Should You Plan A Novel Or Let It Flow Like A Pantser?

Should You Plan A Novel_featured image

It’s long been a belief that before you can write, you should first have a plan for what your book is about. Whether it be plot points or the characters and settings, you will need to create an overall outline to keep your novel organized and flowing in the right direction at all times.

Does this mean it is absolutely necessary? The answer may surprise you.

Is a plot outline necessary?

A lot of people think it helps. They feel more confident that they can keep the story on track and make sure all the plot points are in the right places.

If it’s done correctly, your outline will contain all of your ideas and where you want to go with your novel, allowing you to feel better about writing because you have something solid to follow and fall back on if a point requires clarification or just needs some extra thought.

Do a Plot Analysis of a Book Like The Hunger Games

A fantastic way to learn how to structure a book is to analyze others that have been very successful.

You can see what worked, what didn’t work and what the author’s intentions were by studying the novel.
You can decide how you might approach your own book to ensure it has the elements of a successful one.

This is a good way to start understanding how to plan a novel, and it’s also fun if you love books and can recognize common themes and patterns in stories that have been written before.

Some writers definitely don’t want to know all the details before they start writing. These people are ‘pantsers‘ because they prefer to let inspiration take them rather than forcing it. They drive by the seats of their pants, hence the name.

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

For some writers the idea is that a story can grow organically and they don’t need to have a plan for each and every aspect of it. They like their characters to surprise them sometimes.

So why should you do it? Why do people feel the need to create and use a plot outline for their novel?

My own experience with (not) planning a novel

When I wrote my first novel I was so enthusiastic I didn’t want to wait and plan it out in detail.
I just wanted to get started. I mapped out a few ideas I had, but it was mostly just random thoughts and lines of dialogue.

Sometimes my characters would go off on a tangent and end up setting up the ending of the book. Other times they wouldn’t do what I told them to, and this resulted in lots of rewrites.

I love writing it by the seat of my pants but I had no idea how to balance it with the structure of a story without the outline.

When the book ‘Alex Q’ was finished, it was OK but I found it disjointed and not flowing as well as I wanted. It was one of those things that didn’t hit the shelves until a year after it was written, because the editing process took longer than it should have.

It was so obvious, I swore to plan my next book and outline it completely.

Understand How Scary and Thrilling Fiction Works

Even before starting to write a novel you need to know how a basic story is put together. Here are some basic guidelines:

  • It’s a story told in a way that keeps the reader glued to their seats and on the edge of their seat.
  • The reader is given the ‘good guy’ and has to root for him to get what he wants, while trying not to give away the bad guy’s plan.
  • The good guy usually has some funny or surprising qualities about him that help him stick out from his opposition. This will make readers identify with him in some way.

A good storyline is original and not a copy of something else. The main character in the story has to have a goal, and the action is created by his trying to achieve it, but there are inevitable obstacles in his way. These are usually put into place by the bad guy.

The good guy can’t just steamroll all over everything and attain his goal with no problems at all. That makes for boring reading.

  • The action has to be written in a way that keeps the reader guessing. This is what makes thrillers exciting.
  • There have to be red herrings, cliff hangers and surprising twists at unexpected times.
  • There can’t just be one problem after another for the main character to deal with. You have to keep stringing them along so they don’t get bored. You might, for example, create a problem and then solve it quickly only to introduce another problem just as fast.
How do you plan a novel or story?
How should I plan my novel?

Create a Blazing Hot Plot

How to plan a novel outline

Novel planning is a complex thing that we need to make more simple. Below you’ll find a list of the key things we need to explore:

  • Outlining Your Novel: Start with a Story Idea
  • Character Development: The Most Important Part of Your Book
  • How to Make Your Novel Compelling And Keep Readers Guessing
  • How to Make Your Characters Unique and Engaging
  • Using Exposition, Dialogue and Voice To Develop Characters
  • The Importance Of Names, Titles and Nicknames In Plotting A Story
  • Find Interesting Conflict And Create Complex Characters
  • Writing a Great Story Outline: Developing the Plot, Setting and Characters for Your Mystery or Thriller
  • How To Write Dialogue For Your Novel

How to plan a novel using the snowflake method

The Snowflake method of planning a novel is a tried and tested way to plot your novel so that nothing gets left out, yet you don’t feel like you’ve worked in a straightjacket.

From the idea to the final edits, this is a method that will allow you to expand on your idea while still making sure everything comes together in the end. This is one of the most popular methods of planning a novel; it’s used by people from all walks of life.

You start with a sentence and then expand it into 5 sentences. First the snowflake is an initial sentence. You expand on it to 5. They are all different from one another.

Turn each sentence into 5 more sentences and expand on these to paragraphs. Expand these paragraphs into 5 more and pretty soon you have whole chapters.

This is known as the Snowflake method of planning your novel. Keep expanding your snowflake and suddenly you find yourself with whole scenes, chapters and eventually a book.

Keep going and soon you’ll have an outline and then you are ready to write the first draft. Like a Snowflake, the plan just grows!

How long does it take to plan a novel?

The planning period of a novel is very important and shouldn’t be rushed. There is no pre-determine time limit for planning. It depends on the level of planning – how detailed is it? Character development should consume easily as much time as plot development, using character profiles for all important people.

It is very important to get the plot right before writing anything. It is no good plodding through a novel only to discover that it doesn’t work when you have finished.

The basic plot must be thoroughly thought out and the themes incorporated within it. A story needs to be more than a list of things which happen. A story should have a beginning, middle and end which are well developed emotionally.

Give yourself enough time for research or you will lose credibility with an ill-researched book.

Figure Out How to Write Dialogue Like the Pros Do It

Tips for writing character dialogue

Dialogue serves several purposes. It describes personality, mood and above all it drives the story forward. Without it, the plot would be meaningless.

