I actually quite enjoy writing without a plan. Pantser-style. I’ve done a complete NaNoWriMo without outlining anything and having no clue about where the story will go. And while this is nice as long as you know what comes next, it’s soo easy to get lost on the way.

I know that there are a lot of writers out there who dread outlining and I feel you. For some part I’m feeling the same, BUT…. I’ve come to realize that at least some degree of planning is highly recommendable. Even if you are considering yourself a Pantser, as someone who flies by the seat of their pants, doing at least a little groundwork pays off tenfold at the end.

The Downsides of Writing without Plot

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several issues with creating a story as I go.

First of all it actually hinders the writing process. If you don’t know what has to happen next, you have to stop and think about it. Which means you have to switch your work mode and I guess we all heard about those studies about switching tasks and losing both time and productivity along the way.

It can worsen your writing. I’ve found myself writing a lot of fluff if I didn’t know exactly how to continue. Filling your novel with unnecessary information will either result in a lot of editing later on or – worse – with an unsatisfying reading experience.

It increases editing time enormously. I’m a huge advocat for writing your first draft without editing and doing the editing part afterwards. So far, so good. Writing without a plan often results in a lot of useless scenes and unessential information.

You may find yourself stuck in a dead end. It happens. A lot. Your story may have evolved smoothly, but you somehow find yourself in a place where you can’t seem to make the story work anymore.

The Solution

An easy solution to all of those problems is having at least a rough outline. It doesn’t have to be down to the last steps of the Snowflake Method, but by doing some preparation ahead of time you’ll find your writing process much more enjoyable.

What I suggest is to have at least some things figured out:

1. Know your Characters

Knowing how your protagonist and antagonist tick is crucial to developing a story. The way you do that is to figure out what they want. What is their deepest inner desire that they want to achieve no matter what. Additional to that I would concentrate on their values/beliefs and their flaws.

I’m not talking about complete character design here – which you can do of course if you want to create authentic characters – I’m merely focusing on the essentials that drive your plot.

Their deepest desire is their motivation for action. It can be anything from saving their mother to finding love to solving a mystery. It has to be strong enough to keep them going though.

Their values and beliefs define the way in which they act. Do they value honesty and being kind to others? Do they bend the rules, because they see no importance in them. Their values and beliefs are essential because they give you a guideline to their behaviour.

Their flaws are crucial as well, because they are your characters potential to grow. And grow they must, if they are to overcome the obstacles in their way.

Additionally, all of these things are great sources for conflict and conflict is what drives your story after all.

2. Your Setting

The importance of setting in your outline lies in its rules and constraints.

For example, if you have some kind of magical system, you do have to know how it works and what rules it follows. Using magic at random when you initially made it seem like it can only be used during certain times, makes your story inconsistent.

If you’re writing a love story about a gay couple and you set it in a town where this is still a taboo, then they won’t be able to show it openly. And you get some possibility for added conflict.

Therefore figure out what influence your chosen setting has is essential. Keep those things in mind when actually writing your story. If you do that your story is guaranteed to be more consistent and authentic.

3. Major Turningpoints

Starting your outline with important events is probably the easiest way to progress. Think about how you want to start your novel and figure out what climax and ending it has.

If you know where you start and you know where it shall end, you can start defining other major scenes. What’s in the way of your protagonist to get to the end? How can you create additional conflict? How will the antagonists actions sabotage the protagonists doing? What major obstacles does the protagonist have to overcome and how does he get there? I’m talking about big revelations and turning points here, not puny details.

Figuring out these steps ahead of time keeps you from stumbling in the dark during the actual writing process. It doesn’t have to be too specific, but having some milestones to work with gives you way more clarity. And you actually do know where to steer the boat to get to your preferred ending.

4. Filling the Holes

When you know those general steps to get you from the beginning of your novel to the actual outcome you envision, you can take the time to add some additional information. This is the point where you can be as vague or specific as you want to be. If you’re a real pantser at heart you may even want to skip this part.

I actually do recommend to spend some time with the details, because I neither like stopping midway in my writing to think about what to do next nor do I like being stuck in a situation that I can’t easily resolve.

An easy way to do that is to take each major milestone and ask yourself what needs to be done to get that scene to work. If you know that one turning point is the surprising revelation of the villains identity, you have to lay the ground work ahead of time to divert the protagonists (and readers) attention from suspecting that person. You can for example include a scene that makes them come to a wrong conclusion.

Ideally you at least have a list of things that need to happen before your milestones happen. How you incorporate this into your story is completely up to you and if you want to figure that out while writing… do it 🙂

Outlining actually isn’t so bad and I’ve come to enjoy my rather minimal process. It works for me and I hope you find it helpful as well. What type of writer are you? Do you excessively plan each scene or do you wing it most of the time?

If you want to learn more about this topic I can highly recommend Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland as well as Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress.

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