Last week my writing group had an interesting discussion. One of the members just sold her most recent novel to a publisher who wants a sequel within six months. My writing buddy has been busily plotting and planning the story. She swears by her plotting method which involves lengthy spreadsheets filled with character and scene notes.
Another member of my group declared that plotting a story like that would completely squash any and all creativity. Her writing method involves getting a kernel of an idea and then sitting down to write. She lets the characters and the story take her where they will. She plans nothing and swears by her method as a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants).
I’ve completed two novels. I wrote the first, a historical novel, with an idea and minimal plot notes. I did quite a bit of character development work and plotted the main points, but other than that, I just wrote.
My story and characters took me in some surprising directions, but during the revision process, I ended up cutting over 45,000 words and adding another 20,000 words.
While the overall backbone of the story worked, entire sub-plots and plot layers didn’t work and needed major changes. This was frustrating, but I learned a ton about overall story structure.
For my second novel, I decided to try and avoid having to cut and rewrite so much of the story, so I plotted every single scene using yWriter, a free software program.
While some scenes changed during the writing process, I tried to stick to my “plot plan.” I wrote the story much more quickly, but overall, adhering so strictly to my original plan didn’t work. The backbone of the story fell apart. Too much was going on and the main story line somehow got lost as I focused so intently on each scene.
So what did I learn from these two experiences?
I fall in the middle between my two writing buddies and discovered three key strategies to use when plotting a novel.
3 Plotting Strategies
1) Planning the major moments of a novel is key.
For novel #3, which I’ve started plotting, I’m going to start with the overall story structure, or the backbone of the story before I start planning out my scenes. I did that for novel #1 which an agent is representing. I didn’t do that for novel #2 which I’m revising for my agent.
The overall story structure can make or break a story. A misplaced single scene will not impact a novel like a misplaced key plot point.
2) Planning out every single scene is not necessary.
For me, over-plotting does take away some of the creative joy in writing a story. While planning the major scenes and moments is important to make sure the story works as a whole, I like leaving some scenes open.
As I wrote novel #2, I had some new ideas, but I squashed them because they weren’t in my “original plan.” Bad idea.
For novel #3, I’m also not going to plan out every single scene like I did for novel #2.
3) Be Flexible with your plot plan.
As you write, you might come up with great new ideas. That’s great. Note them and maybe follow that thread to see where it takes you. You might find you love it. You might find you hate it. The key is to be flexible and allow yourself to explore your story. You’ll find more out about your characters and their world, so don’t be afraid to play.
On my current revision of novel #2, I’ve found myself adding scenes that were “missing” because I adhered so closely to my original plan.