I am often asked the question: Do I really have to plan the plot and develop the characters before writing a novel? My answer: No, you don’t have to. Because both are possible: you can either just write away or you can plan everything out and only then start writing. But whether you plan ahead or not, visualization helps you see the plot and also the characters more clearly and optimize them.
What type of writer are you?
There are many different ways to plan and write a novel. As an aspiring writer, you should start by figuring out how you work best. After all, writing takes a lot of creativity, and it’s your working style that will influence whether you can make the most of your creativity or whether you’ll maneuver yourself right into writer’s block.
Are you more of a planner? Do you need structure and order to work well? Then it’s worth trying out planning. Do you need creative chaos to work well? I would recommend that you, too, at least give planning a try. But if you find it doesn’t work well for you, then you should just write away to get the most out of your creativity. There are some drawbacks to this way of working, but it’s better to live with the drawbacks than to not get into writing at all.
Writing at the drop of a hat
People who just write away are called discovery writers – because they discover their story as they write. There are no constraints on their creativity, and they can just go for it. But this kind of writing usually has two serious disadvantages.
As a beginner, there is a great risk that you will write yourself into nothingness. Because the joy of fabulating often carries the first 50 to 100 pages. But often, as you write, the story gradually gets lost. At some point, you no longer know where the whole thing is going. This happened to me a few times at the beginning of my writing and I know from several participants in my seminars that it happened to them in a similar way.
However, if you manage to finish your novel in this way, you will have a first rough draft. As a rule, this needs to be thoroughly revised in order to create an exciting story. Often quite a few passages have to be thrown out and rewritten. This results in a second, better rough draft, sometimes needing a third or even fourth draft. Discovery writers often have to revise their stories several times so that the story gradually gets better. This is a lot of work, but if writing on the fly is the best and most creative way of writing for you, then it’s the right way for you to work.
When planning a novel, you develop a plot and the appropriate characters for it before writing. What comes in what order is not so important. Some people start with the characters, others start with the plot; both work well. The only important thing is that at some point you match the two: To make the plot fit the characters, and the characters fit the plot. Because a good story challenges the characters and pushes them to their limits: The main character has to prove that he or she is up to the challenge. That’s why plot and characters should fit well together for it to work. Read more about plotting here and find more advice on character development here.
If you plot before you write, you’ll already know the ending before you even write the first sentence. This will save you multiple revisions later. Plus, when you’re writing, you’ll have your mind free to focus entirely on the individual scenes and descriptions of location, characters, and plot.
It doesn’t matter if it’s before or after you start writing: At some point, you will know the storyline with all its turning points and what happens to your characters. It is worthwhile not only to write this knowledge down as text, but to visualize it. Creativity research has shown that most people benefit greatly from visual stimuli. Whether it’s molecular models in chemistry or blueprints in architecture: a drawing reduces complexity, helps us to understand, to keep track of things and to further develop existing plans. In any case, it is worthwhile to visualize both the plot and the characters.
There are many different ways to visualize plot and characters. For example, I develop the plot of my stories with the help of index cards. This has the great advantage that I can see what happens when. Twenty years ago, I used to record my plots only with a text. In doing so, I often got lost in the jumble of descriptions. I didn’t know exactly what happens in the story when, what events precede it, what comes after it. I had to read the text over and over again to remember all the details of my planning.
Today I work with index cards. I only have to look at them once and then I remember everything. Not only is it faster, it’s also more impressive and helps me keep track of everything. A typical novel has around 300 pages and a lot can happen on 300 pages. Index cards bring structure to the plot and help me see if the story is building tension at the right pace and if the turning points are well placed.
Of course, index cards are very old school. Today, many plan digitally, with computer programs and web applications. But along with visual perception, haptic perception is one of the strongest abilities humans have to absorb and process complex stimuli. A story on index cards is not only visible in all its twists and turns, but also tangible. This helps our brain to reduce, structure, grasp and ultimately improve the complexity of long stories.
Visual and haptic aids can also be used to develop characters and make them comprehensible: photos of actors and actresses that provide an initial impulse for a character, collages that provide an overview of character traits, or sociograms that make it possible to experience the connections between characters.
Finding potential for improvement
If I record the plot and the development of a character with maps, drawings or other aids, then we get an overview with the help of visual and haptic perception. We can more easily grasp the structure of a story, the course of action, and the dynamics between the characters. This helps me as an author to better understand my stories and to look for potential for improvement. The goal is to tell a story as well as it can be told.
Learning the craft of writing is the first step in telling good stories. Archetypal storytelling patterns such as the three-act play and the hero’s journey help us understand and learn the craft of storytelling. In the end, we as writers are challenged to grow beyond this and internalize the knowledge of many generations of writers in order to write entirely new and original stories.
The second step is to recognize and understand contexts. A story lives from developments: What happens between the characters and what happens in the course of the plot. We can use our visual and haptic perception to understand and master this complexity and turn a good idea into a really good story.