Monday, June 15, 2015

What’s the best way to plot a novel?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

What’s the best way to plot a novel? The quick answer is that there isn’t ONE best way, despite all those book titles declaring that they reveal the secrets to book plotting perfection. As I've talked about before, I spent a lot of time trying to find The Perfect System before deciding that not only does it not exist, but even if it did, it might do more harm to my stories than good to think I'd discovered it.



But I do believe there's great value in honing your personal way of doing things. A good place to start is by taking a quick inventory of who you are, what your time is like, and what kind of story you're writing:

1. Consider your natural bent.

Even before we've read a single craft book or blog post about writing, we tend to come to the page a certain way.

Some like to think the story through and have every scene figured out before they put pen to page. Others prefer bullet points, or to figure out just a few key scenes that will take place in the story. Still others are discovery writers, or “pantsers” who just want to get to the good stuff and sort it out later. (We’ll address tips for discovery writers June 29th. The blog will be closed next week because Jill and I are teaching at a summer workshop.)

Of course we'll evolve and grow as we write, but as a pantser who tried desperately hard to become a hardcore plotter, I can tell you from experience that you're fooling yourself if you try to completely stifle the way you naturally approach telling a story.


2. What season of life are you in?

This plays a bigger role in how we get stories written than I once gave it credit for. In high school, I rarely plotted a thing because between school, homework, and a social life, I never really blocked off regular time to write. Sometimes I wrote for thirty minutes during Geometry, other times I wrote for hours at night or on a slow weekend. But it was sporadic, so I didn't feel like plotting and planning. I just wanted to write.

After I was married but before McKenna arrived on the scene, I was lucky enough to write full time. I wrote thousands of words everyday—still without planning a thing—and then took my time during revisions.

Fast forward a few years to when I have multiple children, a house in the suburbs, and contracts with deadlines. I quickly learned that pantsing my novels was going to make me crazy. (Or, rather, the rewrites they involved and the fear of "is this story going to come together in time???" would make me crazy.) 

Not only that, but as a published writer, I could sell books based on proposal (three chapters and a 2-3 page outline of the story) instead of writing the whole thing. In my life situation and with the current expectations of the industry, I needed to learn how to write with an outline.

So don't be shocked if as life moves on, your style of  getting a novel written changes.

3. What kind of story is this?

I feel different stories have different needs. If we run with Stephen King's belief that stories are found objects, like fossils in the ground the writer is trying to carefully extract, then it's been my experience that some fossils come out with less resistance than others.

For many of us—dare I say most of us?—we build our own hybrid method that’s part planning and part writing by the seat of our pants. The balance of these elements depends on the three points above.


My writer's heart rebels against the method of figuring out every scene before I start writing, but if you think you might be that type of writer, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method is fascinating. Even if you’re NOT that type of writer, you might find—as I did—that you pick up a thing or two from experimenting with it. I also really like how Rachel Aaron lays out her process in 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. The structure would make me crazy, but for some I think it could work great. (I consider that book one of the best craft books I've ever bought, but there's a bit of language.)


But I have found several ways of plotting that helps with the intensity of my edits and doesn't make the pantser in me throw a fit. (As a note, I've learned that I have to write a chapter or two before I can think through the rest of the story very effectively. So that step comes before I do any of these.)

Plotting using a key scenes list:

This is where you take a list of scenes that commonly appear in modern story structure and apply your story to it. I’ve blogged about this before, so you can learn more about it here.


With this method, I like that I can be confident the story structure is there. Also, I haven’t invested a ton of time, so I can change things on the fly without feeling like I’ve just wasted days of planning.

Plus lists make my heart happy.

What I don't like is that sometimes this method can feel like a checklist, and the draft lacks an element of surprise. Probably since I knew exactly where everything was going to lead. So this always has to be fixed in edits.

Plotting with a written-out description:

After I finished my first historical suspense novel and turned it into my agent, I had an idea for a second book.

Just like with the first, I printed out my key scenes list and thought I would bang out the plot over the next few days. Only I couldn’t seem to get my thoughts organized enough to list them out. Instead, I wanted to write out a description of the story details.

