Ah, the age-old question every writer is faced with: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you painstakingly outline every scene before you begin writing or do you take a vague idea, sit down, and pound it out without any forethought, flying by the seat of your pants? 

Authors have written entire books about why your novel will fall apart if you don’t outline. Pantsers insist that outlining sucks the joy out of writing. Where’s the excitement if you already know what happens? So many people insisting their way is the only right way…

I’m going to let you in on a secret. There is no right way. 

Writing a novel is a uniquely personal process, and the most important thing is to figure out what works for you—and for the book you’re currently writing. Sometimes what works brilliantly for one book doesn’t work for the next. I’m going to talk about the process that I’ve cobbled together after reading a load of books on outlining and story structure and struggling through my own writing process.

What I’ve learned about planning

Over the course of finishing four novels, I’ve discovered that I’m not a fan of drafting in general. If I don’t have a plan, I stare blankly at the blinking cursor and panic as I try to figure out what should come next and where my story is going and how I’ll know when it’s done. If I have a detailed outline, I plow through it and end up with a short book that lacks complexity in both plot and character. With my last book, I spent months trying to cobble together an outline, only to give up and start writing after creating a vague plan of where major plot points would happen.

The funny thing is that during that last book, I discovered the process that works best for me: plantsing. There are certain things that I need to know before I draft a manuscript so I don’t end up with an unfixable mess. There are also a whole lot of things I can leave to discover along the way. For me, it gives the best of both worlds: a direction androom for spontaneity. 

Planning the Essentials

Even if you’re like me and can’t nail out all the details of your plot ahead of time no matter how hard you try, there are steps you can take to make sure you don’t get to the end of a draft and discover it’s an unsalvageable collection of meaningless events. Giving thought to your overall plot will help with pacing, and knowing how your character’s arc will help with emotional connection. In general, the right kind of planning can (usually… or at least sometimes) prevent the need for a complete overhaul of a draft.

Here are the essentials I need to know before I start writing a manuscript:

  1. The biggest plot points

I set up my novels to follow a four-act structure. This aligns with the typical structure of a screenplay. A lot of screenplay/story structure experts say there are three acts, but the second act is twice as long and is divided into two parts… Which is a confusing way to say that a book should be broken up into four approximately equal parts. There are lots of craft books that examine the three/four act story structure and what should happen at each point. Many break it down further, describing what should happen about halfway between the beginning and end of each act. If you haven’t studied story structure, I recommend doing so, even if you choose not to follow it strictly. It may seem prescriptive at first, but, in reality, it helps make sure you keep the reader’s interest by having major events and plot twists at expected places. 

Before I start writing anything more than exploratory chapters, I like to have a solid idea of where each act will begin and end. Where does the story start? What will catapult my protagonist irrevocably into the plot? What dramatic, emotionally wrenching plot twist will happen at the midpoint? What will lead my protagonist into the final confrontation? Where do I think the story will end?

To be honest, my main plot points are often extremely vague at this stage. I usually don’t know enough details to have a good idea of what they’ll look like. I just know the essence of what will happen and have an idea of the emotional wallop I want each point to pack. It gives me something definable to work toward as I draft, and I develop the details as I go.

2. My main character’s arc

Some people start with plot. I tend to start with a character who interests me. Either way works, but if you tend to start with a plot idea, make sure you don’t forget to think about your characters—especially your protagonist—and how their specific wants, needs, and personalities will affect the plot. 

In her Sparks craft chat in February, Kate Brauning said you want to make sure you “hook the reader’s head and the heart.” The best way to do this is to align your character’s personal journey with the plot. There should be something specific about your plot that is inherently personal and will force your character to change. 

If you’re writing a positive character arc in which the character grows personally over the course of the story, the character’s changes and epiphanies should align with the themes and the structure of the plot. You want everything working together smoothly. Examine how each major plot point can drive your character in the direction you want them to go. If it’s not aligning, you might want to reconsider whether you’ve got the right plot or if your character’s arc needs tweaking. 

