There's a lot of confusion about how to plot a novel. You won’t spend much time on writers’ forums before the question comes up: Should you outline, or should you just wing it?

In the meantime, though, I can give you some ideas here.

First of all, let’s look in detail at the two options.

How To Plot A Novel: Outlining

An outline is a blueprint for your story. It can be as detailed as you like. Some writers have a chapter-by-chapter outline; others might need to decide what’s going to happen in every single scene, before they’ve even written a word of the story.
Outliners cannot believe that anybody could possibly write a story without doing so.

They would be concerned that the story would wander off into incoherent drivel if they didn’t keep a tight rein on it.

They would worry about getting into the middle of the story and suddenly being stuck, not knowing where to go next with it.

They would no more write a story without an outline than they’d undertake a journey to somewhere new without a map. They would equate writing without an outline as being as reckless and as likely to fail as driving aimlessly around hoping to just somehow arrive at your destination city.

Actually, it’s worse. If you’re going on a journey, at least you have a destination in mind - when you’re writing without outlining, you don’t even know the destination! Madness!

How To Plot A Novel: Winging It

The other category of writer begs to differ. For them the joy of the process is in discovering what happens next. They think that an outlined story will lack spontaneity.
They may have a vague direction in mind for their story - they’ll know that the lovers will end up together, for example, as per the conventions of the genre they’re writing in - but they have no idea how that will happen.

But that’s okay, they’ll find out as they go.

For them it would spoil the story if they knew what happened. They’d be too bored to write the story then, some of them say. If it doesn’t surprise them, they say, how can it possibly surprise the reader?

And they don’t know enough yet, about the story, to plot it fully anyway. They are like E.L. Doctorow who said: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

So, which is the right way to plot a novel?

In truth, there’s no definitive right way. There’s only what works for you.

In many ways I think that writing fiction is very much like sex. The basic principles are the same for everybody, but there’s a million variations on technique, and everybody has to find out what works for them. And like love-making, writing fiction happens in private, so we can’t really see how others do it. Sure they can tell us, and my analogy stumbles a little here because people are much more likely to share details of writing novels than they are of their love lives!

But the basic premise remains: that no matter what they tell you about what they do, it mightn’t work for you. You have to figure it out yourself.

I imagine that wingers have more unfinished novels than do outliners. But maybe they have more fun along the way. Or perhaps that’s just my own bias.

So my advice would be to try both ways, and see what’s best for you.

I personally am more of a winger than an outliner. I simply can’t see that far ahead to know what happens (although I am experimenting with it - further bulletins as events warrant). And yes, I do sometimes end up in the middle of the story with no idea where to go. But I always turn to EFT - the ultimate cure for writer's block - to help me access my creativity and come up with the next step, and it always works.

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