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How much planning?


I know the answer to this question depends on the person, and there are numerous factors involved, but I find myself struggling to know when I'm ready. To put things into perspective, I've been 'planning' my story for three years, since I was fifteen, but in that time I've started and halfway through hit dead ends- simply because I never planned a definite ending or I planned to a certain point but did not know how to continue, and hoped I'd just make it up as I went- something that hasn't worked for me.
I also believe I'm pretty inefficient with my planning, I say three years, but really, if I think of how much time I actually spent on the plot, and not lore and worldbuilding, it probably is minuscule in comparison.
So, how long does it take you to plan a novel- or rather, a series, and how do you go about it-in how much detail do you plan it?
I tend to plan the ending and beginning first - along with a few key scenes - the rest is then a journey from one to the other via those scenes.

Without an ending I don't have a destination - so I'm lost. So that to me is the most crucial thing.


Fiery Keeper of the Hat
There are different plot formulas, and if you're familiar with them, you could plot out a novel pretty quickly. As you said it depends on the person and the complexity of the story and your experience. But it's not unreasonable to think it could take as little as an afternoon.

The "formulas" don't really have to be followed, especially when you have multiple POVs or a lengthy series. But they give you a jargon for understanding and talking about plot structure. I read a review recently where someone said that a book had three inciting incidents. I tried to figure out what that would look like, and that alone helped me to make my own story more interesting. That is, it's less about following the rules of the formulas, and more about "getting" the jargon so that you have a framework for fiddling with your plot.

In a nutshell, the basic formulas are about building up to four points, each about a quarter of the way through the story:

The Call to Action: The Hero realizes he or she has to do something about the conflict.
The Midpoint: The hero realizes that he or she needs to change to defeat the conflict.
The Dark Night of the Soul: Everything has gone wrong, and the hero needs to reflect before he or she can push forward.
The Resolution: The Hero wins! Yay! He or she realized they had it in them all along.

If you google plot structure, and some of the words above, you can find diagrams with a detailed breakdown of each section. Again, especially at that level of detail, it's the jargon I suggest you adopt, not the formulas.

For me, personally, I have my story broken up on paper into 4 acts, where I have brief notes about each of the elements above. But I only break down the plot for the act that I'm working on, and I try to figure out different ways to handle them. And I don't expect each act to fit into a perfect fourth of the story.

You should also look at the seven-point structure that Dan Wells talks about, which looks like:

Plot Turn 1
Pinch 1
Pinch 2
Plot Turn 2

Where the first plot turn is the call to action, the second is the dark night of the soul, and the two pinches are where the bad guys build up pressure. I find this to very helpful as well, and I refer to it a lot for subplots and pacing in each act.


Article Team
I started with a very basic idea and then I reiterated on that in greater and greater detail, working my way down to a level that's detailed enough that I know what will happen in any given scene and what words a character will say. In this way, writing the actual scene is more like colouring by numbers than painting an entire picture from scratch on a blank page.

The idea behind my current (first) WiP is simply "boy meets girl". That's the start. The next iteration added a little more detail: "The boy Enar goes on vacation in the countryside, meets some cool people and sees interesting things, oh and he meets this really awesome girl that he falls for."

Then I just continue on like that, adding more and more detail each time. In the end the outline for just one scene will span several pages and include very detailed notes about what's going on in it. This isn't a method that will work for everyone, but I've found that it works for me.

I believe one of the benefits is that as I'm starting from the top, dealing with the entire story at once I'm able to detect major plot holes and character issues earlier on and will be able to deal with them before they start causing too much trouble.


Article Team
I use a lot of what Devor mentioned. Understanding structure helps you organize your plot regardless of if you're a discovery writer or a outliner. It helps you understand in very very broad strokes what type of scenes go where and what you're building toward.

My first novel I didn't really plan at all, just world-built for years then started writing. Well that didn't work out too well plot wise.

My second novel, I brainstormed for a couple of weeks. Took another week for a rough outline. Another week of refining that outline then started writing. After the first draft, I threw out the second half of the book because I didn't like it and rebuilt that part, but in the end, the results were way better.

My third novel, which I'm working on now, I brainstormed and outline all the while I was editing my second novel.

It's not about how much time I need, it's about how much I need to know. For each major character, I need to know what they want emotionally and physically and why. Eg Luke Skywalker in Starwars. He want's to be a jedi like his father and rescue the princess and defeat the empire.

For the plot, well, I need to know the key points along the way as determined by the structures I use in planning. See Devor's post above.

Once I know those things, I'm ready to go. The world-building? I usually have lots of ideas jotted down, most of which gets tossed out because I think of way better stuff along the way, stuff that works with the plot and characters better.


My favorite moments as a writer are when I have a plan, but don't need to write it down. Then I can see the story play out in my mind from start to finish before I type it down. It's not really "pantsing" because it has a clear direction, but neither is it quite like traditional outlining where you write the steps down before starting the story proper. This "mental outlining" method works wonderfully for short stories, though I've never finished a whole novel with it. On the other hand, my experience with traditional outlining hasn't landed me as many successes.


Article Team
In all fairness it's the other way around - I know I picked up things from your previous posts on this.

Bah... It's not about me, or who mentioned what first or picked up what from where. It's about pointing TheokinsJ towards some hopefully helpful stuff.


Myth Weaver
To put things into perspective, I've been 'planning' my story for three years, since I was fifteen, but in that time I've started and halfway through hit dead ends- simply because I never planned a definite ending or I planned to a certain point but did not know how to continue, and hoped I'd just make it up as I went- something that hasn't worked for me.

Ah, to be that young again...

But, yes, in my younger days I did write like that: latch onto some bright shiny idea and write and write...and then find myself at a dead end. I also did far too much worldbuilding.

Nowadays, though...

1) Start with a bright shiny idea. Not a story, just the idea.

2) Check world(s) to see if idea has a place in any of them. Something sort of similar? Does it cause problems with the rest of the world? If I can resolve that, then:

3) Try to visualize a plot to go along with the idea. At this point, I want a definite beginning and end, with the bright shiny idea in between. At this point, I usually have characters and one or more locations to go with this.

4) Start writing.

Of course, most of my current efforts are short stories - under 10,000 words. For longer stories, the above applies to each chapter or section, with each previous section influencing the next.