Friday, December 10, 2010

16 Ways to Plot a Novel

Pantser? Organic? Or Both? Girlfriends weigh in on what works for them.


Characters lead the way

Oh, how I wish I was a plotter, but it doesn’t work that way for me. A good plotter has details, real ideas about a beginning, middle, and end—maybe a flow chart. I am a natural panster who bets on an overarching idea that’s been brewing in my head for some time. My characters tend to reveal a more meaningful path than I initially intend. I rely heavily on their insight and the constant question, “What happens next?”.

Laura Spinella

Outlines are confining

Was just discussing this with a friend getting her PhD in teaching who is involved with this widespread writing project--how to teach children to write, which is an interesting concept. And she was at a conference at which a novelist discussed that very thing, saying that many writers do write from the seat of their pants, so when you take a child and make them write in a structured "do this or don't do it" sort of way, you're turning possibly very talented writers off the process from the very start.

I couldn't have agreed more with that assessment. I am very much a pantser, I write very organically, and I find structure and outline to be very confining. I love to just let the story unfold and in essence have the characters tell me what is going to happen. Of course I noodle over ideas before I put words to paper, but I also just start to write and let it all unfold.

Jenny Gardiner 

Pantser. Total pantser. I'm usually halfway through before I know how the story ends.

Leslie Langtry

Death to Outlines

I love this question (and the word panster sounds so naughty). I am a total panster. Death to outlines!!! I do start out knowing exactly where the story begins and ends, but what happens in between is like driving with a man. There are no maps, we're not stopping for directions and eventually I'll arrive, but Lord knows the trip could have killed me. Seriously, I find that of outlining is fine for non-fiction but for a novel, the only way to let the characters unfold and thrive is to breathe life into them and then let them lead the way. That's why I work so hard to make them three dimensional and to also give them enormous challenges. At around page 50, if I'm doing my job right, I'll hear the natal heartbeat and become the designated typist. I really believe that the reasons my novels offer so many adventures and surprises is because I set the characters in motion and let them drive the rest of the way.

Saralee Rosenberg

Unpeeling a character’s layers

I'm a total fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants girl. It's just so much more fun to discover the story along the way. I do start out with a pretty solid idea, and I jot down notes as I work. But I really enjoy learning about my characters like they're family or friends whose layers I unpeel little by little, the more time I spend with them. Sometimes the best twists in plot come from uncovering a bit about a character that I hadn't imagined at the start. I have had to work from outlines with several of my YA books, and that was very tough for me. I still had to throw in some surprises, regardless. Part of what makes this gig so cool is not knowing everything. I love being surprised while I write.

Susan McBride


Old Hollywood plotting trick

I've been experimenting with this idea for plotting. It's supposedly based on an old Hollywood scriptwriting trick . All it requires is a piece of paper, a pen, and knowing basically where the story is going to begin and end.
April Henry

Outlining leads to new ideas

I would love to be a pantser, but alas, I'm an outliner. I take about a week to do a huge outline at the beginning of the process, then I constantly tweak it as I write. If I get stuck in a scene, I take a moment to outline how I want the rest of it to play out, then I go from there. I actually feel more inspired when I write this way. Delicious new ideas are always calling out to me, making me stray from my boring ol' outline. It's kind of like how people from rigid-rule backgrounds (e.g. Catholics and Republicans) are invariably better in the pre-marital sex bed (don't gasp, you know it's true).

Ernessa T. Carter

When it’s time to stray

I'm an outliner because my publishers have always required that I provide a synopsis before buying a series. But I don't always stick to it! In fact, I usually have the experience of writing about 30 pages in a new book and then realizing I've run out of outline. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

Roberta Isleib


Structure provides piece of mind

I used to write novels with a blip of an idea in my head and then I’d muscle my way through a plot with no inkling of where I was going. It seemed to work for several novels but it was painful. I occasionally plotted myself into a corner and ended up abandoning two novels.

Now I’m much more methodical. Before I begin to write, I use a three-act outline and try to summarize as many scenes as possible. I also know what my main characters inner and outer desires are, their flaws and how they will change over the course of the novel. With a loose outline, I find that I still have many opportunities for organic writing—actually even more than ever before—because I no longer have to worry whether or not my story structure is sound.

Karin Gillespie

All over the map

I wish I could say I use one method each time I wrote a book, but I'm afraid the sorry truth of the matter is that unless it's for a series like The Sisters 8, I reinvent my own wheel every time. Sometimes I research first, sometimes I research as needed during the first draft. Sometimes I plot, sometimes I pants. I know - I'm a plotantser!

Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Laying down the bones

I used to be a pantser, but I was always having trouble with plot. Over the years I feel that all fiction has become more plot-driven, and I’ve matured my writing to address that. Now – and particularly writing historical fiction – while I still don’t outline, I do look at the life I’m writing about and choose the 3-4 highlights that I want to drape the book around. I call these the “bones.” So having this structure in my head helps me enormously; I know where I’m going to begin, I know where I’m going to end, and I know the major highs and lows in between. The narrative that fills in these spaces I still prefer to write organically, however.

