Confessions of a Former Pantser

When I wrote my first novel, the 215,000-word meandering monster no one will EVER see, I insisted I was a pantser. I wrote it scene-by-scene, in any order, with only a vague notion of a midpoint and an end, and a few scenes in between. There are lots of chatty scenes and WAY too many scenes set at balls.

In the end, instead of a gorgeous pseudo-Victorian fantasy epic, I had a steaming pile of crap on my hands.

I’m now a card-carrying plotter—in case you hadn’t picked up on that.

And I’m here to tell you, pantsing addicts, that you, too, can shed your unguided, fly-by-night methods and come out of the hairy wilderness that is a book with no rising tension. You can learn to write a well-plotted book while still feeling like the proverbial seat of your pants is guiding you.

The key? Plot points.

To give credit where credit is due, some of what I am about to recommend comes from Story Engineering by Larry Brooks (Love or hate the book, it has a lot of good advice!) and is lightly altered by Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. In Story Engineering, Brooks discusses three major plot milestones to aim for and plot around:

1. The first plot point, located 20-20% through the book, a moment that changes everything for the hero and her quest. This is the moment that FORCES her to react, and from this point there’s no going back.

2. The “context-shifting Midpoint,” located (surprise!) 50% through the book, wherein you deliver a piece of information that alters how your protagonist approaches her problem. Generally, this morsel of knowledge raises the stakes and the tension.

3. The second plot point, at the 75% mark, after which your protagonist is active instead of reactive. This is the moment where the hero learns everything she needs to know, and she forms her plan of attack.

Brooks mentions a lot of other points, too, but these are the most important, and the ones that will help keep your plot ticking along. And here’s what I’ve learned: if you plot these points in advance, you can play all around them but still keep your plot running ahead with your reader in its teeth.

There you have it, pantsers: just four plot-points to drive your action onward. If you know these, you can shape how your character achieves these points and what she does in response to them as you write.

And yes, you may alter these points, as long as you keep them in approximately the right place. But you must always be aiming for the next milestone, or your plot will wander off to die quietly in a corner, along with your readers’ interest.

The key is to keep your action aimed at the hero’s goal, shifting the tenor of the action with each new reveal of information. If you keep that in mind, you can still pants yourself into a happy ending.

But with that image in my head, I’ll keep my plotter card, thanks.

Plotting with Scrivener (With Pictures!)

(c) exDigita

Plotting is a strange beast. It’s a requirement for all writers—even the ones who write by the seat of their pants, the “pantsers,” plot on the fly. Yet, it can induce much teeth-wringing and hand-gnashing. Er, wait.

Anyway.

A plot is simply a map of where you want to go with your story. Some writers like to do detailed maps, many pages’ worth. Others, like yours truly, like to write loose scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter outlines that change as the story develops. Still others like to keep these maps in their heads and leave all the writing for the story.

There’s really no right or wrong way to plot, but this is what I do.

First, get yourself a copy of Scrivener. You can do this without Scrivener, but trust me, Scrivener makes life easier. 🙂 You see, Scrivener has a virtual corkboard, on which you can pin index cards. You can then open these index cards to reveal a document! Don’t know what the feck I’m talking about? Here, let me demonstrate:

So, in the picture, you see the Scrivener document for the novella I’m writing. It’s set in the same universe as my urban fantasy series, but uses all different characters. Each of the index cards above has a title (the bold black words), describing what happens in the scene. On the card itself, I jot notes about what I want to happen in the scene, or something I want to make sure I don’t forget while I’m writing the scene.

If I double-clicked a card, it would open up to the document, in which I write the scene in detail. See? It makes it all very neat and organized. Don’t worry about things being disjointed. At the end of the project, Scrivener has a nifty “compile” button you can hit. It combines all your index cards into one document in whatever format your little heart desires. You can add transitions if you feel like it’s still a bit bumpy from one scene to the next. An easy fix during the editing phase.

For my novella, each index card represents roughly 500 words. This helps me estimate the word count at a glance, too. If you look closely, or click the picture to zoom, you’ll see that I’ve marked certain word “milestones,” like 5,000 words. This is helpful because it shows me where I might need to add a significant event—especially helpful when writing longer lengths, like a full-size novel—and it helps counter the Meddlesome Middle syndrome which plagues a lot of writers.

So, what do you think? Do you/would you use Scrivener or another tool to help you plot? Why or why not?