waited until I was six chapters in I don't have the luxury of charting things from square one, but I do need to make sure that everything is consistent with what I already wrote.
So I add on to my six chapters worth, with all-pencil notes of what I want to get to in chapters seven and beyond. Some of the things have been rewritten, as I wanted my characters to all meet somewhere, but until I thought about it, I didn't know where that somewhere should be. So now I have a timeline that starts in one place and grows in both directions. In chapter seven Karina meets some of the people she used to know and pretends she knows them. So I need to know who she knew, what relationship they had, if anyone else was involved (someone introduced her to someone else), and how they would react to her. For the most part these are small notes on Karina's timeline, because the characters are too minor to keep entire character sheets for. But I expect I'll be getting out more character sheets in the near future as I change my mind about who is major and who minor.
For me, I have to spend some time working out what the Climax is, because I'm dealing with more than one timeline. You could say that Karina shooting herself (pre-Introduction) is the climax, but then I'm dealing only with the wrap-up of the story, and a story that is entirely denouement isn't that great. Then there's the climax as the pair work out what actually happened, but it doesn't have the same kind of traditional triangular upward slope/climax/downwards shape of the average plot. The closest I've come to charting out my plot is to start at the middle, and then create a jagged upward slope as minor climaxes come along, with small downward jogs for wrap-up of past events, until the true climax where she acts on what she learns.
I don't know if my explanation is of use when applying it to your own story. Missing Puzzle Pieces is centered around the timeline, so it reveals itself rather obviously (if out of order). Most stories don't have the characters discussing what happened, so there's no straightforward scene-by-scene analysis. Instead you end up adding depth to your characters and plot with little interchanges like this:
"Of course." She smiled as well, her own eyes misting over. "We thought it was nicer to sleep in the same bedroll than in separate ones."
He snickered. "How... diplomatically put. The thought of separate sleeping rolls never even occurred to us. Did we even pack one?"
That made her laugh. "No, come to think of it, I don't think we did."
With four lines I've established that she taught him and that they had a romantic relationship, though what she taught and if they're still together aren't specified here. I've even given her a slightly politically-correct attitude, and they're clearly friends if he's going to call her on it. All of this creates character depth without going to the trouble of enumerating every past event. Often, this is all it takes.