How much should you plan your plot?

February 3, 2014   Tags: , , , , 🕑 3 minutes read

Fiction writers need to plan their plots. They need to be organized. But should they also allow their characters and the plot to develop on their own?

Most people coming to us to help them write their manuscripts are first-time writers. They often don’t know where to start, or have started and are not sure where to go next. One really good question is “How much should I plan my plot?”

A huge caveat needs to be placed on any answer to this, including my answer here. No two writers are the same. No two stories are the same. The best answer for you might not be the best answer for another author. So take the following paragraphs as good advice that might be helpful, but don’t take it as Gospel truth.

I won’t know until I start writing it.

This question actually sprung to mind thanks to Brandy Moss, an author who asked the following question on Google Plus (and you can read the feedback here):

So I finally finished Chapter 13 and let a couple friends who had been waiting on it, read it. Immediately after they finished reading, they both had the same question….. “What happens to Troy?!”I count it a good thing that I left enough of a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter that they want more, but is it bad that I can’t answer their question? Hell, even I have nothing but the vaguest idea what happens to Troy. And I won’t until I start writing it.Do others write like that? Or is it just me who lets the voices in my head tell me the story as we go instead of outlining some grand plot?

As a basis for starting work on your manuscript, the more organized you are the better. An outline of the chapters and what you want in them is helpful. You can do this yourself, or if you are hiring one of our ghostwriters, you can have her do it for you. The same goes for character development. And choice of location.

The more you have a specific vision, the more detail you should create. Otherwise, you will make it up as you go along, or your ghostwriter will.

Is making it up as you go along all bad?

Actually, to some degree, it is important to maintain flexibility in fiction-writing.  To some degree, characters write themselves.  The more interesting the character, the more likely he is to write himself.  Having a detailed outline is important, especially in a very complex plot, but maintaining flexibility will allow your characters to develop themselves in a way that flows naturally.

It is interesting that on the same day that Brandy Moss asked her question, JK Rowling lets out her own misgivings about having followed through on early plans for her characters, rather than allowing them to develop the way they would might naturally have developed.

Quote from JK Rowling about Harry and Hermoine

To quote The Sunday Times:

IT WAS the romance every Harry Potter fan wanted to see. Now JK Rowling has admitted she got it wrong by pairing off Hermione Granger with Ron Weasley rather than her franchise’s hero.

We are big Harry Potter fans in this house, most of us having read the books multiple times and all of us having seen the films multiple times.  And this answers the one question that has always left us scratching our heads.

But it also shows that even with the most successful franchise in history, there remain questions of how how much planning and how much flexibility is enough.  The answer does not stop with the author, either.  CNN reports on how fans weigh in on both sides of the debate.

Question of the day

That leaves us with the question of the day: “How much should you plan your plot, and how much should you let it develop on its own?” Please feel free to own experience as a writer/author in the comments below.




About David Leonhardt

David Leonhardt is President of The Happy Guy Marketing, a published author, a "Distinguished Toastmaster", a former consumer advocate, a social media addict and experienced with media relations and government reports.

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  1. Debby Bruck says:
    at 12:28 am

    Dear David. Thanks for this thoughtful piece on writing with flexibility. As we are on players on the stage of life, we don’t know what’s going to happen to us the next day. How can you expect the writer to know what will happen to the characters by the end of the book? Something sensational may happen along the way, or a unexpected detour. Maybe a new character will enter stage left! Blessings, Debby

  2. Angelo M says:
    at 8:53 pm

    This is a really interesting post.

    Personally, I usually plan/outline my plot, but then allow myself the freedom to change things as I actually write. I find it’s helpful having a general structure, but I like to give myself some leeway too.

    The exception to this was my first novel, which due to it’s structure had to be very carefully plotted and outlined, and which then had to be adhered to precisely. (If you’ve read it you’ll know why, if not, I won’t bore you with the details..!)

    It’s really interesting seeing how other authors approach this though.

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