Are You Planning Out Your Story Too Much?

Writing spontaneously is exciting. A lot of the time, you really don’t know what’s going to happen next.


Sometimes, planning out a story before writing it is what pushes people to create amazing things.

But is it possible to overdo it, and plan too much?


There are advantages and disadvantages to doing a little bit of planning before you start writing. But you should never plan in so much detail that you lock yourself into commitments you aren’t sure you will be willing to keep.

Let your ideas unfold

The story you start writing won’t be the story you finish writing. That’s pretty much inevitable … unless you do a little too much planning. I started ghostwriting a series of novellas a few months ago for a client, and in order to do that, I had to first submit chapter-by-chapter outlines of how the story was going to go. At first, I liked it. Then I started writing, and really found that I didn’t like it so much. It felt way too limiting.

To me, coming up with new ideas as I go along s fun. I love watching ideas expand, which you can’t really do as effectively if you lock yourself into a strict outline. Some people, once they have that outline in front of them, can’t stray from that, which is just how some people’s brains operate. If that’s you, I would recommend outlining major plot points, but leaving the connecting elements a mystery.

Surprise yourself

Normally, I don’t like surprises. Except when I’m surprising myself. That doesn’t happen on purpose, and really the only time it happens is when I’m in the middle of writing a story and just come up with something I feel is really awesome or clever (come on, you know you’ve had those moments). I’ve noticed this happens much less often when I’m writing off of an outline.

Writing spontaneously is exciting. A lot of the time, you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. As I have been writing a series of novellas this year for The Novella Concept, because I write them so quickly, I don’t have time to plan anything out other than the major theme that corresponds with whichever charity I’ve chosen to donate the royalties to. So when all of a sudden a character does or says something even I didn’t expect, I am reminded that every once in awhile, not planning ahead really is okay.

Push your story out of its own comfort zone

Does planning out your story before you start writing it make you feel safe? Confident? Reassured? Excellent: this is a good reason you SHOULD plan ahead. The only problem is, we can’t get TOO comfortable. In order to grow as a writer, remember that sometimes means you’re going to have to stretch yourself a little. An outline has the potential to prevent you from stretching.

What I have learned in the past five months or so is that it’s when I write something that makes me go, “No, character, don’t do that,” I enjoy my writing time so much more. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, sometimes I start to second guess myself, but then I just shrug it off and let what will happen, happen. I’ve written some of my best fiction this year (compared to previous years) because of this. It isn’t always going to feel safe. That’s what makes it so worth it.

Don’t feel bad if you are someone who needs to plan in detail. There’s nothing wrong with doing it that way. Just remember to let yourself go off course every once in awhile. Let yourself have a little fun. Whichever way you do it, it’s still all yours. Just don’t limit yourself to an original outline. It’s okay to let your creativity take over.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.

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Solution Saturday: My Characters Have Taken Over (HELP)


Starting to plan out a new novel is sort of like sitting down to plan a vacation. By the time you’re on your way to the airport (by the time you start writing), you’re convinced you have everything figured out. You know exactly when that plane’s going to take off and where it’s going to land. You know how you’re getting to your hotel and the first thing you’re going to do when you check in.

Everything’s all planned out, all the way through the moment you arrive back home.

Then you end up taking a detour on the way to the airport. Your flight’s delayed. It’s raining. The plane has to make an unexpected landing. You end up stranded on an island with only a volleyball as a friend and it all goes downhill from there.

Wait, what?

Let’s be real. Your novel never turns out the way you thought it would. Your characters are to blame, and there are only a few things you can do to cope.

“Sketch” them out

We’re talking writing here, not drawing, but if you want to try that too, go for it. If you’re starting to figure out your characters know more than you do – which is much more likely than most of us are willing to believe – take some time to “get to know” them. Free write about their strengths, weaknesses, childhood events, etc. (Not recommended during WriMos.) You’ll be surprised at how much truth comes out during this exercise. The best part is, you’ll probably be able to use most of it, even if you don’t end up pointing everything out to the reader directly.

You’re in on the secrets now. Mostly. It’s a good place to be, but don’t get too comfortable.

Trust no one

Your characters will turn on you and they will turn on each other. This is great for your story but not so safe for your sanity. Do you ever wonder how T.V. writers come up with all those great twists? THEY DON’T. Somehow, they just happen. The only explanation is that our characters are in more control of the plot than they’d like us to believe.

