“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
—Louis L’Amour

5 Novel Writing Tips from a First-Time Plotter

They say there are two types of novel writers: pansters and plotters.

Pansters catch the spark of an idea and just get down to the writing. Plotters, on the other hand, create an outline of the novel before stringing sentences together.

5 Novel Writing Tips from a First-Time Plotter

When I wrote my first novel, I pantsed my way through with just a general idea of where I was trying to get. Overall it worked out, but along the way got myself stuck in a corner a few times, and spent much more time re-writing to correct plotting issues than I’d have liked.

This time around, I’m trying figure out how to outline a novel, with the hopes that thinking the plot through first can help me be more efficient when I get to the writing part.

How to Outline a Novel

As I figure out how to outline a novel of my own, here are five tips I’ve picked up from plotters about how to get it done well:

1. Start at the beginning

Before you start plotting, you’ve got to know where you’re starting from. Take the time to flesh out your premise, from your key characters to the world they inhabit. These key details are the roots the rest of your story grows from, so take your time.

2. Know your goal

A map is no good if you don’t have a destination in mind. When you start plotting, it can help to have a sense of how you want the story to resolve.

3. Or, start at the end

If you’re not sure where to start, starting at the end may be a good alternative. Many writers recommend this method of working your way backward through a story to get the creative juices flowing.

4. Find the tentpole moments

Once you’ve got your starting point nailed (or, your end point), a good next step is to identify the key plot points that define the big picture of your novel. What are the key moments for the characters? What are your plot threads?

5. Flesh it out

Now all that’s left to do is conned the dots, so to speak. Pull all your planning together and weave the plot threads into cohesive hole. Flesh out those details chapter by chapter.

To Outline a Novel or Not to Outline

We all have our own ways to getting the writing done. Some of us naturally tend toward pantsing, while others prefer to plan out their plots first.

Regardless of which we come to naturally, it might not be the way that works best. It can be worth the effort to explore the opposite approach, even if just as an experiment to learn more about our personal process.

Are you an plotter or a pantser? Let me know in the comments section.

PRACTICE

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, there’s a lot to learn on the other side of the pen. Try writing a story using the opposite approach. Then, share what you learn in the comments!

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • Victoria

    Great post, Emily. Your open-mindedness is refreshing.
    I am a firm supporter of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for outlining a novel. It is way more efficient for me, and it keeps things balanced nicely.
    Good luck with your novel!

    • I love that too, Victoria!! My outlines first look like something from A Beautiful Mind! Then I fill several notebooks. Ahh, what a mess life is. Scrivener is no help at all until LATER. Thanks for sharing!!

  • Elena Brabant

    Oh, I know the anguish of it. I pantsied a lot, then discovered the snowflake method, tried it. Really liked it and then out of habit, pantsied again. Now even short stories I snowflake. It is just so much easier and better for complexity of the story, and best of all – knowing how things end helps with everything before.

    • Yay Elena … but I never now how things end until I’ve rewritten the beginning about 20 times! Anyone else do that?

      • Walter Danley

        Hey Emily; Great post – thoughtful! In my case, I use Scapple to map the direction of the outline. From the same folks that make Scrivener, it sits in Scrivener as a part of the app. Handy & available for changes- there are always changes! Mine is a hybred between outlining & pantsing. Works well for me.

  • Great post! I pantsed my way through my first draft and produced a lump of clay. After pantsing a lot more, I finally have an outline, and I’m cruising! But I have to pants first, or I don’t know what I’m writing about. Revision is key for me … then outline.

  • Thanks for the post Emily. I think you’ve narrowed down the plotting elements in concise steps. However (not to be the antagonist to your protagonist viewpoint) – the real issue I take with plotting too much is it can begin to make the story flat. I’ve tried this approach numerous times and my story stays flat. The hurdles the characters face are just that: only hurdles to quickly jump over and move on for the sake of the ‘plot points’ I need to hit. There’s limited growth, and no extended conflict. Granted, I say all of this, but I’ve never written a book. In my own short stories, I tend to be more of a panster, but I have very specific ideas in regards to how I will continue to introduce conflict (at ever increasing higher stakes) as the story moves on. Having said that – do you think there’s a way to balance the two – pantsing and plotting – to find your groove? Do you think you may try and fine-tune the approach with your second book? Or are you trying to focus solely on plotting? Thanks again for a great post.

    • Zachary,

      The key is to try different methods and combinations of methods until you find the one that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all writing method. I’ve pantsed, plotted, and done something in between. The method that works best for me leans more toward plotting, but there can also be a significant amount of pantsing as I get acquainted with the characters.

      What I might suggest for your specific difficulties is to develop characters and plan your story at the same time. If you spend too much time plotting and not enough on the characters, you will end up with flat characters.

      But if you develop characters without spending much time on developing plot, you have interesting characters who aren’t doing much.

