Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How Much of Your Story Should You Plot?

by Stephanie Morrill

I used to be a pantser, which is a writer who doesn't plot, who just writes "by the seat of their pants." I had tried a time or two to plot out my stories, but after a few chapters of writing, I would come up with something I liked way better and chuck the outline I had worked so hard on.

From this, I determined I wasn't an outliner and should give it up altogether. Which worked fine for a few years, but then I got published, had deadlines, and was being driven crazy by massive rewrites. I thought there has to be a better way for me to do this.

The answer crept up on me when I was putting together a book proposal for an incomplete novel. After you're published, you have the privilege (and the curse, sometimes) of being able to sell projects you haven't written yet. Editors typically want to see a few chapters and a synopsis. I wrote my chapters, filled my synopsis with a bunch of things I thought could likely happen to my character, and sent it off to my agent.

While I waited, I decided to write the book. About halfway through, I was hit with a severe head cold that knocked me out for a week. During that week, I read the entire Twilight saga, and by the time I came back to my characters I had no clue what was going on. What had I intended to happen, anyway? And where were all the hunky wolves?

I stared at the blinking cursor for a day or two before remembering, "Oh yeah! I wrote that synopsis a month ago!" Once I read over my ideas, I put the synopsis away and wrote the rest of my book.

If a little outlining was good, I decided a ton of outlining would be even better. On my next big project, I tried all kinds of charting and outlining. Which failed miserably because I was so stinking bored. I just wanted to be writing.

So I've finally grown comfortable with what I apparently am - a Plantser. I'm part plotter, part pantser. A little brainstorming and plotting can make a big difference for me and my story, but too much makes me feel a bit claustrophobic and the story suffers.

Here's the system I've settled on for now:

1. When I get an idea for a first line and opening scene, I write the first chapter or two. At this point, I've usually had the story idea for a month or so and have been brainstorming.

2. After I write a couple chapters, I find I have a much clearer idea of who my main character is and who the important people in her life are. Unless I'm writing a sequel, where I already know the characters and story world, this is a really important step for me. I'm always surprised by issues or characters who crop up in the story opening, so it's almost pointless for me to plot much before I've written the first couple chapters.

3. After my chapters, I've begun using Susan Meissner's 30 Episode Planner, which I learned about at the ACFW conference that I went to in September. (I can't find a link to it online, so I'm trying to get in contact with Susan to find out if she has a printable to share with you guys. Stay tuned.) Susan talked about how she once wrote a novel in thirty days and determined that it was because she gave her character thirty things to do. Her list is similar to Blake Snyder's beat sheet, only more in-tune to novelists. Jill Williamson was in that Susan Meissner class with me and she now uses a combo of the two. (Update: I've talked to Susan, and she's given me permission to have you guys email her requesting the 30 Episode Plot Planner. You'll find the information down in the comments section.)

Okay, this is actually me and Jill at the class AFTER Susan Meissner's. You can tell because in this one we're taking pictures in the middle of it and at Susan's we were taking frantic notes.

4. If I need to write a synopsis for the proposal, I do it, and then I get back to the story. If I don't need a synopsis, then I skip this. As much as I enjoy writing synopses, I don't write them for kicks.

5. When I'm writing, I mostly ignore the list I made. If I focus too much on the list, the flow of my story feels off (it starts to feel more like a checklist of events) and I get that claustrophobic feeling again. It's the pantser in me. If I have a feel for where the next scene needs to go, or if a story twist pops out at me, I go with it. And then when I hit one of those, "Okay ... now what?" kind of moments, I glance at my list.

Again, this is what I do for now. I love trying out new techniques, so we'll see what I'm using in a year.

What about you? Are you a straight pantser - no road map, just a wild adventure? A strict plotter with charts and index cards? If you're like me and in the middle, which way do you lean?

49 comments:

  1. I'm in the middle, leaning towards pantser like you. This post was great because I've actually been wondering how much plotting would be helpful so I don't get too stuck. Thanks! :)

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  2. For all our differences, Stephanie dear, in this we are much the same. =) I like having that synopsis to go from--helps me keep my focus--or something like it. And by the second half of a book, I usually have it all planned out, so I often jot down a list of scenes to come. But especially for that first half, it's about discovery. I know the major points (usually), but not how I'll get there.

    The only time I did something as precise as index cards was for JEWEL OF PERSIA, which was so stinking big, and based upon so many weird historical facts, that I had to be sure to keep everything in the right order. Though even then, the characters were still often wildcards within the pre-ordered scenes.

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    1. Lol - "wildcards." Love it.

      Yeah, so for historical writers, how does that pantser thing work? Have you ever written the book and then been like, "Well, shoot, I forgot that war was going on!"

