Plotting for Pantsers

As anyone who’s ever talked to me knows, I’m a pantser. I’ve spoken at length about how I learn about my characters while writing them, and how improvisation is key to how my stories develop. I’m actually probably really annoyingly stubborn about it.

But, as it turns out, even I can take a hint sometimes, when the universe smacks me over the head with it enough times.

Last year, I had some personal situations that rocked my mojo. Badly. I never stopped writing in the last six months of 2012, but I started stories and got distracted and didn’t know what came next, and I gave up and started new manuscripts. I kid you not: I wrote the first ten to thirty thousand words on no fewer than four different stories. I was miserable and lost and plowing ahead without a rudder, an engine, or even a goddamn map, because writing was the only part of my life I felt like I had any control over. It was a mess.

I vowed to change my ways and just finish something already at the beginning of 2013, and I did that. I hated the manuscript I ended up with. I’m still fumbling through edits on it.

And in the meantime, I accidentally ended up in three different workshops on plotting.

Universe? Yes, I hear you. I feel that sharp thumping on the back of my cranium. I get that you’re trying to tell me something.

The first workshop I went to was one led by Anna DeStefano at a retreat in May. Over and over again, she hammered home the point that you need to know at the outset of your story who your characters are, what their goals are, and what’s keeping them from their goals. It was the kind of stuff I usually at least have an inkling of before I start writing, but presented in a more formalized way. While I figured I didn’t really need that kind of structure, I listened. I took notes. In the back of my mind, the gears began to turn.

The second workshop was actually one on synopsis-writing, led by Jean C. Gordon. What threw me for a loop at her presentation was her insistence that the best time to write a synopsis is when you’re about three chapters into writing your manuscript. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that suggestion, but it was the first time I really stopped to think about it. Over and over, she emphasized developing your conflict and deciding what obstacles were standing in your characters’ way. I took the new manuscript that I just so happened to be about three chapters into writing and tried sketchily mapping it out the way she’d suggested. It didn’t change much about my ideas for the story, but it did reveal to me that I needed a little more going on in one of my characters’ arcs if I wanted him to stand on his own.

Thirdly and finally, I had a free block of time during RWA and decided to check out a seminar by Jessica Brody on Save The Cat.

You go to enough chapter meetings and enough panel discussions, and you eventually hear the names of pretty much all the big craft books. Save The Cat was one I definitely recognized the title of, but I really had no idea what it was about. Turns out, it was written as a guide for screenwriters on the major plot points / scenes that make up a typical, well-rounded Holywood style story. It’s like Mad Libs for plotters: these are the basic beats you need to hit; now fill in the blanks with the particulars of your story.

What I took away from it was that in fifteen sentences or less, you could basically throw together the skeleton for your story.

On the plane ride home, I started plotting.

The next book I wrote was one I not only finished, but felt happy with by the time I was done.

Now mind you, I’m not really changing my ways. Writing is still how I figure out my characters’ voices. Writing is still how I discover the imagery and themes that will make my book unique. But sailing along without any real plan at all was leaving me stranded, so I’ve started working on outlines that, without precluding the chance for discovery or improvisation, give me a basic structure and a map for how to get from the first scene to the last scene. Our very own Heather McGovern refers to this level of balance between pantsing and plotting at “plotsing”, and I’m starting to think it might be a better style of working for me. I doubt I’ll ever buy notecards or highlighters, or make a storyboard, or compose an outline that’s over three pages long. But I’m starting to think I may never go into a manuscript completely blind again, either.

It’s all still new to me at this point. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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