Are you a plotter or a pantser? Planning your novel is as personal as writing it. There is no right or wrong way. Let’s look at one to get you started.

planning your novel
Plotter or pantser? Planning your novel is very individual. Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

I hate making a formal planning outline for any novel I am working on. I had to make so many formal outlines while studying for my two degrees that I refuse to make a plot outline for my novels.  As a novel writer, I’m asked all the time, “How do you write your novels? How do you plan for them? Do you use plotting software?”

The answer to that question is that I’m what’s referred to as a “pantser.” I write and plan my novels by the seat of my pants. I get a basic story plot in my head–which has typically stewed up in the grey matter for a few days–and I write.  

Usually, once I get my story going and I think of plot points for later, I’ll start a planning document for all my notes. It’s not an outline. It’s planning… notes. Sometimes I’ll plot in enormous chunks of paragraphs. Sometimes I write full scenes that need adding to the novel later. It’s how planning a novel works for me.

Planning your novel is all up to you. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Planning is not that black and white. Novel planning for you may differ from the method of planning someone else uses.

Start Your Plan with 4 Basic Story Elements

Every novel has four basic story elements to plan: the main character; the goal; the conflict; and the setting. When you get that first spark of inspiration, you might know who your protagonist and antagonist are. You may know where the novel will take place. It’s an excellent place to start developing plot points and planning out your novel.

When working on your plot, ask what is your character trying to accomplish? Once you answer that, planning the goals is next. Your main character might try to fall in love. Or launch a successful career. Maybe even train a dragon. With goals comes conflict. What is stopping them from achieving their goal? You need to think of the answer to these questions and then add them to your novel plan.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here is a small excerpt from the novel Gisborne that I’m working on. It is a brief glimpse of the four planning elements. The setting is Sherwood Forest, England.

That voice.  Guy reached out, wincing at the pain in his side, to grasp the wrist that was probing his wounded side.  He pulled gently, bringing the woman closer to him.  “Rowan,” he whispered in surprise.  She was no longer a girl, but a beautiful young woman, and it was enough to make his heart ache in longing.  “Where…”

“Shh.  There’s time enough for that later.  You are fevered and you have a very nasty wound.  I’m on my way to Locksley to take over the estate on my father’s behalf.  We can sort all of this out once we get there and I see that you will live.”  She brushed her hand over his forehead, smiling down at him in affection.  “For now, lie still.”

“I cannot go to Locksley.  They… they think I’m dead.”

In this novel excerpt, we meet our two main characters (although Guy is NOT the protagonist in this story; he’s the love interest). We have a goal (healing Guy of a wound), and a conflict (he can’t go to Locksley). How I resolve the conflict and the overall goal of the story is in the rest of the novel. The novel planning for this book differs from how I normally write, which makes it a great example.

Fill in The Planning Details

Now it’s time to fill in the planning details of the four elements you came up with. From here, you can plan out your novel in two ways: you can plan sequentially, one event following the other in order; or you can plot via the snowflake method. For Gisborne, I started it by the seat of my pants and then began to plot it out.

Sequential story planning is great if you have a firm grasp of your story plot from the very beginning. If you like to plot, you’ve laid out the entire book with an outline and have full-blown character sketches. You might even use different story templates to plan it all out. I tip my hat to you if you are able to plan your novel this way.

planning your novel
This is what the snowflake method looks like built out. Image from Reedsy.com.

The snowflake method of planning takes your four elements and puts them in the middle of your plot page. You add plot details to it, branching out from the middle like the arms of a snowflake. It is a very visual way of planning a novel.

Don’t over plot.

One last piece of advice: don’t over plot your novel. You need not plot every detail when you start. Gather enough information about your novel to write and leave the minutiae for your final edits. If it’s something you have to have in your novel, add it to your planning document for later.


Even though I’m a pantser, sometimes I’m a plotter. How do you plan your novels? I’d love to hear your methods.