Imagine the following scenario...
You’ve got an idea for a novel, and you think it’s a good idea, too. It feels like the right next step for your writing practice—an ambitious step, sure, but not an insurmountable one. You’re ready to take on a new challenge.
But you’ve never written this kind of long-form project before.
Maybe you tried in the past, but you spent more time fussing with the outline than you did writing. You kept losing track of where your characters were “supposed” to be according to your initial plan. Eventually, it killed your narrative momentum, and you lost interest.
Or, maybe you didn’t use an outline at all, and then you couldn’t figure out what to focus on for each chapter. You gave up before you finished.
Maybe you’ve never even attempted anything like a novel at all.
Whatever your background may be, now you’re trying to figure out a path forward. Your head is so full of your idea that you know you have to explore it, but you don’t know how or where to begin.
Should you just dive right in and start writing, or should you outline and plan the novel first?
Should you start at Chapter 1, or figure out the ending first and work backward from there?
It’s starting to feel like you’ve entered a maze. You can turn either left or right, and you know that choosing the wrong direction will send you down the wrong path. But you can’t see the finish line—that’s the whole point of a maze, after all—so you feel lost before you’ve even begun.
It’s all so overwhelming!
You may be nodding right now. Because despite my initial question, maybe you don’t have to imagine this scenario—you have been there. Maybe you're even in the thick of it, right now.
I won’t deny that writing a book is an ambitious undertaking.
It’s hard. It’s long. It’s stressful.
But none of those words are synonyms of impossible.
People do, after all, write books every day. They finish novels. They publish novels. They sell novels. And it all begins with the same thing you have: an idea.
You won’t reach the finish line until you take your first step past the entrance to the maze. So, let’s head on in together…
George R. R. Martin, a prolific writer best known for his series of epic fantasy novels A Song of Ice and Fire, has famously stated that most writers fall into one of two categories: architects or gardeners.
You may also have heard of writers being classified as “plotters” or “pantsers.”
Martin’s architects are the plotters. These are the writers that don’t feel ready to start drafting a novel until they’ve got a detailed outline in place.
Plotters are as meticulous in their planning as an architect designing a building. Their outlines serve as blueprints for the novel—careful, well-thought-out instructions that will guide them through their writing.
Gardeners, on the other hand, prefer to “fly by the seat of their pants.” These pantsers don’t outline anything, or they rely on their outlines very minimally as they progress through the writing stage.
Pantsers approach writing the way a gardener grows a garden. They think of story ideas as seeds to be planted, and even if they know what kind of seed they have, they don’t know exactly what the plant will look like—the size, the shape, the precise number of leaves—until it’s grown.
There is no one right way to write a novel. It doesn’t matter if you’re an architect or plotter, a gardener or pantser, or even a combination of the two—what matters is to pick the method that works for you.
Let’s return to the maze analogy that I referenced at the beginning of this post: you can’t see the finish line, so you don’t know which way to go.
So, how does an architect resolve this?
The architect simply refuses to enter the maze at all until they know more about it. They’ll “zoom out” of the maze to see the whole thing from a bird’s-eye view—they find the ending and see the paths they need to take to get there.
(Or, to think of it another way—they see which paths will lead to dead ends and which will take them further.)
The architect’s blueprint, then, is the outline. While different architects will approach their outlines differently, the basic idea is to have a plan sketched out before the drafting phase begins. These outlines might include:
A narrative outline is, quite literally, an outline of the trajectory your novel will take. It starts at the beginning of chapter one and ends at the novel’s conclusion. It covers the major plot points that will take your characters from A to Z.
This might be extensively detailed, with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of everything that happens, including minor subplots.
Or it might be more of an open-ended guideline, with some notes about only the most important plot points and major twists and turns.
Character sketches can help you flesh out your “cast” into fully formed, three-dimensional characters that feel like real people.
You can include notes about anything that seems relevant, like the character’s age, job/position (e.g., student), physical description, and socio-cultural background.
You can also include detail about the character’s personality or beliefs, such as their taste in music, sense of style, political affiliation, most important values, dreams and aspirations, biggest pet peeves, fears, and even their flaws—the things about them that bother or concern other characters.
Character sketches can sometimes even be literal sketches! Start drawing, if you want to. Or, find images online of people that look like your character and save them in a notebook, binder, or computer folder.
You can also include notes on the different relationships between characters. Maybe designing a family tree would be helpful, or notes on past and current relationships, whether those relationships are romantic, platonic, or professional.
Finally, remember that not all aspects of these sketches have to make it into your novel. Maybe you’ll decide that your main character is big into 90s hip-hop, but the final narrative never actually includes a scene where he rocks out to a Tupac record.
These notes are just for you. They will help add dimension and richness to your understanding of the most important people in your novel.
Is there are particular location that will play an important role in your novel? Maybe the house where the main characters live will be the site of a lot of the action. Or an office building. Or a college campus. Maybe a whole community will be important.
If these locations are fictional—and even if they’re not—it could be helpful to draw up floorplans or maps, or at least some rough notes about size and shape.
You can also include information about the general atmosphere in which the story takes place—do you know what the climate is like? Time frame or historical era? Is the neighbourhood wealthy or impoverished?
Outlining the setting might be particularly useful for writers in speculative forms, like science-fiction, fantasy, and alternative history. It may also be important for historical fiction writers or those setting their novels in regions that are foreign to the author.