So that’s what I did. It's about ten pages long and describes the story from start to finish. Well, finish-ish. Endings never come easily to me.

What I don’t like about this method is that it's harder to see at a glance. Also, it's a lot more time consuming. But if a publisher asks for a detailed synopsis, I have it ready!

Pantsing the first half and plotting the rest:

The book I’m currently working on was one of those where I knew how I wanted it to start … and then not much else. I tried the list. I tried the written out description, but neither clicked.

So I kept plugging away at scenes, thinking eventually I would find my groove and figure out the rest of the story. Which I did (I think, anyway). But not until I hit 30,000 words.

The bummer is I can already tell I have a decent amount of rewrites waiting for me in the first part of the book. But I also feel like the rambling, wandering chapters helped me unearth the story I really wanted to tell.

Who knows how I’ll write a book next time, but that's part of the fun!

What ways have you tried? How did they work for you?

38 comments:

  1. Interesting post! I'm a pantster through and through, but reading about outlining and plotting usually gives me some ways to work out the handful of scenes I do know ahead of time. I often have a few bits and pieces--the dream sequence I'm working on now, for instance--and sometimes I'll try to connect those into a storyline. Which usually fails, but whatever. I used to write out basic outlines, simply because I had never been told to do otherwise, but then I found myself diving into a NaNoWriMo novel with absolutely no clue what would happen, and while it wasn't perfect, the plot was much less straightforward and predictable, and I was far happier with that story than any other I'd written so far. Since then, I've jumped into story ideas two days after I thought of them on at least three or four occasions, and while most fizzled, one has stuck around for a year and a half now. I may well end up plotting the second half of my WIP, though. Before then nothing really fits together, but if I can reach halfway the plot will most likely have come together enough for me to work out the rest.

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  2. It's good to be back! :)

    I'm definitely a plotter. Having everything arranged in order is the way I am. :) I don't like to plot out every single scene, but I do like to have a handle on plot points and the scenes that will push the plot along. Definitely helps in edits.

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    1. Glad to have you back!

      Agreed. Edits are never easy, but I certainly prefer them now that I plot more.

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  3. I am currently writing my first novel. I tried to plot my story and it just didn't work, so I am glad to hear that I'm not the only one pansting the first half and plotting the rest. It's funny that you said endings don't come easy for you because I almost always write my endings first but I can't think of a good beginning for the life of me. Thanks for the great post!

    Keep on writing!
    God bless!
    -Megan

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    1. Eek. Lol. I did that one time and it's been a disaster. I totally pantsed the first half and then TRIED to plot the second. It didn't work out at all. You might want to just pants on through and THEN go back and fix it. Switching up in the middle really messed me up...

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    2. Megan, I've heard several professional writers say they write their endings first, or that they at least know what their ending will be. I would love for that to happen to me just once!

      Ashley, it's so interesting how we're all different!

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  4. I can't seem to find out what works for me... Right now, I'm just at that point described: I've written about 30 000 words and now have to figure out how to go on. I have used a basic outline for that first part, but somehow scenes changed during writing, I cut some characters, added some others, brought in amazing new ideas and left that "outline-path" (which also is the fun of writing, I guess... A lot of discovery writing after all) but now I'm really stuck, my plot isn't working, I'm having a really hard time figuring out what my villain is up to (or even who my villain is...). Also I've hd a huge break due to exams and stuff, so I hope that with the summer challenge I will be able to figure out where my story is going and be able to go on. But I can absolutely relate to the point that noone is absolutely Plotter or Pantser. We have to find out a way mixing both that works. Thank you for that post, I'll definetely think over it and try some things out...

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    1. also the comments already show how differently we all work... here's just no recipe to write a novel :)

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    2. and still another question (sorry ;) ): what should I do to get into the facebook group? Is it just pending or do you need some other informations?

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    3. Don't feel bad about not knowing who your villain is. Goodness, I didn't even know the true identity of my villain until over one hundred pages in! Then it all sort of clicked (with foreshadowing I wrote without even realizing it). Good luck figuring out your story!