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    2. LOL. Um, no. Or at least, not in the characters' neck of the woods ;-) Big research has to be done first, so depending on if you're using a lot of historical events or not, you may very well have that framework set up. But it usually looks like a very bare outline. Like with Ring of Secrets, I had historical events to cover in November, March, August, and October. That left a whole lot of space to fill in with plot!

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    3. Okay, very interesting, thank you :)

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  3. I'm mostly pantser, but I like to jot down a quick idea for a future scene in the story on a notecard or some kind of paper I have nearby. Once I have an idea of a future scene I start to write my story in that direction. But if I don't have a set idea for a future scene, I just write what comes to mind. That makes for a messy rough draft but I get bored with a lot of outlining and plotting.
    This was helpful! Thanks!

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    1. I've heard some writers refer to that as "plotting via headlights." Like you're not plotting much, just a scene or two. A wonderful technique!

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  4. I am like exactly like you! I've always been a pantser, because, before 2010, I had no clue what plotting was, and just assumed that ever writer wrote that way. But then I took a writing class and learned all about that, except HOW to plot. So I've been ripping my hair out trying to figure it out, because, if you knew me, you would know that plotting would help me so much. But if I plot to much I feel like I have no wiggle room. This should help me a lot, thanks :)

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  5. After a few trials and errors, I've learned that I like to make a plot map, which is a series of high and low points that will happen through-out my novel. It gives me a general idea of the next big scene I'm writing towards. Normally, I stick to the plot map for the first third of my novel. I get a little off in the middle, adding important events that I wasn't planning on using, and then get mostly back on track for the end. This way, I have a sort of idea where I'm going, but I still have plenty of room for playing around and finding new things out!
    Great post! Thanks, Stephanie.
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  6. I follow a very similar method, Stephanie. I discovered the 30 episodes method after the conference and am trying it at the moment. I need to have at least some sort of a map of where I'm going with the story otherwise I end up with a novel that meanders like sluggish river and the rewrites are anything but fun. ;) But I do a lot of my plotting while I'm writing, too.

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    1. Same here, Gillian! I struggled with middles, but then also with the climax. I often had a hard time pinpointing what it was ... and that's not good. If you should be able to pick out anything in the novel, seems like it should be THAT :)

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  7. I'm still figuring it out, but I'm leaning toward Pantser. I tried plotting it all out. I really did. I tried outlining my first couple chapters...didn't exactly work. I started writing and got like 5 big ideas and plot changes that are great and scrapped a bunch of previous ideas :P I have definitely felt that "I've spent to much time planning even I don't have a lot to show for it but I really want to write instead" feeling. So year, most likely a pantser. Sierra
    Keep growing beautiful!

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    1. Yep, Sierra. Sounds exactly like my experience!

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  8. I'm an obsessive outliner. :P Without it, I lose momentum and interest...with it, I feel like I don't have to worry about WHAT's going to happen and HOW. I can just glance at my outline, see what I need to do, and spend all my energy on the writing itself.

    However, my outlining techniques have changed with each book. I think I went a little overboard this time...oh well. :P

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    1. Oh, good, an outliner! I was hoping one would show up :)

      I think it's good that your techniques are changing with each book. Prolific novelist Angela Hunt once told me that she tries a new technique with each novel. I think it's kept her writing very fresh.

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  9. In the middle, leaning toward pantsing. Probably cause I just want to write... ;) :P

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    1. Same here, Bethany. Many things in life lose out to my writing. "I should really go start dinner ... after I write this scene." "My desk really needs cleaning up ... I'll do that after I write." :)

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  10. I used to just get an idea and start writing, but with the story I am working on now, I actually took time to think it through. With this story, I started by just sitting down and writing an outline of the most important scenes that HAVE to happen for the plot to move forward. Then as I'm writing it, I add in the scenes that deal with character development and other important things. The only problem I am having has nothing to do with plotting, rather character. This is the fourth story in a series that I've been working on. How do you keep coming up with new character flaws for your character to conquer?
    She is skeptical and doubts God's plans. She is one of those people who goes through the motions, knowing the right things to say, but she doesn't always believe them. Her country is on the edge of desolation. How do you make that work?
    I'm sorta thinking of doing a Job type thing. Rather than building her up, I need to tear her down so she can realize what God's doing. Does that even make sense? I'm quite confused currently. :)

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    1. Lol, Heather. Character arcs over a series are certainly a challenge so it's okay to be confused!

      Yes, she likely does need to be torn down rather often. Something else I would suggest is having her THINK she's mastered something, ("Okay, NOW I have it figured out - NOW I know how to trust God's plan!") only to require a new, harder level of trust for her. Does that make sense?

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    2. Thanks! It helps to have second opinions. I'm going through it with my writing teacher and writing group to get more ideas. So far it's going good. But after this I think I need a new character. She's kinda used up. :)

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  11. Well, I do like to plan...in my head. As soon as I start writing things down, I've lost total interest in the story. If I decide I dislike an idea, I can just toss it into my brain's recycle bin. But when I write it down, I'll look back and think, "That is the worst idea I have ever had."