Dialogue is the most difficult thing to write – it can either make or break a novel. First a character must be developed well, and they should not be too similar to each other. Then we have to decide what we are trying to achieve with our dialogue and then how best to go about it.

Try to give each character their own style of speaking. This can be done by making some people more verbose than others, choosing an accent and using sentence structure.

Then think about the situation. How would a certain person speak in a situation which is tense or happy? Once you are able to assign appropriate characteristics to dialogue then you’ll find it much easier to write it.

Story dialogue is not like everyday speech where we say ‘um’ or ‘and’ a lot. Try to cut out as many of these fillers as you can.

Small-talk serves no purpose in a novel. Try to use dialogue for a specific purpose i.e. moving the story forward, rather than just for conversational purposes.

Keep your dialogue brief, straight to the point and not over-elaborate. This puts tension into the scene and keeps the reader wanting more. Make sure that you keep it concise – don’t pad out a few words or sentences with superfluous descriptions.

Reading successful authors is a must

Improve Your Writing By Reading Competent Authors

A good writer is generally a good reader. There’s nothing so important as reading successful authors and studying their style. But be careful, don’t try to copy them – we all have our own way of writing.

Read and study the great authors of old: Hemmingway, Stendhal, Buchan, Conrad and most importantly Jane Austen. The more you read and analyse their work the better your own writing will become.

You ned to develop your own voice, which can’t be done if you copy someone else’s style. So read – but learn to analyse and appreciate good writing before trying to emulate it.

Write a Strong Story Opener

The beginning is vital. If your readers don’t like it they won’t carry on to the end. It has to be interesting, dramatic, gripping – whatever will keep them interested!

Don’t tell the readers about every character! Don’t spend pages on the setting – you can describe it later. Keep things moving quickly and don’t waste time and space on superfluous details.

Introduce the main characters as early as possible – this gives a better impression to the reader. In a long novel it’s easier to establish characters, but in short stories, names and faces must be introduced quickly to hold the readers’ attention.

Try to include setting and backstory as part of the initial action. Above all create a likeable hero, a nasty villain and a sympathetic heroine – this will have a positive effect on your readers.

Your reader should have questions in their heads, such as ‘What’s going to happen in the next chapter?’ or ‘What will this character do now?’

Make them like the character and care what happens to them. How will they escape? How will they deal with this impossible situation? How will they be able to overcome the odds?

Build a Compelling Character Arc

A character arc describes the way a character changes over time from the beginning to the end of a novel or short story. In broad terms it outlines how the character is seen at the end of the story by what they have achieved.

A character arc takes place over a period of time and is usually shown in a series of defining moments. These are sometimes called dramatic turning points, as they effect change in our perception of the character.

The hero’s basic viewpoints must change as he faces more challenging situations. The tension can build up, then the character arcs and the climax comes in the form of a decision. The moment of decision will change everything! It can be a life-changing or dramatic moment in your novel.

If the hero starts out as nervous he will become brave, if he is a coward, he will become brave. These moments are called reversions and present a turning point which can change the course of the emotional arc.

There’s usually an external conflict and an internal one in a character arc – for example a heart-wrenching dilemma that brings characters to their moment of decision. They have to decide whether they will go ahead with it or not.

The changes a character goes through helps them to overcome all the obstacles and finally defeat the villain. So if you do want your novel to be a page-turner, you have to create a strong character arc.

Create Interesting Characters That Readers Can Relate To

It’s been said that people read stories to relate to how they would face the perils the hero faces. They cheer for the underdog and hope they will win in the end. Generally, people feel like underdogs themselves!

They also want to be able to relate to the characters and how they react to the events. They have empathy with them, so they can feel what the characters are going through. For example, if something shocking happens, they feel shocked themselves – this is known as reader empathy.

Characters should be well-round and three-dimensional, with all their traits. How do you do this? Start with a character profile in which you write down all their traits, dislikes, and traits you want to highlight in the character.

As an author it is important that you know what your characters are about. Know them really well in order to weave their personality in with the plot so that they are believable and compelling. You have to know what they are thinking and how they feel – as a writer always keep this in mind.

Ask yourself how the character would react to the events in the novel so that their character will be realistic. You get to know them by writing down everything you can about your creations:

  • age
  • where they live
  • family
  • friends
  • poor or wealthy
  • gregarious/loner
  • parents living
  • are they travellers
  • insecure
  • arrogant
Character profiles are essential to creating 3D characters
Plot events, conflict (tension) and theme (the message)

Understand How Plot, Conflict and Theme Work Together

What is plot conflict and theme?

Theme is the general idea or message that the author is trying to get across or show (for example, love conquers all, nothing lasts forever, friendship is more important than money etc.). Theme is what the story is about – it can be the central message that you want to get across to the reader.

Plot is a series of events that combine to form the story. Plot is something that forms the overall storyline of your novel. It may be a flashback, flash forward or a series of events that are happening in real time, on the edge of the reader’s control.

Conflict is the tug-of-war between what you want your character to do and what they will do (or should do). Conflict can be external or internal (for example, think about a war between two countries). The conflict adds to the story and it also adds tension. Conflict can be dramatic or subtle.

Conflict is essential for creating tension between the character and the people, places and things around them. If there is no conflict in your story, there is no tension.

Conflict pulls the reader through a story like a bull rope on a steer. Conflict may take the form of physical struggle or inner turmoil, but a conflict must be explored with careful and precise writing.

Plot, conflict and theme combine to form the overall structure of a story, and there is no hard and fast formula for what constitutes a correct or effective plot. The best way to learn about plot development is simply to read . . . read widely, carefully and critically.