How do you plan a novel? Some writers start with an idea and make things up as they go along, happy to see where their imagination takes them. Others meticulously plan every step, creating a detailed synopsis that carries them through. There’s no right or wrong way – the best way is the way that works for you.
I used to be a ‘pantser’ – someone who got an idea and started writing to see where it would go, with no plan on how to get here. There was a certain freedom in doing this, an excitement of being on the same journey as the characters and not knowing where you would end up.
The downside was, I’d never seem to finish anything. There would come a certain point where my ideas ran out of steam, or I’d get lost and realise I had no idea where the story was going or how I wanted it to end. I rushed ahead to get words on paper, but I couldn’t formulate a complete narrative.
Since I started outlining, everything has changed for me. I know where my story is going, I know the major plot points and narrative beats I want to cover, but I still have flexibility and freedom in getting there.
The ‘Ripple Method’
If I was to give my outlining style a name, I’d probably call it the ripple method. My process starts with an idea; I get something in my head that excites me, something I want to explore and write about. It might be as vague as a setting, or a loose theme, or a conversation between characters. But it’s always something that sparks my imagination into life and makes me want to start building around it until I get a story.
That’s the centre of the ripple. From that first initial idea, I’ll start making notes and thinking about the different directions I could take the story in. The more I flesh out potential characters and settings and plot points, the more ripples start to build until I’ve got a good-sized chunk of loosely-connected ideas and scenarios I can weave together to build my outline.
One of the first things I’ll decide on is the ending. It makes a lot of sense to me to recognise where I want my stories to go. To continue the ripple metaphor, my ending is the edge of the puddle/pool/lake where the ripples stop. If I don’t set its boundaries early on, the ripples lose their structure and clarity and end up drifting off and disappearing from that initial central idea.
Setting an ending early on in the process gives focus to my writing and enables me to make sure that every element in my story is pulling together and going in the same direction – the direction of that ending. That’s not to say the ending has to be set in stone – I am flexible enough to change things if the story starts going in an unexpected direction – but having that end goal in mind as I write helps inform how I develop the rest of the story.
After I’ve decided on the general gist of the story and how I want it to end, I then start outlining my major plot points and story beats. These could be anything from major turning points, character conflicts or deaths, developing relationships, or just fun and exciting interactions. I try to note these down as I come up with them and then see how they fit together, and the more I outline with these notes, the more inspiration tends to strike and offer even more ideas.
It’s probably at this point I’ll make a start on actually writing the story. Sometimes my outline is still pretty loose at this point; other times, it will be more focused and have a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. But as I write, I tend to get even more ideas and inspiration, so I incorporate these into the plan and think about what I might need to add or change or shift around.
The most important point for me is while I recognise how useful the outline is for giving my writing focus, I don’t need to stick rigidly to it. Nothing is set in stone. New characters or subplots or relationships might develop during the course of my writing that then change the story around it, and that’s absolutely fine! I enjoy having the flexibility to adapt and change things.
Overall, I find outlining really useful in my own writing process to help structure my novels. I don’t think about it analytically in terms of hitting the steps of the three-act structure or hero’s journey – it’s more of a natural, instinctive understanding – but it does help give me a focus and it encourages me to make sure that everything I write has purpose.
Do you have an outlining or plotting method, or do you prefer to write and see where it takes you? Let me know in the comments!