    Piper♥

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  12. ~I`m mainly a pantser, but I do like to have a paper on which I write down the main ideas and events first. It usually just fills up less than a page. Then when I start writing and expanding, about two lines written on the rough paper for that chapter ends up expanding into a whole chapter! I`m working on my first ever novel now, so I`m not sure how well this works for me!
    ~Also, thanks for this post! Got me thinking I should write down a proper rough synopsis of the story so I won`t forget it! ^^

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    1. How exciting to be working on your first novel! Keep us updated on how it's going :)

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  13. This is something I'm still working out. I seem to be able to write randomly but corralling and developing a story seems tough for me. I've been working on plotting in the way of having an idea and coming up with loose plot points but that's still hard for me. I'm working on it though. I SO hope Susan messner allows how post the 30 point thing :) And Jill notices there's a 3 in that 30? :)

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    1. Lol. Knowing Jill, she's combined the two to make, like, a 45 point plot chart. For each character. Gosh, her books are complex.

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  14. I like the term Planster. That's probably what I am. I outline, but I don't look at the outline too much when I'm actually writing. Great post! Thanks.

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    1. Novelist Rene Gutteridge says she considers herself a "Pantster" because it sounds tougher :)

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  15. I'm definitely a panster...I've tried writing plots and that never worked out right.... though I have been writing scenes down so I make sure I put them in...I have them tacked up on a bulletin board...I can't wait to see the Episode planner...that might help me a bit in these things :D

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  16. I used to just try pantsing - and I never made it past 20k or so words on any one story.
    So this time last year, I started writing another story, and when I reached the point where I got stuck, I made some notes. I just read over what I'd written and used the general idea of where I wanted the story to go to make a very basic outline. It was really just a couple of plot points I had to get to, but it helped a lot.
    And then, if I still had points where I got stuck while writing, I'd flesh out my outline a bit more, adding some more notes for scenes, etc to work in. That worked pretty well for me.
    And ten months later, I had a finished first draft :)

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  17. At the moment (ask me again in a few months), I'm almost exactly in the middle. So I'm a, um, plotster (or planster)?
    When I wrote my first novel, I outlined by chapter (approximately 2,000 words). I would decide what needed to happen over the course of the next few pages, write it, then tackle the next section. I had no idea how I should be plotting things, but I didn't like feeling like I had to stick to an outline, and I didn't like feeling completely lost without one. It worked for that particular project, but this time around, I'm outlining a little more.
    In real life, however, I'm a total plotter ;)

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  18. I am definitely a panster. Very rarely do I go by a certain plan or outline. I think of a story, brainstorm for a week or so and then start writing. Whenever I have writer's block, I just read the last few chapters or so and then it all comes to me. I also write from real-life experiences so I have something to base my stories off of.

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  19. Well, the only full novel I've ever finished was done with no plot in advance. I really liked it at first but now that I've been waiting on replies to queries and a partial for more than two months I'm starting to lose confidence, like "oh, this middle part is so boring," and "i barely developed her at all!" I still write the beginnings to my ideas without planning the plot, but they never go more than twenty pages or so. I'm starting to think I need to plot out things before I can write them. The problem is that it's hard for me to get inspired and think of the entire story all at once. Also, I know I won't follow the plot because my best ideas come while I'm writing. I guess I'm still figuring out which I am. Still a good post! Thanks for sharing, and I hope you find the 30 episodes planner. I'd like to try it!

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  20. I'm a plotter! At least...I've been writing sequels for so long, everything just unfolded from the first (though I had detailed, up to, like, 8 page plot outlines before I started). Plotting helps me have an idea of where I want to go. I like to "know" what'll happen. ;) But, with my upcoming WIP (for 100 for 100!) I'm planning on taking a more relaxed approach. Let's see how this pantser thing works out.

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  21. I'm a panter. I've been trying to plot, but I really don't like outlines. They make me wish I was writing, and they require more forethought than I'm used to. Unfortunately, I don't like character maps or any other type of real book planning. I should plot, though. I'm about 10 k into a new story, and I have no idea what the climax or resolution's going to be--I need a good way to figure that out. For now, that's okay. I like it when my characters surprise me :).However, that makes editing awful. In fact, I started my second novel to avoid editing my first, which I think is incredibly ironic. Maybe one of these days I'll figure this out . . .
    -Katia

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    1. I found the same problem with previous novels I hadn't done any plotting on. I frequently lost track of plotlines. Most of those stories ended up scrapped because they were practically impossible to edit... It makes me think some form of plantser is the way to go.

