How do you plot a novel?

Like many writers, I read about writing and how other writers plot their stories. Some have basic outlines, others create very detailed ones, some never plan at all.

I seem to fall somewhere in the middle of it all. I begin a project with a scene that just has to be written. A character arrives in my imagination who is going somewhere and I follow. We race along for a chapter or two and then I have to stop and start creating a roadmap for the rest of our journey.

I like this character; I’m ready to have fun with (let’s say) her for the long haul, but she needs to get into serious trouble for us to have a lasting relationship. And that’s what my planning consists of—finding trouble for my character to get into, then out of, and then into some more. Then we hang out for a few more chapters. As my character reacts to whatever problems I’ve set up, I learn more about what happened to her before we met. That history can have a serious effect on the plans I’ve made–for better or for worse– and then the road may change direction and lead to different complications than the ones I first thought of.

But that’s okay, too. In fact, it’s definitely okay, because now the roadmap is being drawn because of the new things I’m learning about my character. The story grows as I learn and the more I learn, the more I know about what I can put in my character’s way that will be hard, that will hurt, that will challenge, frighten and test and that will help the reader care and be more willing to stay with us for the rest of the journey.

Every time I stop and re-evaluate, I plan a few more chapters or scenes ahead, and then (thankfully) at some point in the process, I realize how the story is going to end. I can see how all the loose ends are going to be tied up and I can make a list of the chapters I need to get there.  In fact, if I can see it clearly enough, I even write the ending at this point. I like knowing how it’s all going to end, but it does make me hugely impatient to get there. I know when I go back to edit, that these chapters will need special work because I wrote them in a hurry and they will be way too lean on the details that make a story real.

So that’s me. That’s how write a novel. What do you do?

4 thoughts on “How do you plot a novel?

  1. I wouldn’t call myself a pantser, but I don’t usually do a complete outline. What I do is a little different: I do full character descriptions so that I know every single thing about each of the main characters. Then, I create what I call a “story board.” It’s a big project board with pictures of the characters, and under the pics are notes about each.

    I have lines from one character to another; random quotes, words, and images cut from magazines that represent a feeling or something in the story (could be a photo of a pair of boots or a farm house….).

    Then I write a few pages in my writing book about how I THINK the story will flow — beginning to end. There are usually 3 “disasters” — and then I go back to the book once I’ve started and just keep jotting down thoughts.

    Like you, there are times when I have to stop and go back, flesh out more of the upcoming chapters. But I think that the most important part, for me, in keeping the story going is the character outlines.

    • Gwen, I really like your focus on your characters and how visual your process is. Your “story board” idea is a very good one. I try to keep that stuff in my head or on sheets of paper, but I can see real advantages to having it laid out in front of me to look at whenever I need it. Thanks for sharing your strategies!

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