How to Plot and Pants at the Same Time

pantser, n. — A writer who “flies by the seat of their pants” when drafting a book, rarely plotting more than the basics and never going so far as to outlinegiphy2

When I first started seriously writing I was a die-hard pantser. Any advance plotting more in-depth than the basics–world, protagonist, antagonist, and conflict–seemed restrictive at best, and pure tyranny at worst. My reasoning went that I couldn’t possibly be truly original, spontaneous, and creative with my writing if I had every last detail trussed up into a series of predetermined scenes. I had to let my imagination run wild! Find the flow! Go where my characters needed me to go!

Well. That all worked okay for a little while. But when I started drafting my second full-length novel, I ran into a curious problem. About a quarter of the way through–somewhere around the 20-25K word mark–I got stuck. I didn’t know exactly why, but the story had gone off track and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back ON track because I didn’t know where it was going. So, in pure pantser style, I started over. I began the story a little later into the action, changed up a few characters, and introduced the villain earlier. Things were going smoothly, until BAM. Yep, you guessed it. I was stuck again.

giphyHmm. Maybe pantsing wasn’t the most efficient method after all. Since I wasn’t particularly keen on writing another twenty thousand words I wasn’t going to use,  I started reading instead. I started with Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, then moved on to Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder. Neither had all the answers, but I was beginning to see that maybe stories needed structure and planning after all. By the time I read Brook’s Story Engineering, I was ready to listen to what he had to say.

I like to call it Story Architecture. Stories, like buildings, have shapes, comprised of certain elements that are nearly constant across the board. Whether it’s a shack in the woods or a Frank Lloyd Wright art-home, a house has walls, a roof, at least one door, and nearly always windows. Similarly, a story must comprise certain elements that make it, well, a story. Beats. Pinch-points. Emotional arcs. And once you start identifying these building blocks, you start seeing them everywhere. The book you just picked up at the library. The latest summer blockbuster. The cartoon your niece is watching. And most importantly, you start seeing them in your own work. And you start seeing why your by-the-seat-of-your-pants-story has run into the ground.

giphy3And so I started outlining. I cobbled together a worksheet/beat-sheet that includes elements from Story Engineering, Save the Cat!, and even The Hero’s Journey, and I’ve used it to outline every manuscript I’ve written since. This beat-sheet helps me map out every plot point, every emotional arc, every shift in tension or sympathy. It helps me build the scaffolding upon which a readable story can be built.

But. (Y’all knew there was gonna be a but.) You may be able to take the girl out of the pants, but you can’t take the pants out of the girl (that sounded way less weird in my head). So I still try to find ways to incorporate the spontaneity and extemporaneousness of pantsing while also rigorously plotting.

First, I never outline too deeply–working through an outline beat by beat is bad enough, so I find scene by scene outlining to be way too stifling for me. Second, I never outline the climax and denouement of the story, instead letting the culmination and conclusion arise organically from the plot and characters as they stand. And finally, I never refer to back to my outline once I’ve completed it! Usually, after spending so much time with the plot, beats, pinch-points and emotional arcs, the shape of the story has already been built enough in my head that I can safely play it out on paper. And even if I decide along the way that I want to change the paint color or add an annex or even knock down a wall, I’m secure enough in the overall structure of the story that this won’t derail the entire plot.

giphy1My method probably isn’t for everyone! But whether you’re mostly a plotter or a mostly pantser, it goes to show that a little bit of flexibility in either direction can go a long way.

Resources:

Kurt Vonnegut, and the Shapes of Stories

Jami Gold | Worksheets for Writers

Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling

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New Year New Idea

Hello! I hope your 2014 is starting out right. I know mine is. Busy as ever, but that’s the fun part…most of the time.

As the new year dawned I sat down and made a list of all the stories I needed to write. Like the new year, new ideas make me giddy, frustrated, and exhausted by the end. How can a new idea (supposed to be exciting) make me feel all those things? Well, let me tell you.

In the beginning I’m thinking NEW. SHINY. FUN. This is my motto Then I get this fabulous plot twist (at least I think it’s fabulous twist) . The planning really takes off and I look a lot like this

So I sit down and start writing. After about a third of the way through this happens…

Then after a pep talk, or ten, I get back to the shiny new idea and finish writing the story. When I type those lovely final two words THE END my excitement becomes this

And then I start the process all over again with another story. Rinse and repeat!

Please tell me I’m not the only one who goes through this craziness. What’s your process when  you start something new?

Structure: Plot’s BFF

This blueprint of what La Belle would have loo...
This blueprint of what La Belle would have looked like was created in the 20th century, after excavation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was a born planner.

