Planning ahead and allowing for inspiration are both important aspects of writing and finishing a novel, but it can seem difficult to balance them especially since there is a lot of conflicting advice from novelists and writing teachers. However, the tips below can help achieve that balance.
Some writers swear by making meticulous outlines ahead of time while others insist that barreling ahead and finding inspiration along the way is the only proper path to a good novel. For inexperienced writers, it can be difficult to know which is best – forward planning or creative freedom in writing – and the working habits of even experienced writers can change over time. Finding out whether you are a planning sort of writer or a seat-of-your-pants writer is usually just a matter of trial and error. If you’re struggling over an outline, if the characters and plot feel dead and contrived and you can’t move forward, you’re probably not a planner. If the thought of sitting down with an empty page and starting to write makes you feel panicked, you’re probably a planner.
However, many writers fall somewhere in between these two extremes, and there are several ways to combine planning and inspiration for the best results. One approach is to make an outline to get started but be unafraid to deviate from it. For some writers, this means going back to rework the outline, but for other writers, moving away from the original outline means the story is finally coming to life on its own.
Another approach is having some notes about major turning points and the story’s end without making a detailed outline. You may have a rough idea of where the story is going but not precisely how you are going to get there; this is one of the best ways to combine a structured approach with one that is more free-wheeling and creative.
Using a reverse outline can be a good way for the writer who works mostly from inspiration to apply structure after the fact and check that the story hangs together. A reverse outline simply refers to outlining after a piece is finished. With a reverse outline, a writer can break down a novel scene by scene and ask some relevant questions including these:
- What questions are answered in this scene?
- What questions are raised in this scene?
- What is the purpose of the scene? (In other words, does it advance the plot, tell us more about the characters or something else? Ideally, each scene will do more than one thing.)
- How does this scene lead into the next one?
The questions may change depending on your aims and the type of book you are writing and can help you decide which scenes need to be revised or cut altogether as well as where scenes may need to be added or rearranged.
What are some techniques you use to balance immediate inspiration with planning?