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  22. Well, I'm still in that awkward, gangly-foal, haven't-actually-(cough)-finished-a-novel-yet stage. I've tried everything, though I seem to have found a happy medium for the current story(s).

    Right now I'm working on a Beauty and the Beast retelling that focuses mainly on character, while at the same time I'm longing to write a sprawling, world-stretching, inspiring epic fantasy. I realized maybe 1500 words ago that I'd dropped in a few references to Tybalt's world (that one mountain range, the duke from that one place), and so I started planning out the world. As I work on Tybalt's story now, totally seat-of-my-pants-with-a-sheet-of-notes-I-add-to-when-inspiration-strikes-me, I'm planning a radically different story that takes place in the same world after this story ends. Granted, neither one will probably ever see that light of day, but it seems to be working for me. Where does that put me on the spectrum? I'd call myself a cross-my-fingers-er. If it works, it works.

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  23. I am definitely a "Plantser", with leanings to words a straight pantser...LOL
    Especially because writing historically--i.e: the Civil War--that gives me a great base time line to go on & learn more about as I write.

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  24. Plantser...love it! It's the perfect word to describe how I write. I don't plan anything before the first draft, and it's always a total mess. But once I get that draft done, I go into full plotting mode - notebooks full of notes, index cards on bulletin boards, character worksheets, the whole shebang.

    I also recently discovered a website called Hiveword, and I'm loving it. It not only keeps plotlines, characters, settings, and scenes in one place, but it has this awesome drag-and-drop scene rearrangement feature. My first step in the plotting process is now to input everything to Hiveword.

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  25. I do write a little of my plan down on paper, but somehow I never stick to my plans that well. I like to imagine things out and then I know how to write it :)

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  26. I am very much the same in being part plotter and part panster. We're hybrids. :) I can't do too much research on a project, or do too much outlining, because my creativity starts to run dry. It starts being chased away by to-do lists, or articles of someone else's words. It can make my book feel dry and tedious, and where is the fun in that? ;-) But then, I also can't just start my book, cross my fingers, and hope for the best. Obviously there is a little more technique in the fine art of being 100% panster, but the part plotter in me won't let me dabble in it.

    On a side note, I'm hoping--no, scratch that--I'm determined to go to the next ACFW conference this September. I think it's time to rock the boat a little bit and take a that leap of faith. ;-)

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  27. Okay what a relief. I thought I was the only person who did this and was sure I'd suffer some day because of it. Im part plotter part panster.(well if you include plotting as a rough plot I have in my head) I used to try and plot but its so draining and before I've even began I don't even want to write it anymore. I've just started a new novel and I played with the idea for a while and decided to jump to writing the first few chapters. Its kind of evolving into something way cooler than what I'd originally thought so I'm really glad I started writing it. I have a question. When you are a professional author and have a publishing company and everything, how long are you given to write books? How long does it usually take you?

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    1. That's a really great question. I'm sure it varies from author to author, but I'll answer for me anyway :)

      Publishers love when an author can churn out a book every six months or so ... but they also respect that a book needs to be good or it won't do well. Some authors know they can only do one book a year and publishing houses are fine with that. But if you can do them every six months or every four months, they're fine with that as well.

      At this point in my career (where I have a feel for what will work as a novel and what won't, when I typically don't have to do tons and tons of rewrites)I can turn out a good 85,000 word book in five or so months, which includes writing the first draft, editing it, having my critique partner read it within a few weeks, and editing again. A more comfortable time frame for me is 6 or 7 months, but I CAN do it quicker.

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  28. Okay, guys, I talked to the lovely Susan Meissner about her 30 Episode Planner. She told me she doesn't have it available online because she's planning to write a book on the method so doesn't want it widely accessible. But she also said she would be happy to show it to you guys, and that you could email her privately. How awesome is that?

    This is the email address she gave me: susanlmeissne(at)gmail.com (I'm wondering if there should be an R at the end of that. Like susanlmeissneR. If it bounces, I would try that.)

    In the subject line, please put: Request for 30 Episode Plot Planner

    In the body, I would write something like: I read about you on Stephanie Morrill's Go Teen Writers site and am interested in seeing the 30 Episode Plot Planner. Thank you so much for taking the time to make it accessible to me.

    If you've read Susan's books, now would be a great time to tell her how awesome they are. If you haven't, now would be a great time to DISCOVER how awesome her books are at www.SusanMeissner.com

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  29. I'm pretty much a pantser. I start out with this basic plotline like a blurby, and then just go with it. If I'm lucky, I *might* know where the next scene is going, lol

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  30. I'd call myself a plantser that leans towards plotter. I don't plot absolutely every little thing that has to happen and where, but I have some plot and character arcs and the big points quite clear in my head, but there are some chapters towards the beginning, or like where I'm building up, that I just kind of have to "feel" what should happen and when... And WHO should happen and when! :)

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