Very famous writers firmly believe in plotting out a novel. Other very famous writers don't. Both types have made, are making, and will make piles of money from their books. Thus the debate on To Plot or Not to Plot will rage on forever.
Plotting is one of my favorite things to do. I believe in it, I do it all the time, and it works for me. However, if you think plotting is unnecessary (or stupid, or pedestrian, or inartistic, etc. etc.), or if you worship writers who don't do it and resent the ones who do, or the thought of plotting your own novel makes you break out in hives, you should stop reading this post right now.
Yesterday Shiloh posed an interesting dilemma about plotting in comments here; specifically: any suggestions on how to actually get more into the habit of plotting something out?. I responded with some examples of plot-timeline and plot-summaryline methods I've used to teach writing students, but I really didn't answer her to my own satisfaction, and mulled over the question for a couple of hours.
This is what I ended up with: It's not how you plot as much as it's that you get into the habit of thinking about plot from the start of the novel concept. Doing that trains you to think in story versus detail.
Using the same premise I did in my response to Shiloh yesterday, let's say I have a wonderful idea for a character named John. He's a cop. He's also half-demon. But I'm going to forget about plot and concentrate on the details. John's cool. John has possibilities. For me, it's all about John.
(Several days later) Okay, so I've got John all figured out. What he looks like, how he talks, the clothes he wears, what sort of demonic powers he has, the type of ice cream he likes, his shoe size, etc. He's all dressed up and pretty and ready to make a novel with me. Now what do I do with him? What to do. What to do. I know, I could have him meet a nice human girl who doesn't know he's half-demon. Someone wants to kill them. They have to help each other. And then . . . what to do. What to do. (I've got to do something; I just don't want to think about plot yet. I'm too focused on remembering John's favorite ice cream and shoe size.)
Now, take the same wonderful idea for a character named John but let's limit the amount of detail via constructive character-building. Remember those three questions I keep harping on:
Who is John? He's a cop. He's also a half-demon.
What does John want? To be a good cop and live a normal human life.
What's the worst thing I can do to John? Make him use his demon side to be a good cop, and ruin his chances for a normal human life.
Those are all the details I need to know about John right now; it's time to make story.
I build my story around John and the answers to those three questions. John meets a nice human girl named Marcia at a Halloween party. She'd like to find a decent guy, settle down and live happily ever after. Only during the party she gets stuck with a stolen, cursed diamond and the thief who wants it back is sending demons from Hell after her.
Thinking through this scenario versus many tiny details allows me to sketch out the story in my head. It's progressive and the story is growing as I think about it, but my head's not cluttered up with details so I can still see the story.
Let's keep going: John saves Marcia's life and she's initially grateful; he's a decent guy and a cop -- the kind of guy she could fall head over heels for. But: Marcia discovers that John has a strange tattoo on his chest. And superhuman strength. And his eyes glow red in the dark. John is presently freaking out Marcia, but she doesn't have time to have hysterics, because now the thief is trying to kill both of them. (Note here: I'm still plotting, but John is also developing as a character via details from Marcia's POV. I've limited John's strangeness to three big things versus a thousand little things.)
Plotting from this point goes in all sorts of directions, as there are questions I have to answer, i.e.: How does the thief try to kill them? What sort of demons from hell are we talking about here? What's the deal with this cursed diamond? How does Marcia confront John about his oddities? How does John protect Marcia? Does he suspect that she stole the diamond? I need to work out these answers before I plot any further, but as with John's character I'm going to keep the answers simple so that again I don't get bogged down with a lot of detail. Just the facts, ma'am.
When you think in story versus detail, you're putting together a collage of ideas. Too much detail clutters the collage; it breeds and it obscures things and it ends up confusing you. Less is not only more, it's vital to get the novel sketched out in your head. You can always add more detail to the collage later; too much gets in your way and suffocates the story before it gets rolling.
I'm not sure I'm explaining it as well as I can, though, so does this help, or am I just confusing the issue more?