How to plot a novel

To be a plotter or a panster

To plot or not to plot, that is the question!

So as a romance writer I used to love just writing, writing, writing, writing my stories, filling them with my characters and their interactions, and at the end of the story… Voila! Finished! Now to go back and edit, edit and edit… Oh, and edit some more. I loved getting my creative juices flowing, and loved writing whatever I wanted to, without giving any thought to the writing do’s and don’ts, because I didn’t even know there was such a thing. Surely if you’ve got a good story, likeable characters, that’s all that matters, right?


When I entered my first romance writing competition in 2010 and got my score and feedback from the judges, I was shocked. What? My story wasn’t the most brilliant they’d read? How could this be possible?

Over the course of the year I entered my three stories in various competitions and the feedback was the same – the conflict isn’t strong enough to sustain a full length novel, the story isn’t pacy enough, you do too much telling and not enough showing. I can’t relate to your characters. Too much backstory.

And by the end of entering all these competitions, and attending my very first ever romance writing conference in Melbourne this year, and learning from other members online about the writing craft, I understand why it’s so hard to win a writing competition. If you want to get published, you can’t just write whatever you want to, in whatever way you want to. There are so many things you need to consider with your story, and finally I think I have it figured out:

• You need a great plot
• You need believable, heroic, strong characters the reader can relate to or understand
• Make every word count
• Weave your backstory throughout the novel, don’t just dump it in the beginning, or in one spot
• The reader needs to be captivated on every page
• Limit your use of adjectives and adverbs. Convey your meaning in a suitable word
• Show don’t tell
• Get the readers to care about your characters
• Don’t dump your description of the hero/heroine or a setting in one full paragraph, weave it through the dialogue of your characters, or the story’s action.

Probably the three things that have struck me the most when you want to write for publication, is the importance of knowing your characters inside and out, (they are the heart of your story), having strong, believable conflict, and the importance of plotting. If you make sure you have a detailed plot before even writing one word of your story, then you won’t be caught out with a weak plot, weak conflicts, unbelievable heroes and heroines, and a story that may meander from the central theme of the hero and heroine overcoming their obstacles and getting together.

But if you’re naturally a panster, and just like to write, write, write, and let your creative juices burst forth, like me, how can you suddenly change your ways, write a detailed plot that you have to stick to, and still be able to keep those creative juices flowing? Having to stick to a detailed plot could stifle your creativity, take you away from the enjoyment of actually writing. Make you feel very constricted with your writing.

So is there a solution if your naturally a panster?

My solution is this – do have a detailed plot, chapter by chapter, and be sure to focus on the conflicts between your hero and heroine and have strong conflicts that can sustain a full length novel, really flesh out your characters. And then when you’ve done this exercise? Read the plot of the first chapter, and then become a happy panster again! And write and write with all the creative freedom that you like, as the plot of chapter one will be fresh in your mind and will guide you along. And then at the end of writing your first chapter, re-read the chapter one plot again, and your chapter one, and make any additions and changes necessary to make sure you’ve followed all the plot points. Do this exercise with every other chapter of your book.

And by the end of this exercise, not only will you have a story that ticks all the boxes, but you’ll know that your creative juices weren’t stifled after all.

So in a nutshell – plot the book chapter by chapter, review each chapter before you start writing, and then panst to your heart’s content!