But even if you’re writing contemporary, realist fiction set in your own hometown, you might find it useful to outline things like floorplans and the time of year. Every novel is set somewhere—and somewhen.
The actual narrative momentum of your novel may not roll out in chronological order. Some novels are full of flashbacks, flash-forwards, or general jumping around within the timeline. Others are built up by multiple subplots that happen concurrently.
It might be helpful to maintain a separate timeline document that outlines when everything happens. You can even include information about events that happened before the novel begins, if they’re important to the plot.
You might want to note, for example, your protagonist’s birthdate, so that you’ll always know what age they are when certain things happen.
J.K. Rowling, a famous plotter, probably had meticulous timeline notes in her outlines for the Harry Potter series. This would have helped her keep track of all the important backstory about Harry’s parents, Voldemort’s childhood, the “First Wizarding War,” and many other events that took place before the action of the main story. These are only memories in the actual novels themselves, but they’re still a critical part of the narrative.
If your outline is really comprehensive, and includes most or all of the above elements, you may want to consider combining everything into a “World Bible”: a highly detailed exploration of everything that matters to a novel.
But remember, architects: even if your world bible is sacred to your novel, it is YOURS. That means YOU are in control. You’re not married to your original plan, and I assure you that some adaptation or diversion from the blueprint is practically guaranteed.
You might realize halfway through writing your first draft that you’ve accidentally introduced a plot hole, but it was inevitable—the plot hole was written right into your outline.
Or maybe, by the time you reach your ending, you’ve realized that your protagonist didn’t develop quite the way you thought she would, and some of the decisions you had planned for her don’t really feel earned by the time you get to them.
None of this means your book is doomed!
You have to deal with the issues, of course, but that means you can revise your world bible. It will be a living, breathing document, a plan that evolves and grows as you do.
So, if you think the architect/plotter approach is best for you, you’re just an outline away from getting started with drafting. But that doesn’t mean you have to be inflexible. Give yourself some freedom to change your mind, and anything is possible for your novel.
So, how might a gardener enter the maze?
Unlike an architect, a gardener embraces the lack of clear vision going forward. They don’t want to zoom out and get a look at the structure of the maze; they simply put one foot in front of the other and figure it out as they go.
They’ll approach a spot in the maze where they can go left or right, and they’ll rely on instinct and intuition to make that choice.
You might think that this leaves the gardener prone to missteps or wrong turns. After all, if you turn the wrong way in a maze, you’ll hit a dead end.
But remember, your book isn’t written yet—it’s not like you’re entering a pre-drawn template that you have to stick to. So, while architects are zooming out to map out their route before they enter the maze, gardeners are more like explorers that draw the maze in real time as they walk through it.
If they turn right, that means the maze will open up in that direction; if, instead, they turn left, the maze will be drawn a different way. But either way will take them, eventually, to the end.
So, just like a gardener that digs holes and plants seeds without really knowing exactly what the final plant might look like, a writer who works without an outline approaches the draft with a loose picture of what they want. The final product blooms all on its own.
Yes and no.
It’s true that working as a “pantser” means you’re approaching the draft with less direction than the “plotters” who plan their route from the beginning.
But a lot of writers find that kind of planning to be restrictive, or even counter-productive. Gardeners might feel like the outline is a constraining document, and they struggle to shape their characters, settings, and plotlines into some sort of pre-arranged template.
For example, maybe you know you want to write a love story about two friends that will realize they’ve fallen for each other by the end of the novel.
An architect would probably prepare a lot of notes like character sketches (what draws these characters to one another? How are their strengths and flaws complementary?) and the narrative trajectory that takes them from friends to lovers (maybe it follows the three-act structure?). But a gardener figures it all out as they go.
They start drafting without much of a plan in mind, and as they write, the characters start to come alive for them. That’s what informs the nature of the characters’ attraction and their individual strengths and flaws.
Then, as the writing continues and the characters start to feel more richly developed, that helps the writer figure out the narrative trajectory, and a climax and ending start to take shape.
Does it? Hmm—you might be more of an architect if that’s the case!
Architects find the structure of an outline to be a comfortable place to live. They want some sort of frame through which to approach writing, because it takes a task that seems so herculean—writing a novel, eek!—and breaks it down into component parts, almost like a to-do list.
But to a gardener, the outline is more like a cage than a frame. They want to be free to roam, and that means the lack of outline is liberating.
Neither. Both. It depends.
Gardeners have written best-selling, award-winning, ground-breaking novels with very little formal planning. But architects have also written best-selling, award-winning, ground-breaking novels while following a strict, detailed world bible.
It really depends on you, and on which method you think is best suited to your personal writing style.
In fact, you probably already know. You probably read the above sections on architects and gardeners and felt like one approach sounded easier for you.
Absolutely not—and for what it’s worth, I think there are very few writers that stick strictly to pantsing or plotting.
Writing strategy is not all black and white, and most writers are probably more like “landscape architects,” falling somewhere in the middle of a continuum between architects and gardeners.
Maybe you’ll start with a rough outline, but it will get more detailed as you go—the draft helps the outline take shape.
Or maybe your outline is very complex at the outset, but once you start drafting, the writing veers off course from the plan. But that doesn’t have to stress you out—you can embrace the change of direction and adapt your outline to fit. Or forget about the outline entirely. Or whatever suits your needs.
Writing a novel is like entering a new city, and you have to be ready to accept a lot of unknowns before you begin. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and take the plunge into drafting.
Every maze begins somewhere. So put one foot in front of the other, and take that first important step.