So you have an idea for a novel, but you’re just not sure how to proceed. Should you start with an outline plotting out the entire book or just start writing, making it up as you go along? If you take a survey of writers, novice and expert alike, you will get a plethora of answers on how to successfully start and finish a book. The correct way, however, will depend upon the type of writer you are and your personal preferences.
If your personality dictates that you must know precisely where you are going and how you will get there, you are a planner by nature and will tend to lean toward outlining your book before you attempt your first paragraph. Outlines are like roadmaps. They can be as detailed or as sketchy as needed. If you are a AAA trip-tick or Mapquest enthusiast, this is probably your preferred method of writing madness and you are most likely a planner.
Some planners like to write chapter outlines where they list the main events of each chapter under the chapter title. This gives them a good overview of their story’s sequence and allows them to get from point A to point B in a nice orderly succession. Other planners like to put down the “skeleton” of their story first and then fill it in with the “meat” or details, taking a general to specific approach. Still others work backward, knowing the ending before they begin. They start at the conclusion and backtrack, detailing the events that lead up to the grand finale.
Many agents and publishers require an outline of a novel before they will look at anything else. And though the outline might be an excruciating chore, it does make writing the novel much easier. Some writers, however, feel that once the outline is written, they are married to it. Unless the outline is chiseled in stone, you can change it and your story however you see fit. There is no outline commandment that says, “Thou shall not change your mind once thou typest The End.”
But there is something to be said for those writers who fly by the seats of their pants and do it with finesse. These are known as pantsers. These masters of the imagination can spin a yarn as easily as your grandmother crochets an afghan–intricate, flawless, and off the cuff. Even when they write themselves into a corner, they find a trapdoor and escape. These writers enjoy the freedom and excitement of the unknown. And though they may not know where they are going or how they are going to get there, they enjoy the ride.
But do not fear if neither approach appeals to you, for there is any number of degrees between the two extremes that are productive. Scores of writers practice varying combinations of the two methods with great success. My personal preference is to have a basic beginning, middle, and end in mind, while letting my writing take me where it will.
When planning out a novel, I am not one to take the time to fill-in a sheet full of Roman numerals and letters, but I do have a vague mental roadmap in mind before I begin to type. I like to start with my protagonist, making him or her a reluctant hero with genuine flaws. The plot of my story revolves around this character’s problem and how it is resolved.
Second, I add conflict. Someone or something has to stand between the protagonist and his or her goal. Without a villain or obstacle, there is no story. The conflict can be man verses man, man verses nature, or man verses self. Regardless of the type of conflict, there needs to be drama. Without drama, a plot dies. No one likes a story where everyone is content and happy from beginning to end. But tell a story about someone facing a crisis, and you’ve got an audience.
Third, I create my setting. Though I am a fantasy writer, I do not design my story locations from scratch. I like to research real places and time periods that fit my needs, and tweak them to fit my stories’ purposes. For example, in my young adult fantasy novel, Island of Tory, I needed to set my story in a remote and mysterious place to suit the requirements of my plot. I researched various Irish islands to find a real location that would lend itself to my story’s purpose and mood. When I read about Tory’s history and legends, I knew I had the makings of the perfect setting for my book.
Once I have the protagonist, conflict, and setting of my novel nailed down, I improvise and adlib the rest, adding characters and events like pavers in a road to the finish. So if I had to define myself as one or the other, planner or pantser, I guess I’m a Mudblood. My flavor of writing is a fusion of the two in varying degrees, depending on the story at hand. And if a random survey of writers was taken, I doubt that most would fit neatly into one of the two categories.
So, planner or pantser? That is the question. I say…yes.