Melanie Benjamin

Beating out the plot

I do a combination of plotting and flying blindly into the mist when I write. I need to have big-picture organization in place before I can even begin, and I really love Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! books for that. I've used his 15-point "beat sheet" to structure my last several novels (the actual steps I used for Friday Mornings at Nine are posted on Blake's blog.

But, once I have the main beats written down, all of the other details and dialogue in each scene are unplotted. I write chronologically from the beginning to the end, slowly filling in the rest of the story between those major points.

~Marilyn Brant

Learning from dead ends

I've now written 7 books, and 2 have been published. When I first started writing manuscripts I was much more a 'seat of my pants' type of gal but that is one steep roller coaster ride. Once I wrote myself into a 200 page corner (two, three, maybe four times) I began to think there *might* be a better way. Now, after 7 manuscripts as far as storyline, I am a bit of both a pantser and a plotter. When I start a new manuscript, I know the beginning, the end, and now (after experiencing my share of 200 page dead ends) I have started to work on building a bridge across the middle *before* I get to it. When I begin, I have a general feel for my characters. I tend to let my characters reveal themselves as I write, and add layers on the next pass of the manuscript. It is through the revelations about the characters that my stories are guided. In the very beginning I have my vague outline, but I don't force it. The moments of surprise when characters take over and guide the story are moments of pure joy and I go with the characters whether it is in my rough outline or not.

Maggie Marr

Adding layers

Both! When I wrote SCOT ON THE ROCKS, I had a general idea of where it was going, but by no means a real outline. I just let the story take me where it wanted and I did a lot of editing and re-writing to keep it tight and make it work the way I thought it should.

For JACK WITH A TWIST, I created an outline first to show to my editor so that she’d have a sense of the type of story I wanted to tell. It was really great to work off of an outline since it gives you the opportunity to layer on the things like themes and symbols that I added to second and third drafts of SCOT ON THE ROCKS. I feel that it made for a much richer first draft.

Brenda Janowitz

Best book on plotting

I'm a big fan of plotting out my books in advance, but leaving plenty of space within the framework for ideas to spring up organically. The best book on plotting that I've ever read is James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. It's my bible!

Sarah Pekkanen

Filling in the blanks

I need to know the opening scene and the final scene . . . and then I get to just fill in all the story arc. Knowing that final scene--how it looks and sounds and feels in the heart--pulls me forward even when I'm stuck but still gives me lots of room to wander.

Judy Larsen


Sarah Pekkanen reviews FATED for the Washington Post. Link is here

With less than 30-days to BEAUTIFUL DISASTER’S release Laura Spinella has a new blog up, December Perspectives at


  1. This post is so great! I learned something new from each and every author on here!

    April and Marilyn, thanks so much for these links! Can't wait to dive into them later.

    Karin, I was going to post the same Alexandra Sokoloff link!! But I was going to send people to this page:

    I just took her class on three act structure and it was totally amazing. I can't say that I'm 100% plotter now-- I still think I'm a little of both-- but just knowing the essentials of story structure in the back of your head helps you to create a coherent story from the outset.

  2. Ooh, April, I am definitely going to try that trick . . .

  3. Wonderful reading this, as it confirms what I always say--there's no right or wrong way to attack a novel. Whatever works best for you is what's right.

    I'm in the combo category. I start with a loose outline but allow myself the freedom to let the story develop organically once I get rolling. The ending, however, is usually set. It's the route I take that winds up surprising me.

  4. Karin, thank you so much for creating this new blog post and for having the vision to turn it into a forum that is fun, creative and just plain awesome. I loved reading other novelist's game plans and learned something from all of them. Let's keep going!!

  5. This was so much fun to read! It truly demonstrates that there's no right or wrong way to write a book! Whether you're a panster (i agree, it sounds naughty:) plotter or a combo, when you hit a glitch it's easy to say, "I must be doing this all wrong..." which clearly isn't the case! Great idea for a blog, Karin!

  6. So fun to read how other authors write. I'm a combo-gal myself, as I've learned through trial and error, like many others. My husbands tells me I don't do "anything" by the seat of my pants & that I'm always planning. So, a loose outline definitely puts me in my comfort zone, but allows for that level of organic richness that makes all novels better. It IS so fun to have my characters speak to me and take me on plot twists and turns I hadn't expected.

  7. Great links and ideas here. I start out a panster, then 100 pages in, switch to plotting, then somehow muddle through and the last five or so chapters are definitely plotted to-I hope-find and tie together loose ends.

    I ditto the recommendation for James Scott Bell's book. I also use Donald Maass' books for nudging ideas and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.

  8. This is why writing is so wonderful, so creative, and so individual. I read with great joy an article in the Wall Street Journal last year celebrating "the return of the plot" in American literature, because I enjoy books where something happens, so I tend to focus on the plot, and I like to start with an outline so I have something to shoot for, but as the characters develop they invariable have their own ideas about that should be happening and everything changes. So fun to share the creative process with others!