Why Planning a Novel Matters

At what point do you stop planning a novel and begin to actually write it? There's no right or wrong here, but it's something you need to decide early on: Are you a "planner" or a "writer"?

I don't mean that in a derogatory way (as in "are you a man or a mouse?"). I don't mean that planning novels in detail is some second-rate activity that "real" writers wouldn't be caught dead doing.

As a matter of fact, I'm a huge fan of doing plenty of planning, and I think it's just as creative and rewarding as the actual writing part.

No, when I ask if you are a "planner" or a "writer", it is a genuine question...

  • Some folks (me included) like to plan a lot before they start writing.
  • Others like to dive straight in and see where their typing fingers take them.

And I believe it is important to know which one you are before you go any farther. Why? Because it will affect your whole approach to this step-by-step Novel Writing Process.

Understand that all of these steps are important, and that you will have to do them all whether you are a fan of planning a lot... or only a little.

It is more to do with the order in which you do them...

You could, for example, write a first draft straight off, before doing any planning whatsoever. Does that mean you have by-passed the novel-planning process entirely? Sorry, but no...

  • You'll have to do a certain amount of planning in your head as you write that first draft - and that isn't easy for a novel writing newbie.
  • And you will have to do a lot of planning (or re-planning) when you read that first draft and realize that it's, um, a complete structural mess.

But, still, you face a choice right here and right now...

  • Are you going to plan your novel in huge detail before writing it?
  • Or will you keep the note-taking on the sketchy side and get to the actual writing as soon as possible?

Some writers are happy to plunge straight into the story after the bare minimum of note taking. Others feel more comfortable planning a novel in detail before they begin to write. What kind of writer are you?

"...God, I wish he could discipline himself and really plan a novel."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald on Thomas Wolfe

The Pros and Cons of Planning Fiction In Depth

What you are actually doing when planning a story is working out what you want to say. The writing stage is then all about how you say it - or the language that you use to bring the "this-happens-and-then-this-happens" to life.

Now, there are two possible extremes here...

  • First, you can plan everything that happens in the novel before you write a single word of it. I don't just mean a broad outline, but a highly-detailed breakdown of every chapter, and every section within each chapter.

    Of course, you will use plenty of words to write the plan, but they will be in note format rather than prose format. So instead of writing a detailed description of the boy kissing the girl in the moonlight, for example, your plan will simply say something like: "Boy kisses girl after their date, moon comes out when their lips meet."

    (Okay, a bit on the schmaltzy side, but you get the idea!)

  • The other extreme is to do no planning of the novel whatsoever - and some writers claim to work this way. Armed with little more than an idea for an initial situation, these writers start at the beginning and see where the story leads them.

    Of course, they are still technically "planning" - it is impossible not to - but they do it in their heads as they go.

Needless to say, I don't recommend the second of these extremes, particularly if you're writing your first novel. Unless you are a natural genius, doing at least some planning is essential.

The decision you must make is how much detailed planning of your novel to do...

  • Are you just going to spend a week on it or six months? Maybe you're going to plan for a year or two (excessive... but, hey, if you simply want to enjoy the journey, why not?)
  • Are you going to keep your notes handwritten and sketchy, or will you produce hundreds of pages or typed and edited notes?

If in doubt, do more planning.

It's like writing a letter to your bank manager: if you just start writing without thinking about what you want to say, you can quickly find yourself confused, and the confusion makes you stop writing and start staring into thin air.

But if you make a bulleted list of the points you want to make before you begin, the words flow effortlessly.

Why? Because the two things - working out what to say, and actually saying it - are two entirely separate processes, controlled by different sides of the brain...

  • Planning a novel is controlled by the logical left half of the brain - that's where your inner-critic lives. Your inner-muse or inner-artist still has plenty of input (because planning demands plenty of creative thinking), but the critic is in charge.
  • Writing a first draft happens in the creative right side (the muse's side). The critic gets no look in here whatsoever. In fact, if the critic does get involved it destroys the muse's flow, which is why it is much better not to write while you plan or plan while you write.


Take a look at these two quotations on planning a novel...

"...one doesn't overplan; so many things are generated by the sheer act of writing."
- Anthony Burgess

"...it is not pearls that make a necklace; it's the thread. Everything depends on the plan."
- Gustave Flaubert

Burgess is saying that planning in too much detail is pointless, because it is only through the creative act of writing (more specifically, writing the first draft) that you will learn what it is about. Flaubert says that, without a plan, the pearls you create during the writing process will have nowhere to hang.

And they are both right.

The detailed planning of fiction, in my opinion, is essential for a beginner. To write a chapter knowing little or nothing about what happens in the chapter isn't easy. You really need to know what you are doing to work like that.

On the other hand, planning in too much detail can be a wasted effort, because sometimes you only truly discover what you want to say through the act of writing the novel.

The answer, then, is to strike a balance: Plan your novel in detail - but not in so much detail that you leave no room for creativity during the writing stage. Think of planning as building a skeleton and writing as putting the flesh on the bones and you won't go far wrong.