Every December, I would start planning my birthday party. I’d write out a birthday list, figure out who I would invite, tell my mum the entire deal, and then flounce back to my room to figure out the details.

My birthday? It’s in November.

Looking back at that, it’s a surprise that when I started writing novels, I did it by the seat of my pants. Maybe that’s what happens when an INFJ tries to balance the intuitive with the judger.

I wrote my first two and a half novels (well, two and two halves) without any idea of what would come next aside from a vague sort of picture and once a brief outline. None of them worked. I couldn’t figure out why it took my beta readers months and months and death threats to return any feedback to me.

Nothing really motivated them enough to read my work. I couldn’t fathom why. I thought it was good. Maybe not perfect, but good.

Then about a year ago, I heard of something called “structure.”

Smoke
Smoke (Photo credit: AMagill)

For a while, this idea of structure eluded me like trying to catch smoke in a net. All the while, I felt like a really crappy Indiana Jones searching for relics on a waitress’s budget with no passport.

Which was sort of true. Except I have a passport.

It wasn’t until I read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks that something massive clicked in my head, like the giant boulder finding the perfect niche.

My first books didn’t work because they completely lacked structure. Every book, play, and screenplay follows a certain amount of rules. It’s what keeps tension going. It’s what moves the story along. At its core, it is the instinctual resonance of a narrative arc that goes back to the days where we all sat around in caves picking our teeth with splintered femurs while a clan storyteller regaled us with legends and myths and feuds about cows.

Plot and structure are lovers, and good plots have great structure. Amazing plots have exceptional structure.

Most creative people don’t stand up and cheer when someone mentions rules or rigid words like structure. But structure isn’t something with much wiggle room, and once I realised that, I found I had more creative freedom. Not less. Because learning about structure gave me what every wannabe published writer writes for: an audience.

Audience
They love me! They really love me! Wait, why aren’t they looking at me? Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

Screenplays work in three acts, but I’m now convinced that novels don’t. Novels are subject to something that I (among more notable authors) like to call the Muddle. The Muddle is what happens when you take a beginning and an end and sit on them. They get squished underneath your bum until there’s just a flat squidgy place in the middle that looks suspiciously like the rear end that indented it.

Because of the Muddle, I like to think of novel structure in quadrants.

Quadrant 1: Bring It On

In the first 20-25% of a novel, we meet the main characters. The time bomb starts ticking, an inciting incident happens, we get a feel for the antagonist, and we get a glimpse of the protagonist’s “normal” before proceeding to pick it up and smash it to bits. (Those things don’t happen in that order.) If these things aren’t present, why would any reader go on?

The inciting incident may or may not be the same as the first plot point (or the break into Act II, as they say in film), but sometimes it is. But when it happens, it must propel the protagonist into a life-altering decision and give the first real glimpse of the antagonist.

Quadrant 2: Flailing in the Waves

After the protagonist’s Big Life-Altering Decision, she starts finding out that what she thought was an inconvenient puddle is really a mire of badness. Quadrant 2 is her reacting, wading in, flailing out, and probably not having the most success. This is also a reason to love the four quadrants as opposed to one big second act — the protagonist’s flailing in Quadrant 2 leads up to the single biggest turning point in the novel: the midpoint.

Halfway through, your protagonist has another decision. This time it has to move her from reacting into being proactive. She has to learn information that forces her to move from lowly, nose-picking protagonist to chest-puffed hero.

Quadrant 3: Take the Fight

The third quadrant pushes the protagonist into fighting back against the aggressors, whether the antagonist is a specific person or many people or a fleet of rabid ants. She might not (probably won’t) always come out on top in these little skirmishes, but she has to try.

Quadrant 3 is your last chance for exposition, your last stand of the big reveals that culminates in your second plot point (or break into Act III — because big reveals after that plot point annoy readers and viewers alike. I think M. Night Shyamalan needs to read Story Engineering. A giant twist 10 pages from the end might seem snazzy, but it does nothing but confuse and cheat your readers.

Quadrant 4: Boom, Bam, Bow

After you bust the door down into this last quadrant, your story ought to be rolling down the hill like an unsupervised Violet Beauregard on an incline. It should roll smoothly toward the climactic final confrontation, and from there into a nice little meadow filled with tied-up subplots and dandelions.

That’s why I turned in my pantser card. While I had enough of a feel for structure to get turning points in the right place, they weren’t as effective because I could never verbalise what made them strong or weak. Knowing what needs to go where freed me up — especially when I started plucking books off my shelves to check up on these things. Pick up great books, and you’ll see that their quadrants all line up almost exactly.

