When I first decided to write a novel, I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I’d written and published poems, articles, and essays, but never any fiction. To get ready for my first novel, I read lots of how-to books on writing novels, but they said some of the silliest things, including that I needed to have characters, plot, and dialogue. Anyone who’s ever read a novel knows those things, so I didn’t feel those books helped me when I was trying to figure out how to transition from poetry and non-fiction to fiction. My first novel was historical, so after I completed all the research, and after I knew who my protagonists (both narrators) were, I wrote a detailed outline. Then I began writing the novel.
Within a month, my characters started doing things that weren’t in my outline. I was shocked. Since I’d never written fiction, I hadn’t realized that characters could do such things. At that time, I also didn’t know any other fiction writers: all my writer-friends wrote poetry or non-fiction, as I did. None of them seemed to know how fiction worked when it was actually being written, so they told me that I must have “forgotten” to include those scenes in the outline.
I redid the outline, feeling pretty confident that no character would surprise me again. Less than two scenes later, another character did something unexpected. I redid my outline again. And, once more, my characters surprised me with something I’d “forgotten.”
As you can imagine, I was beginning to get annoyed with my own characters.
Instead of trying to force them to follow my outline, however, I ditched it.
Oh, I glanced at my original outline a few times after that, but instead of attempting to stick to it, I just waited for my characters to tell me what was supposed to happen next. To my surprise, that approach worked. In fact, my characters showed me scenes that I would never have consciously thought of, so I quickly learned to trust them to guide me in writing a novel.
I’ve never outlined a novel since that initial try. Though I realize that many writers feel more comfortable writing outlines for their novels, especially if they’re writing a series of novels, I think every writer can benefit from writing a novel without any outline. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s also very artistically rewarding.
The Importance of Conflict
If you’re not familiar with the concept of Urgency, which keeps readers turning pages, then you should read my post on Urgency for additional explanation of the term since I am only going to be discussing plot Urgency in this post.
Most readers initially read a book for its plot: they turn pages to see how the story unfolds. There are many published authors who are master storytellers — i.e., their plots are so compelling that the reading audience cannot put the books down — without necessarily being brilliant writers: their characters may not be fully developed or their writing style may not be exceptional. Good storytellers who write successful books have mastered plot Urgency, however, and that is all that matters to their readers.
Urgency is somewhat easier to develop when it is part of the plot because you must have conflict in plot, and conflict readily lends itself to Urgency. All fiction must have conflict: without it, there is no reason for the audience to continue reading. You could almost say that stories exist so that the audience can see how the characters work through the conflicts they encounter.
Traditonal Categories of Conflict
The traditional divisions of conflict in fiction have typically been divided into these categories:
man vs. man
man vs. himself
man vs. nature
man vs. supernatural
Of course, many stories, novellas, and novels have many of these conflicts all at the same time. It doesn’t matter how an author classifies his conflict, only that he include conflict in his fiction.
You should increase the plot conflicts in importance and intensity throughout the novel to maintain your readers’ interest. Some writers call this the “dramatic arc,” while some critics call this the “rising action,” which simply means that it is a series of conflicts increasing in intensity until you arrive at the peak, which they call the “climax,” meaning it’s supposed to be the “ultimate conflict” of the work.
Historically, the “falling action” or “the dénouement” (translation, “untying or unraveling the knot”) occurred after the ultimate conflict. In the dénouement, all conflicts among characters were resolved, and all resolutions to the fictional world presented. The dénouement was meant to be a sort of catharsis for the reader, releasing any remaining anxiety and tension, while eliminating difficulties for any of the characters. In short, these were the days when readers had to be reassured that they were reading a story, and, in effect, the author had to inform them how everything turned out.
Although some authors still include a dénouement in the form of an epilogue, which ties up any loose ends in the characters’ stories and answers any remaining questions readers might have, much of contemporary fiction, especially books written in series, no longer include a dénouement. Instead, authors who write book series typically end each book with plot Urgency in order to make the reader want to get the next book. In literary fiction, authors often end on Urgency because they want the endings to be ambiguous, morally questionable, or open to interpretation. As fiction itself has become more sophisticated, so has its readers — or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any event, readers no longer need an author’s reassuring dénouement at the end of a piece of fiction.
Conflict in a Series
If you are writing books in a series, remember that each book has to have its own increasing conflicts, and the series itself has to have its own separate, ever-increasing conflicts. Many authors make the mistake of writing an incredible first book in a series, with a tremendous plot, full of great conflict and Urgency, then write subsequent books in the same series where the plot slows down tremendously (the books also often get shorter) and the Urgency virtually disappears. Even if you’re using an outline, you need to keep plot Urgency in the forefront when writing your novels. Without an outline, plot Urgency is imperative.