      Plot development and character development are two sides of the same coin. Both have to be the absolute best you can make them in order for your story to work and connect with readers.

  • akshy

    Nice post.
    I now understood that I was pantsing all this time.
    However I just could not get the flow out of it. I sometimes feel I wrote well but then I got to re write

    Even in plotting this is bound to happen but I feel it would be cool to try out the plotting concept as I am yet to try it and I have a couple of ideas which I can elaborate through plotting techniques given.

    Thanks emy

  • Rhonda Walker

    Very Interesting. I discovered that I seem to naturally plot. I see the beginning and end of a story first. Then I see a couple or three events happening (I guess those are the pegs you speak of.) From there it’s just a matter of filling in the gaps.. I’m in the midst of my first novel and wondering why I didn’t try noveling before now. It seems to be the way my mind naturally works. Just hope the finished product turns out to be a worthy product. I put a lot of energy into the “in between” as it is much harder than the plotting for me. But I totally agree with your plotting pattern. It makes the whole much easier to visualize. @the Word Asylum

  • I like to plot using the screenplay writer’s methodology of identifying the inciting incident, plot points (tentpoles), crisis, and conclusion. Generally quite effective.

    In my first MG/YA effort, however, I was so excited about my story idea I blasted ahead and pantsed up 66K word novel.

    The result has been a lot of heavy editing. The story will be a good one. The learning curve has been even better.

    • That’s exactly what happened to me, Glenn. I was so psyched up about my concept with my first novel that I just started writing … and then got myself tied up in major revisions for about two years. Sigh. But, live and learn.

      Good luck with your story!

  • Kenneth M. Harris

    I believe that unfortunately, I am a panster. Before I had heard of Plot outlining, etc., I have tried that a while ago, but it just didn’t work for me. I completed my novel about a year ago and have completed a couple of novellas since then. I tried the outlining about a few years ago and it didn’t work for me. I found that I was always changing my plot as I go along. I do think that plotting outline is great for some people. I’ve known a few who have always written this way. I even tried the plotting with short, short stories. After reading the outline section, I might try it again. Maybe the outline might work better this time around. Thanks all of you so much. I must say this again, I’m writing much, much more than I have been. I’m not saying that the writing is great at all! I suppose that I’ll always think my writing is not good. Either way, I am definitely going to try the contest. Emily, thanks again. KEN

    • Ken,

      What I’ve learned is that writing an outline (or a summary or whatever) before I write the story doesn’t dictate the story. There are still plenty of surprises.

      What it does do is provide a framework within which the story takes shape.

      It also helps me decide which options might work within that framework and which ones can be discarded immediately and saved for another story. That alone is well worth the effort of writing an outline for me. It saves a lot of time chasing rabbit trails!

      • Kenneth M. Harris

        Thanks Carrie. You’ve pointed out a few things that I didn’t think about, especially providing a framework. KEN

    • We all work our own ways! Thanks for sharing, Ken.

  • Emily,

    I’ve completed manuscripts both ways.

    The first four or five stories were written by the seat of my pants. I went wherever the characters and story wanted to go. Most of those manuscripts went through three or four complete drafts. Some went through ten or more. I still tinker with one that’s in draft 15 or 16 and still isn’t right.

    When I discovered pre-planning, it was like having a light bulb go on. I now pre-plan most of my stories and have even found it helpful in trying to figure out where the previous stories can be improved.

    What I’ve learned is that same method doesn’t work for every author and it doesn’t even always work for every story. Some of my stories still resist pre-planning while others wander aimlessly if I don’t pre-plan!

    Thanks for sharing your discoveries!

  • I’ve tried both plotting it and pantsing it, and both seem to work equally well for me depending on the length of whatever I’m working on. I never use outlines for flash fiction, but I can’t imagine trying to write a novel without at least a few notes to help me keep all the subplots and characters and ideas straight.

    That said, the finished draft never look much like the outline. I may write page after page of plot summary, only to realize when I actually write the story that certain details don’t flow naturally from what came before, that a minor character should actually play a bigger role, etc. Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, there’s no substitute for writing the first draft.

  • Thanks for you concise and insightful method for starting a novel 🙂

  • George McNeese

    I’ve done plotting and pantsing. How I choose depends on the length of the work. For flash fiction, I’ll let the creativity do the work. I’ll write what comes to me. Longer stories I tend to plot, although the outline is not very detailed.

  • Bob Ranck

    Emily,

    I certainly enjoy your perspective on the origin and building of a story..I am not sure there is a “right way” or “wrong way”, but this is how it works for me.

    I just start with a character, and write what he/she does, what they think, and follow them in their ever-so-interesting lives, noting the incredible situations they get themselves into or the unusual people and events that intercept their lives. Currently I am involved in what might be called short stories, and I might have run across (as protagonists) a couple of Damon Runyan Rejects. These guys take me to interesting places and things.

