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Do You Need to Plot Out a Novel Before You Start Writing It?

To plot out or not to plot out a novel with a manuscript outline has been on my mind this week because I’ve just returned to writing a new book after taking a break to sketch out the remaining chapters.  This is the way I’ve always worked.


Image: Chris via Flickr

I get an idea for a book, and I think about it for a long time.  Maybe months.  I’m usually writing something else — finishing up the prior book — when the idea first starts to grow.  I let it emerge willy-nilly without plucking out the weeds; just jotting down notes as they come to me, even if the notes start contradicting each other.  (She’s a dancer.  No!  She’s an astronaut.  She’s a dancing astronaut.  She’s a teacher.  She’s jobless.)

Sometimes I name the characters during this time.  Sometimes I give them a temporary placeholder name knowing that I’ll change it when I know more about the book as a whole.  Sometimes I pick the setting.  Most of the time, I don’t.  I’m just sort of dating the idea.  It isn’t that serious yet.

And then it comes time to write the book.  And I make the book a promise that we’re going to go steady.  We’re certainly not engaged, but we’re not going to see anyone else for the time being.  We’re going to enter into a monogamous writing relationship.

So I sit down and start writing.  I write a first chapter and a second chapter.  I get to the third chapter and take stock.  Is this book interesting?  Is it the sort of thing I’d want to read?  Do I have the energy to finish it?  Do I think it will go anywhere once I finish it?  (Meaning: will it be published.)

Sometimes I realize that while it was a nice idea, and I really loved it while we were together, we’re better off as friends.  It doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy my time with it, but I need to stop dating that book in order to try a different book relationship.  No hard feelings.

Sometimes I realize that this book relationship is really developing, and I could see myself taking it to the next level: book marriage.  I could see myself wedded to this book; taking care of this book day-in-and-day-out.  But I keep that information to myself and give the book another three chapters or so to prove itself.  Books are a saucy minx: they flirt with you and make you believe that they’re going to be there for the long-haul and then end up cheating on you if you don’t choose carefully.  So I give the book another few chapters before I make a final decision.

And then one day, I get down on one knee and tell my book that I’m not doing a yoga pose: this is it.  I’m proposing.

On that day, I set aside the book for about a week and plot out the rest of the chapters.  I pull together all the notes I’ve taken and compile them into one outline.  I move plot points around so I have a better arc.  Novels move in four parts: stasis, catalyst, climax, and stasis.  And all those little plot points also move in four miniature versions of those parts.  I need to introduce them and set them moving and resolve them and create the new normal, for each individual plot point.  You don’t want it rushed.  You have to think about pacing.

I write and write until I have a chapter by chapter outline containing an overview of the scenes and bits of conversational text.  My outline tends to be 15 – 20 pages long, single spaced.  The one for the new book is 18 pages long.  It starts out with a character list where I can dump facts about the characters as they come up.  And a few overarching points I feel I need to remember as I sit down to write each day.  And then after that, it’s a breakdown, chapter-by-chapter, of what I need to write.

I do it this way because I think it helps me to not get too committed to a project before I see if we work well together, AND it later enables me to walk away from the novel for days at a time and return knowing exactly what I need to write.  Outlining the book isn’t planning the wedding: it’s planning the marriage.

I know there are people who can’t write this way.  They either need to plot out the whole book before they’ve written a word (Plotters), or they need to just write by the seat of their pants (Pantsers).  But this hybrid method works for me.  Maybe give it a try if you find your novel is falling apart after a few chapters.  It may not be YOU, the writer.  It may be your novel.  Because… you know… not every novel you date will become your life partner.

(Life partner is based, of course, on the life of the book.  A writer marries many books in her lifetime.  A book only gets one writer.)


1 Bronwyn { 11.19.14 at 8:20 am }

Love the marriage analogy 🙂

2 a { 11.19.14 at 9:08 am }

Do you anthropomorphize everything? You make me laugh!

3 Turia { 11.19.14 at 10:38 am }

Great post! Really thought provoking.

4 earthandink { 11.19.14 at 11:05 am }

I used to be a pantser. And it took me forever to write anything.

Now I’m firmly in the plotter category. (So for me, book ideas are saucy minxes. They are flirtatious and fun and may break your heart a little if they don’t work out. You made me laugh with recognition with that one!)

5 knottedfingers { 11.19.14 at 1:40 pm }

I’m working on two books right now. One of them needs no plotting out but the other one? It definitely needs a plotline and a timeline and I’m struggling so much with it.

I write fanfiction too and sometimes the plot is as far as I ever get with anything lol

6 Mrs T { 11.19.14 at 1:54 pm }

I don’t ever intend to write a book but I find this fascinating.

7 Maud/Christine { 11.19.14 at 4:38 pm }

Love this! Now I just have to write that damn book.

8 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.19.14 at 10:36 pm }

I’m so glad I clicked over. Love this post, especially the yoga reference.

So cool to get a peek into your method. And I love the plotter/pantser ideas.

9 Karen (River Run Dry) { 11.20.14 at 6:49 am }

So your post today is very, very timely. JUST as I was saying to you that I was having a great time with my characters… I hit a point where now I’m kind of stuck, because I didn’t plan the pacing well. They’re basically waiting for the next thing to happen, and I’m not sure what that actually will BE.

I feel like I am far enough in and interested in enough in my book that I want to propose to it. So I need to plot out the rest of the book (and figure out the edits I’ll need to make with the earlier stuff!).

Anyway, thank you for posting this today. In everything else in my life, am NOT a pantser, so I kind of half expected this to happen. I want to be able to let things develop organically… but I also need to plan well enough that I don’t get bogged down in the middle. Which is where I am now. 🙂

10 md { 11.21.14 at 1:37 am }

you would be (are?) an awesome english/writing teacher 🙂
i don’t write books, but your post makes me want to!!

11 loribeth { 11.21.14 at 8:10 pm }

Recently finished a biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables, etc.) — she used to plot out her books before she started writing them. She called it “doing spade work.” 🙂 I’ve never tried a novel, but I used to do outlines for essays at school, & that helped a lot.

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