Should You Plot Your First Draft?

Mention “plotting a novel” to any writer and you’re sure to elicit a passionate response. They’ll either perk up with opinions on story arc and character profiles or swat the phrase away in favor of a less-structured approach.

If you’re a fan of National Novel Writing Month, you may be familiar with the “plotting vs pantsing” discussion that arises each year as authors decide to outline the month prior (a period deemed “Preptober”) or jump in without a game plan. Many take this annual challenge as an opportunity to test out which method works for them, because the truth of the matter is you can’t be sure whether you’re someone who plots a novel without some trial and error.

That being said, taking a look at some of the pros and cons of plotting a novel may provide you with a starting point for your first draft. Does one of the approaches naturally appeal to you more? If you’re already writing a first draft and have found yourself blocked along the way, some of these points may also explain why the path you’re on isn’t working for you.

Perks of Plotting

From likes of Sylvia Plath and Henry Miller to John Grisham and JK Rowling, many authors have been known to meticulously outline their work. And for good reason – it usually pays off to organize, right? If you’re bursting with ideas for your story, ordering them could be exactly the ticket to creating a solid first draft. Having a roadmap will help you stay on track throughout the process, and give you the designated space to jot down details for later so brainstorming your book isn’t keeping you up at night.

Plotting your novel could also save you time in the long run. Since you won’t be making as many major decisions as you write, you’re less likely to find plot holes in your manuscript during your second draft, and you won’t waste writing sessions scrapping full chapters due to indecisive over sub-plots. If you do change up part of your story or re-order chapters in a subsequent draft, it’ll be easier to do so with your original plot overview at the ready.

You may also want to take into account whether you’re writing a series or a longer novel when making the decision to plot. An outline – even a loose one – could ensure you don’t lose your main storyline over the course of multiple books or hundreds of pages. 

Pitfalls of Plotting

On the other end of the spectrum we have authors like Stephen King, who is quite vocal about his aversion to plotting. “Plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” He discusses this topic at length in his memoir On Writing, where he suggests it’s unnatural to plot because “[…] our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning.”

Regardless of whether you agree with these sentiments, many “pantsers” say that plotting a novel often stifles their story. Following a structure can make it difficult to familiarize yourself with your characters organically, or you may overlook a wonderful storyline in the process of sticking to your plan. 

If you’re working with a detailed outline, it can also turn your once-inspiring idea into something more akin to business. Of course, writing any novel takes a great deal of labor and won’t feel like divine orchestration at all times, but if an outline reminds you too much of writing essays in school, that could be enough of a reason to try writing without one.

You may also fall into the trap of using the outlining process as an excuse to never write. Do you tell yourself you’ll write once your outline is finished, only to never finish it? If your fear of getting started is your primary motivation for plotting, it may be time to be honest with yourself and switch up your approach.

Finding a Compromise

Another option to consider a middle-ground approach. Perhaps it would help you to plot out some of the major events in your novel but leave the rest up to fate. Maybe you’d like to plot out the first two chapters to get started, and revisit outlining then, either adding to your plot or forgoing it from there.

It’s human nature to wrestle with decision paralysis here, or take what a favorite author says as gospel, but the polarity of this discussion shows there’s no correct approach, just the best approach for you. This can look like any combination of tips, tricks, and personal experience, so put pen to paper whichever way feels right to you in the moment, and over time you’ll discover your own unique recipe for creating a first draft.

  • Posted by Julia McAlpine
  • May 15, 2020 11:34 AM PDT
Mention “plotting a novel” to any writer and you’re sure to elicit a passionate response.




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