So expect the unexpected. Know that if you’re in the middle of writing a scene and all of a sudden someone is dead, it’s not your fault. All you can do is move forward.

Just go with it

The truth is, we can make all the plans and do as much outlining as we want (or not). But somehow, when we create a cast of characters, we’re signing an unwritten agreement. These characters develop minds of their own, and pretty quickly, they somehow manage to figure out better ways to tell their stories than you could have ever come up with on your own.

Sometimes you just have to sit back, take a deep breath and let your characters take you where they want to go. Don’t fight it. In the end, it really is better for your story, even if it’s the exact opposite of what you thought it would be.

Don’t be afraid. You are in good hands. Hopefully.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

Pre-Novelization Depression

Let me be honest with you all: I’m not the best when it comes to making outlines.

That’s not actually what my novel outlines are—in other words, they’re probably not even outlines. They’re more like pages and pages of all my thoughts jumbled together in only a formation and organization that I can understand. My overuse of parenthesis would probably make you want to throw up. Literally. And, as always, I treat semicolons like periods and use them in pretty much every sentence. And I can’t spell for the life of me, most of the names of my characters are generic and boring, and when I summarize, I pick apart every single detail I possibly can, until it’s not even a detail anymore, but the detail’s details are details.

Say that five times fast.

I’ve learned in the past few months that outlines are very disappointing. They ruin some of the surprises in your story even you didn’t know were coming. They have you scrolling up-and-down until your finger hurts (have you ever thought about which finger you use to scroll with your mouse? I think I use my pointer finger, but I could be wrong) and you’re constantly going back and changing things. I HATE changing things. I hated every single minute I spent revising Reminiscence, and now Colleen has it, and has told me that she doesn’t plan on reading it anytime soon, even though she insisted on being the first one to take it from me and stuff it into her purse.

I just have to keep telling myself, “It’s okay, Meg. You’re gonna be okay.” Because the thing about novel plotting is, it’s never going to be as good as the actual story you actually write. The actual story you actually write is when you start painting with your words; you fill pages with descriptions you know some people will skip anyway and choke your readers with metaphors on every page. You change your beginning line seventy times a day, because you just can’t get it perfect. But you will. Maybe you’ll connect it to the end somehow, once you get there. But before the fun stuff has to come the work; the sadness.

We’ll call it Pre-Novelization Depression.

If you’re asking yourself the question “Why outline if it’s so horrible?” then stop. Don’t even go there. It’s like anything else you’ll ever do in your lifetime. You can’t go into a test without having studied (well, some of you may beg to differ, but stay with me, here). You can’t get on stage to sing a solo if you haven’t memorized the words. You can’t do an ice-skating routine at the Olympics without having practiced for hours upon hours upon hours before you get there. And just the same, you can’t start writing a novel without knowing where you’re headed. Because where you’ll end up is even more depressed, with an unfinished novel in front of you that you just can’t seem to figure out.

Outlining, novel-plotting—whatever you want to call it—is the hardest part of doing what I love the most (that’s writing, for those of you just tuning in). I hate planning out the details, figuring out what goes where, sticking substitute dialogue in parenthesis for myself to remember what I’m thinking at that exact moment, and second-guessing myself. No; Cindy can’t die at the end of the book without finishing her last journal. That would be too depressing, and too predictable. Yet what purpose does she serve, other than to tell Leah all these words of wisdom she’ll eventually apply to her situation later? What if I did add that subplot? Would people like it?

It’s a struggle and a fight. It takes me hours just to get through a few chapters at a time. And if you’re like me, you know how I feel.

But do you know what? There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll finish these outlines. And then, with our character profiles minimized at the bottom of the computer screen and our character sketches (horrible ones, if you gave up your dream of becoming an artist seven years ago like some of us) taped to the edges of our monitors, we’ll start writing. And that will end the Pre-Novelization Depression. We’ll come out of our funk, because all the planning is done. We won’t get stuck, because it’s all there. Along the way, we’ll come up with new ideas, but ones that make us happy, not sad. And we’ll write to our heart’s content.

Until then…let the plotting continue.

Love&hugs, Meg♥