    But it is FUN that way.

    • Bob, I did the same with my debut novel. I got to know my protagonist and followed along as she went on an adventure. Much of what I wrote didn’t end up in the novel, but that’s ok. I needed to know who she was in order to finish the novel. Besides, I think I also have a prequel. And since I know the protagonist so well, I could certainly write a sequel or two.
      Sherrie
      Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
      Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

  • I just my try writing my next story as a plotter. it sounds great! Although I have been 100% punster on my current novel, I am starting to feel the effects of it. I’m in the final stages of writing it, and like you said, there’s more rewriting than I care for. I do enjoy the freedom of being a pantster though:)
    Love how you spelled it out. I’ll be sure to keep this in mind!
    “Whatsoever ye do, do heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men”
    Reagan

  • Cedric Adego

    Emily,

    To me, writing is like chasing the White Rabbit. Of course I plan to catch it, according to my plot, but the Rabbit suddenly takes a turn and I’m suddenly pantsing down the Rabbit Hole. I believe this is one of the merits of writing: it has a life of its own and it chooses you, the writer/author, to be the bearer of its messages of adventure.

    What I mean is that I do a lot of plotting. Sometimes I have the whole story planned out, either in my head or in writing, but when it comes to some points of the story – especially the action packed sections or the dramatic scenes – the writing just flows out of me and I have no much say in it.

    I think a mixture of both plotting and pantsing is good for writing. I especially love the parts where I get surprised with what I have written, and if its good but I still want it to conform with the plot, the universe shall aspire to bring them together.

  • Good tips Emily,

    I’ve had varied success (creating ideas) with starting at the beginning and end. But I’ve found that I’ve just about pantsed every short story I’ve ever created. I sort of compare it to dominoes in that once one idea or character comes, the rest comes right after until my stream of consciousness is laid out in whichever way the last domino is pointing.

    However, I did have to revise and plan somewhat before I was able to finish my first novel earlier this year. With that, I actually started with a character and then created an antagonist based off what I envisioned that character’s morals were. From there, other characters followed, then various plots and possible tentpole moments.

  • Lorraine H. Pelkey

    Thanks for good tips. I think that knowing the goals is the main point, because it is the problem of a lot of young writers, they want to write about everything and forget that there should be the main idea. One time i had to help with writing extended essay to the friend of mine, and in the first variant he has showed me he had such a mistake.

  • Lilian Gardner

    Hi Emily,
    Thanks for the five steps of plotting a novel.
    I’m both plotter and panster; it depends on the story. I make a few hasty notes to remind myself of interesting bits to add, but mostly my creativity works best before falling asleep. I write in my head and bring the story forward. When I sit to type, I elaborate and insert the hasty notes I’ve jotted down along the way.
    My worst point is getting halfway through the story, putting it aside because of an unavoidable distraction, and taking it up weeks later. I need to read through what I’ve written to rekindle the fire. Such a waste of time!

  • Judi Plante

    So far I’ve been a pantser working on a My Memoir/Christian Fiction for overt two years. I’ve just been first writing off the top of my head, then trying to hone and refine (learning that more) one section at a time. This was non-stop, then I got blocked. My semi weekly writers group suggested writing a short story for a break. I started one and am in the middle of that—finding out planning might be a better way to go. So I will do some planning on this short story and see what happens. I think I will learn a lot about the value of planning my writing project. I’m so happy to be able to get some advice from experienced writers as well as newbies liike me.

  • I used to be a firm pantser and now I have changed into a firm plotter, LOL. What changed my mind the most was not being able to easily finish anything I didn’t outline in advance. I know some people can do it, but I can’t. Plus, having an outline allows me to finish drafts faster, which means I get more writing (and therefore more practice) done in general.

  • cheryl @bookaddict4real

    I think it’s great if someone can write a book by pantsing it,I wish I could do that I a. A ENFJ personality so I have to have structure even in my writing practice.

  • houda

    hi thanks for the tips. for me the start is always the easy part. I imagine one scene it doesn’t matter where it stand chronologically sometimes it is the opening scene sometime it is in the middle but never the ending scene that I discover while I’m writing. then every scene leads to another. the outline come after writing nearly half of the book, then I need a map to see where the story is headed. it worked for me so far

  • Jack Strandburg

    I am definitely a plotter and a lot of my writing time is spent streamlining and polishing my story process. I use Excel extensively for timelines (which I’ve found are one of the most critical points for keeping things straight). I’ve approached writing as a pantser and for me it only works to a point until I get bogged done in the background story and the lives of the major characters. I also believe that while character profiling is important, if nothing significant happens (events), you have no story, so in my mind, plot and characterization are equally important.

  • svford

    I have kind of worked it weird. I wrote a rough draft, went to my notebook and manually wrote out an outline, and between the 2, doing editing.