I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.
-J. K. Rowling
Inspiration comes to writers in many ways: cinematic flashes of opening scenes or dramatic climaxes, characters who would make amazing heroes and heroines, or even single lines of dialogue worth building a novel around.
Unfortunately, inspiration almost never comes in the form of a beginning, a middle, and an end. For the great moments writers can think up out of nowhere, we’re often left floundering trying to Frankenstein all of our cool ideas into one cohesive plot. Let’s talk about the novelist’s best friend: the outline.
Every writer has his or her own method, but I’ve been an advocate for the outline for years now. When I was younger and just starting to write longer projects, I would have a few scenes and characters in mind and end up winging it for a big chunk of the plot. This resulted in a lot of wasted time and pages of writing. The older I got, the more invested I became in planning my stories in advance so that all of my precious writing time could be spent on pieces that I knew fit into the puzzle.
Some writers make simple notes to themselves on index cards, post-its, or scraps of paper. Others fill notebooks with extensive outlines and notes. Do what works best for you. I usually list vague descriptions of what I want each chapter or scene to accomplish and go from there; I also do drafts of my outline, modifying it as I write my way through each part. Sometimes new ideas invite themselves into the story and need to be accommodated.
You don’t want to crush spontaneity altogether, of course. Leave room in your outlines for flashes of inspiration as they come. Knowing what direction your work is taking helps a lot when you get to writing. You save yourself a lot of time working on to-be-deleted scenes when you’ve had time to brainstorm and plan.