Knock Your Protagonist’s World Off Its Axis
To begin your novel, especially if you’re trying to do it without an outline, you should write the one scene that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis. That means you’re introducing both your protagonist and your antagonist (or, at least one of the antagonists) in your novel immediately, and that’s a good thing. Make sure that this earth-rocking event is described in detail. You want your readers to connect immediately with your protagonist: they should want to know how he will handle this event. Write it in sufficient detail to keep the readers wanting to continue your story.
Previously, some literature or creative writing instructors used to insist that the protagonist’s “backstory” had to be presented before any major conflict was shown. If these instructors drew this premise on the board, they showed it as a flat line before the “rising action” of the plot was presented. Visually, that flat line of the backstory was very symbolic: nothing important happened. The backstory was, literally, the history of the characters before any conflict began.
As fiction became more sophisticated, readers no longer wanted to plow through endless “backstory” in which nothing happened: they wanted to jump right into the action. Writers have learned to eliminate this flat plain of backstory and weave anything of importance in the characters’ history into the main story itself. Most successful fiction now starts with Urgency; thus it begins with conflict.
Starting with characters’ backstory, even if it’s the backstory of your protagonist, is a sure way to eliminate Urgency from your novel. Start with the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and you’re more likely to engage your readers’ interest from the first page.
Additionally, no matter how much of your characters’ backstory you write for yourself — including lists of character education, skills, or physical description — you want to avoid large blocks of backstory anywhere in your novel, as these blocks of information, which do not move the plot forward, will slow your story down. Instead, put any pertinent information from your character’s backstory in as hints or, even better, simply let the backstory, which is the protagonist’s personal history, determine your protagonist’s behavior. You don’t ever need to write several chapters (or scenes) of backstory to explain why your protagonist is behaving as he does: readers can infer that it has something to do with his own backstory, or they can, alternately, interpret his behavior for themselves.
Ask “What Happens Next?”
Once you understand the importance of Urgency, especially plot Urgency, and once you have written the scene which details the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, then you only have one other “step” to keep in mind while writing a novel without an outline: ask What happens next?
When you know what happens next in the plot, which is the main story in your novel, make sure that you write that scene fully, including any other characters that are involved, as well as dialogue. Make sure that you write the second story-plot scene completely, and make sure that it has conflict.
Bear in mind that though this may be the second scene in the main story of the novel, i.e., the second scene in the plot-conflict, it may not end up being the second scene in the novel. You may decide, in subsequent drafts, that another scene may work better after the initial scene. You may have a flashback scene or a (brief) backstory scene; you might introduce the antagonist more fully.
The second scene in the plot-conflict of the story advances the story itself with Urgency, as should each scene which moves the story forward. If you were to put them one after the other, you would have the main plot of the novel. There may be other scenes in the novel, such as those which reveal backstory, other conflicts, relationships between the characters, sub-plots which have their own stories, etc., but the major plot-conflict story — the one which starts the novel itself — should always be clear to the readers so that they can follow what happens.
Now you should have at least two scenes, both involved in the major plot-conflict of the story, both with Urgency, fully written, both of which move the plot forward toward the eventual final conflict of the story.
Now ask again, What happens next?
Each time you ask this question, remember that you are thinking of the major plot story with its increasing conflicts, which lead to the ultimate (and final) conflict (in the stand-alone book or in the entire series) in order to “answer” this question.
Each time you get an answer to this question, write the scene completely, in as much detail as possible.
Repeat as necessary.
Although many other scenes and plot events may appear to you, you should write these parts of the book separately since they may not appear in the final version of the novel: they may be backstory, for example, and though you may need to know these stories in great detail to write the novel, your readers may not need as much detail about the backstory.
Also, recall that this is your first draft — which should never be published as it is — and you will have plenty of time during revision and editing to change Point of View, re-arrange scenes, insert or delete sections, add or subtract characters, etc. Concentrate on conflict and plot Urgency when writing the first draft of a novel without an outline: that will keep your work focussed.
The Great Unknown
You do not have to know the entire story yourself when writing a novel without an outline in order to successfully enjoy the process itself. Some writers know the beginning and the end when they initially get the idea for the novel. They don’t know how to get from the beginning to the end, but they’ve learned that they don’t have to. Other writers do not get a vision of the story’s end along with their vision of the novel’s beginning, but they proceed with anyway, trusting that their artistic intuition will guide them.
That’s basically how you write an entire novel without an outline: concentrate on plot-Urgency, start with the single event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and discover each subsequent scene in the story by asking What happens next?
Does that seem too easy?
That’s because you’ve never done it yourself.
Does it seem to hard to write an entire novel like that?
Depends on whether you like the excitement and the challenge of discovering your own talent as you discover the story of your characters.
Obviously, writing without an outline isn’t the only way to write a novel, but it’s certainly a thrilling way for writers to attempt at least once in their careers.
Urgency in Fiction: Part One
Urgency in Fiction: Part Two
No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters
Writing Effective Dialogue
Who’s Afraid of Point of View?
Myths About Point of View
How to Pitch Your Book
Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book