Core Essentials for Planning a Novel

character creation honing the craft plotting tips and tricks world-building Jul 01, 2021

Post by Katie Wall.

We've all heard that some writers are plotters and some writers are pantsers (meaning, they write by the seat of their pants). While many people talk about this as a dichotomy—you're one or the other—Andrew and I believe that it's more of a continuum than a dichotomy.

For example, one writer may plot every detail out before drafting. They may know exactly what will happen in each scene and their outline could even include details or dialogue that will end up being included in the manuscript. This writer is on the far end of the plotter side of the continuum.

On the other hand, another writer may have an impression of a character and some vague understanding of a world before they dive in to write. They may feel that if they plot out what will happen that either the characters don't care and do things "on their own" or that the creative urge to write the story dries up when they attempt to outline. This writer is on the far end of the spectrum in the pantsing direction.

I would wager that most writers are not so much one or the other, but instead fall somewhere in between. They are the "plantser" or, as Andrew and I like to call them, "planner."

These writers might have pantser or plotter tendencies, but unlike the extremes of the spectrum they know that some planning is helpful to their story (just not necessarily every detail).

If you find yourself wishing that you could adopt more planning into your writing process—or, conversely, that you want to stop obsessing over your outline—then it's a good idea to figure out which elements to focus on. Let's consider what I believe are the three core essentials to have figured out before you start writing:

  1. Your story guiding principle.
  2. Your world.
  3. Your protagonist.

If you've read some of my other blog posts, you know that the story guiding principle should be a huge influence on your story overall. Like the term suggests, it's an idea or principle that guides your entire story.

Knowing how your world works—physics, governments, races, cultures, etc.—is also crucial. Why? Because this is the context for your story. And context gives meaning. For example, in one world a red scarf might not have any significance, yet in another it does stand for something and that red scarf becomes the key for the entire plot. If you don't know the context of your story, you can't use it and it won't feel like an organic aspect of your manuscript. (More about why we think world-building is for pantsers and plotters here.)

Likewise, knowing your protagonist is a must. However, by "knowing your protagonist" I don't mean that you have to know every little detail about them. You don't necessarily need to know that their favorite color was orange when they were five but then at six they changed to green and it's been green for twenty years now… unless that information is pertinent to the story you are telling. What I mean instead is that you need to understand your character's wants and motivations, as this allows you to set up a conflict (yay tension!) that ties in with that motivation. This creates a compelling character and story.

To review, I believe that the three core elements every writer should plan before they write are: the story guiding principle, the world, and the protagonist.

Now obviously extreme pantsers write books without these core elements figured out ahead of time, but keep in mind that they then must figure them out during the revision process. Sometimes this means a full or partial rewrite of the novel... and sometimes more than one rewrite.

So save yourself some revision pain and instead spend some time investing in planning your novel! I'd love to help you—check out my Planning Help package. And if you've already written your novel, check out my blog on how to revise your novel and/or my revision packages.

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