I’ll admit it: I’m a die-hard plotter. Before I wrote WANDER, my outline document filled with character sketches and minor plot outlines clocked in at 45,000 words. It was pretty much a novel in itself. This allowed me to write the entire story in just 19 days, because I already knew what was going to happen. Now, I know some people just can’t outline, and that’s fine. Many of my favourite published books are written by ‘pantsers’. However, I think some skill in outlining would greatly benefit many beginning writers. Here’s why.
Often times when people hear about all their favourite authors writing without an outline, they think ‘I can do that too!’ and so they pull out pen and paper and start writing. Five pages later, the story is already fizzling out. Why? Because they don’t know their characters, or their setting or the conflict. Even pantsers have a pretty good idea of these three things before they start writing. Remember this: Plotting may not be essential, but you need to have a good idea of Characters, Setting and Conflict. Even pantsers do some work ahead of time, especially figuring out their characters.
If you’re writing any sort of mystery or suspense, or basically any novel that has a secret revealed near the end, you’ll need some sort of lead up to it. A classic example would be the detective novel, where all the clues are there for the reader, but it’s only at the end that everything comes to a climax and the secret is revealed. In most novels there will be some sort of big revelation at the end, and some sort of foreshadowing earlier on. I enjoy plotting ahead of time, because that way I can put the foreshadowing in when I’m writing the appropriate scene, rather than forcing it in later to an already completed manuscript.
The main thing I enjoy about plotting is that it forces you to figure out the key areas of Characters, Setting and Conflict. You need to know your characters because you’re planning their actions. You need to know the setting, especially if it’s fantasy or a book that involves travelling. And most importantly, plotting forces you to figure out the true conflict of the story and allows you to plan scenes in order so that the pacing all works out.
Plotting certainly isn’t for everybody. Maybe you just really aren’t a plotter. But if you’re currently struggling with a first draft that isn’t going anywhere, or have five incomplete novels in your drawer, or a story with a main character who seems to be constantly changing, then it may well be a good idea to sit down and write up a bit of an outline.