As with story structure, there are books dedicated to the concept of character arcs, so I’m just going to hit on the basics of what I like to know before I start writing. First, I need to know my character’s main flaw that will change over the course of the book. I don’t mean a personality trait here. This is a lie that the character believes and that affects their outlook on life. For example, the protagonist of my current WIP believes that her worth depends on her actions and the admiration of others; the more heroic things she does, the more value she has as a person. This misconception keeps the character from being complete, and it negatively affects their actions and relationships.

Along with knowing the lie the character believes, I need to know what my main character wants. This should be big. The more they want it, the more interesting they’ll be, and the easier it will be for the reader to empathize. Ideally, this desire will manifest itself from the very first page. Quite often, what they want isn’t what they actually need. Sometimes a character gets exactly what they wanted at some point in the story—and discovers that it doesn’t fill the ache in their soul. My character, for example, doesn’t need to be a hero; she needs to accept that she has inherent worth whether she is admired by others or not.

Finally, I need to know how the plot will help the character recognize the truth that counters their misconception and use that truth to overcome whatever obstacle they’re facing. For example, not only does my protagonist need to learn that her value isn’t based on her own heroic actions, she needs to use that knowledge to allow someone else to be the hero and save their town from destruction—even if that means she won’t receive any of the credit. If she hadn’t learned that lesson, she would fail. 

3. Big emotional moments

I also brainstorm any big, emotional moments that I want to include. Quite often, I don’t know exactly where these will fall or what they will look like. It might be as simple as “My MC’s boyfriend breaks up with her.”  I keep a list of these and refine them (and figure out where they go) as I write.

4. Putting the Plan Into Action

I find that it’s helpful to begin by writing a short Twitter-style pitch and a query letter. I don’t worry about them being particularly good since they’ll likely change anyhow, but it helps me make sure I have a marketable story with a distinct plot that has emotional appeal. It also helps me stay focused as I write to make sure I’m following the main plot line.

Once I’ve got the major plot points tentatively in place, I usually start writing. I tend to flail through my first act as I try to figure out who my characters are in more detail. I refine my loose outline as I go, adding in or changing details as my subconscious spews ideas.

I like to have a few scenes loosely planned at a time so that I don’t start a writing session with a blinking cursor and no idea what happens next. I’ve found that I rarely get ideas when I’m staring at a blank page. To get myself going, I need focused time to think, but I need to trick myself into focusing.

For me, this often involves taking a bath and listening to music. I find that if I close my eyes and let myself drift into the emotion of the music, I can usually find my creative spark and work toward creating emotion through my story. Nature walks also help, especially if I’m near running water. And I’ve gotten some of my best ideas while driving or showering. (I swear there’s something magical about water…)

And sometimes, I just need to sit down with a pile of index cards or some pointed questions about my plot and character arcs and how I can get from point A to point B. I’m an intuitive writer, so I eventually get that “aha” moment when everything falls into place. (I just wish it would happen sooner most of the time.)

Closing Thoughts

The important thing to remember is that whether you’ve got a handful of loose plot points or a detailed outline, you need to be flexible and be guided by the characters and their story. The story you thought you were going to write might not be the story you end up writing. That’s okay. Go with your gut. Usually my favorite parts of my stories are the ones that came out of nowhere and took me by surprise.

Other Resources

Since planning is such a complex issue, I highly recommend reading books that go deeper into the concepts I’ve discussed. Here are some of my favorites.

My favorite book on story structure: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters) by Alexandra Solokoff

My favorite book on character arcs: Creating Character Arcsby K.M. Weiland (I also recommend subscribing to her website, https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/. Her blog posts are fantastic, and you can get a free guide to creating characters for joining.)

My favorite book on planning: Story Geniusby Lisa Cron

Jodi Herlick

Jodi Herlick is a young adult fantasy author in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has an MFA in creative writing and has taught fiction writing and grammar to a variety of age groups, including kids, teens, and college students. 

Her goal as a mentor is to provide feedback that is balanced, thorough, and actionable. 

She is represented by Nicole Payne of Golden Wheat Literary.