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    4. Fraise, go ahead and apply again. We have so many people (and spammers) apply for that group everyday, I struggle with figuring out who to let in. I'll watch for you and approve you right away: https://www.facebook.com/groups/goteenwriters/

      I've been in the same place you are with stories. Even stories that I've plotted somehow manage to turn into huge messes around the halfway point. The best thing for me is (almost) always to just push my way through to the end and then go back and fix it all at once. But that can be really tough to do when you know it needs work. I hope the summer challenge helps!

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  5. My original method was to pants the entire thing, or to come up with a few key scenes and just keep them in my head. It worked great, until I started telling longer, more complicated stories. So now before I start I write down bullet points of what I think will happen in the story, and if I have multiple plotlines, I make a different list for each plotline. Once I actually start writing, I may or may not stay with my bullet points, but at least I have an idea where I'm going. *shrugs*

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    1. Sarah, that's a great point. As we start telling longer, more complex stories, having the structure can feel a lot more valuable.

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  6. In the story I'm working on right now, I pretty much jump around here and there and write what 1) I want to at the moment, 2) what I know HOW to write at the moment, or 3) a scene or conversation that I've just got to get down before I forget it. It's not the most organized method, but slowly I see my story filling up with everything it needs.

    I do use an outline to try to keep my thoughts at least a little organized. With this story, I was having a hard time keeping track of where this happens or when this needs to happen, or how long we stay in one location or deal with one problem or character. Making an outline really helped me out by giving me an idea of what I had done in my story already, and what was left to do.

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    1. Very interesting, Emily. I can see how the outline would be extremely valuable in that situation.

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  7. I would consider myself as a pantser with a teeny bit of plotter in me. I say that because I will attempt to figure out a climax and all key points, only to realize another plot twist I could do. That results in me tossing out my plotted scenes and just write. Muddling through a few chapters at the beginning helps me, especially since I will surprise myself with tiny details that might not seem like a huge deal, but end up being a major part of my plot. My brain has a habit of figuring out the plot and where the story is going without telling me. Frustrating, but still amazing!

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    1. I love when it comes together like that :)

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  8. I really enjoyed this post. Lately I've just been writing random scenes about some characters I came up with in my Early British Literature class (I'm currently obsessed with the British), but I'd like to connect them one day into a cohesive story. I'm trying to come up with a loose plot, but I'm not really sure where it's going. Lol. Oh well... If nothing else, it's good writing practice. Right?

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  9. My story inspiration usually strikes in the form of a few random scenes. I write the essence of those in a word document and go on to plot out the rest of the book as I think of it. Never anything too detailed, just what the various scenes need to convey and how it will move the plot along. I like writing my books in a straight line so I don't actually fill out those scenes until it reaches the time in my book. I've had one portion written in my head for my current WIP for about six months and I'm finally getting close to when I can write it!

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    1. Yay, that's always fun! I'm similar - I HAVE to write my scenes in order. My brain is too linear to write another way!

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  10. I've never managed to make to the end of a novel so far, but I've really got my hopes up this time with an actual *plot* for once. Plotting is effectively useless for me with my pantser heart :). But I like to use the first two steps of the Snowflake Method and then really just dive in and edit as I go. I'm hoping this eventually evolves into a more stable process, without, you know, DESTROYING everything and killing my main characters. And possibly me. Though the jury's still up on that one.

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    1. It certainly took me several complete manuscripts to figure out much about my system. Even then, I was reinventing it for a while. So, yes, plenty of time!

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  11. I started out as a pantser, but it didn't really work for me. I now prefer to have a rough bullet-point outline before I start writing. A lot of the plot structuring still happens in revision, though - I make a more detailed outline and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the story for that.

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    1. Kate, I'm very similar. I spot a lot of plot holes in that first round of revisions!