I might not outline the entire book down to its toenails, but I will make sure I know certain things. And because I love you, here’s Emmie’s Magical Pre-Plot Checklist!

  • Who is my protagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
  • Who is my antagonist, what does she want, and why does she want it?
  • What is the central conflict of the story? What are three other layers of that conflict?
  • What is my first plot point? How will it show the antagonist threat for the first time and goose my character into the next quadrant?
  • What is my midpoint? What information will change my protagonist’s goals, mindset, and plan enough to propel her into proactivity?
  • What is my second plot point? What information must my protagonist have before the climax? What can shake her and still push her to be stronger? Does she need a “dark night of the soul?”
  • What is my climax? How is my protagonist going to beat my antagonist?

This is now my bare minimum for starting on page one — and I prefer to get more in-depth than that, at least when it comes to my characters if not the precise lining out of chapters. If nothing else, it helps avoid the Muddle!

How do you plot? Do you plot? Have you had to deal with the Silence of the Beta Readers? Do you actively think about the structure of your novels, or do you wing it? Does it work? Are you hating me right now? 🙂

Thanks for bearing with a long first post — I promise next time I’ll be more succinct. 

 

Pantsers vs Plotters

There’s a lot of hate going around regarding “pantsers” – the type of writers that write by the seat of their pants.

I started out as a pantser.

For me, there is no right or wrong way to write a book, so long as you actually sit down and write the damn thing. So many people get caught up in the thinking and editing and re-editing that they never finish.

So to avoid this, you need to figure out what kind of writer you are. Are you an outliner, someone who plans? Or are you a pantser that just lets the ideas and words flow, prepared to edit at the end? Or are you a mix?

Oh yeah, it’s not black and white, you can be grey. I happen to be grey.

I just finished writing my fifth novel and with each book I have found that my writing style has evolved just as the stories I’ve written have evolved.

When I first sat down years ago and tried to write my first novel, I was convinced, CONVINCED!, that it had to be totally outlined before I sat down to write even one word. So one night I figured out the entire story, plot point by plot point. I knew when it started, when it ended and every twist and turn in between.

Sounds awesome, right? Wrong.

I would spend the next three years trying to write that story. I only ever got to around 35,000 words. By the time I hit around the 25,000 mark I was two-thirds through with the whole thing. Not good since this wasn’t a short story or a novella.

It took me a long time to realize that, in my mind, I had already written the story because of how detailed my outline was. There was absolutely no urgency for me to tell this story so I couldn’t. When I realized that and was able to let it go, the backstory of Earth, the first book in my Elemental Series, blossomed, fully formed in my mind.

I sat down that very day and wrote more than 9,000 words in less than three hours. Remember, it had been over 3 years and I had only written 35,000 words of that first story. I have never written anything that huge, in that amount of time since, but I finally knew what I had been doing wrong.

As a pantser I accept that there will be a lot of editing and revising when I’m done. As a pantser I accept that I cannot allow myself to go back and edit as I write; I have to just write myself a quick note on a piece of paper to remind myself when I am finally sitting down to edit. But that’s all okay with me because it makes it so much easier for me to write. I have the urgency I need to tell the story and that urgency comes across on the page.

For me, I see the final scene of a book in my head when I first sit down to write; then I write to it. My stories are a map to that final scene and we follow it together. I don’t always know what characters are going to walk on stage, I don’t always know when my characters are going to fight, but this allows for my characters to behave more organically because I’m not fighting with them to stay in an outline. For me this works.

Now, I said I was grey earlier because recently I have had to do some loose outlines to stay on track.

Fire, the fourth book in my series, was one of the hardest, most emotional books for me to write to date. As a matter of fact I wrote about 75% of it and then suddenly walked away from it for about six months, unable to go on. I think because I was afraid of the ending. Anyway. When I finally sat back down I had no idea how to get from the point where I had left off to the end and just trying to write wasn’t working. So I took out a pen and wrote out full sentence outlines for the final chapters leading up to the last chapter.

I did not outline that last chapter. I knew that one had to be totally organic. But I managed to write the last 25% of the book in less than a month.

So see? Sometimes outlines will work and sometimes they won’t. You have to decide what works for you. Can you successfully plot a whole novel without a map? Can you drive this novel by sheer instinct and find your way home? Or do you need an outline to act as your map, taking you through the twists and turns and safely out the other side?

Answer those questions and you’ll probably figure out why you haven’t managed to finish that illusive first draft.

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?