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  12. I've always been a pantser, but I just finished the first draft of a story where I made sure (for the most part) to write a plan for the next chapter or two. It actually worked really well. At the end of the book, I felt like it was a story from beginning to end and not just a bunch of random scenes like sometimes. However, now I'm trying to start from scratch with a story, and I'm struggling to get those first few scenes out. Probably because I was pretty familiar with the characters in the other book, and this one is more vague...

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    1. Familiarity with the characters can make a huge difference, so I would guess you're right.

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  13. I love both methods and have played with variations over the years.
    The key scenes list has been amazing because it keeps me moving forward toward my ending, with exciting checkpoints along the way. But I still get to write freely as the story comes to me. The key scenes list usually gets honed to perfection as I write.
    Like Stephanie, I usually have to write a couple chapters before I start plotting. It's so delightful to find out that I'm not the only one who does that -- and that it actually is a "thing" to do.

    Plotting my plot is not too hard. What I haven't managed is to plot my characters. I can't just pick a personality type, give it a description and a couple of funny habits, and then start writing. I have to meet my characters first. Which means those character questionaires usually get filled out after I have written most of the story.
    But maybe my character-plotting skills will get stronger as I continue my writing journey...

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    1. I don't know if needing to write the first few chapters is a thing or not, but at least two of us are doing it :)

      I'm glad the key scenes list has helped you. And I usually only know my main character very well, but I have to figure out everyone else after the first draft. And my main character too, to an extent.

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  14. I can pants my way through a short story, but with novels I struggle to know when too much planning is too much and when too little is coming to stop me flat before I start. Key scenes and three act structure tend to help me out the most in thinking things through logically. Very happy to see this post. Thanks for giving me things to think about. :)

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  15. How on earth do you do it, Mrs. Morrill? You somehow nearly always post just what I need!

    Plotting has always been a problem for me. My very first "novel," took me about eight months to write. This was literally the way I outlined:

    Paradise: "I will marry whom I choose and no one else."
    John: "You know the master chooses whom you will marry."
    Paradise: "I don't care."
    Paradise goes up the stairs and to her room. She slams the door.

    No description whatsoever... and that's how the "novel" turned out. No description whatsoever. It only reached 30k. (The strange part is that I wrote the last half first and the first half last.)


    "Novel" number two I did for NaNoWriMo. I literally created characters and a basic premise and sat down to write. Bad idea. I have such big plot holes in that story that I don't even want to try to go back and rewrite it. (That one was 25k-ish).


    The third full story I attempted to write was a fanfiction, and it only reached 10k. The problem is that I finished the story before sending it to a beta, and that beta was far too picky. I gave up after receiving chapter three from him, because a 1,000 word chapter would get back about that many words in corrections.


    So, this time, I'm doing something in the middle. I've plotted out every scene and subplot so far, but am more pantsing my characters. And this time, I'm only getting a chapter or two ahead of my critiquer (getting more "fancy-sounding" now) so that her suggestions or pointing out of major plot holes can help in the rest of the story.


    Sorry for the long comment, but I'm going to keep typing for JUST a little more. :-) Thank you so much Mrs. Morrill, Mrs. Williamson, and Ms. Dittemore for all of the wonderful advice you post on Go Teen Writers. Your enthusiasm and willingness to share are what keep young writers like us going. Some of us have no access to writer's conferences or even know another writer. This blog gives us an opportunity to feel, well, like we matter and that we can do this despite what anyone else says.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to do all of this.

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  16. this is totally what i needed.
    you have now idea how helpful this is to me!
    thank you <3
    -nymisha

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  17. Pantser all the way just like my brother in writing, Jonathan. :) Plotting won't work for me either because I discover the story as it unfolds. I have a lot of ideas come to me, but they don't always go where I think they will. This organic process of just waiting for the story to reveal itself to me in its true form is why I love Stephen King's thoughts. That's so true!

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  18. I began as a pantser. That didn't really work out for me. Now I am somewhere in between and it is working very well for me!

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  19. I am definitely a pantser but my last novel has forced me to start plotting some :)

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  20. I usually find that when I start a new book, knowing the beginning, the end, the goal and the main characters are all that I need as an outline. Thanks for the helpful post!:)

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