The plot thickens!

This entry is part 1 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

As Andrew guessed last week, our next series is on plotting! (I’m mentally referring to this series as “Mwahahaha.” Three ha’s, if you please.)

plotthickensLast week, we discussed plotting briefly—but now let’s get into it. What do you want to learn about plotting? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you changed “sides”? (I have.) If so, why?

I used to be a pantser—some romantic notions about a story springing fully formed from my head like Athena from the mind of Zeus, and fears about outlining killing my muse. I would start off with an interesting beginning, a twist or two in mind, and the end goal. I would make up the middle parts as I went along.

And then I got stuck.

For like a month. (That’s a very long time for me, when I’m in the middle of the draft and supposedly letting those unstifled ideas flow.)

I finally got unstuck, but what I made up as I went along ultimately didn’t work. It all had to be rewritten, and should I hope to publish that MS one day, I’m probably going to have to toss most of it and do a whole new plot (with one or two of the same twists and turns, because they made those characters who they were, but other than that, starting from scratch with the characters/situation).

My next project was something I did with one of my best friends. We came up with an idea to write parallel novels with four main characters (a hero and heroine for each of us, with her heroine and my hero as siblings).

Oh, and also it was going to be a murder mystery (on my side; less so on hers, since they couldn’t all be investigating). We had to know who did it, when, and why—what events led up to it, what other characters were involved.

tapping pencilAnd since the investigation was part of my story line, I had to plot.

To my surprise, instead of killing my muse, plotting fueled it. I got to know the murderer (with a 1st person character freewrite) and his motivations. I searched for the worst possible thing that could happen—and the next, and the next, and the next—and made sure even the good things that happened were timed to my characters’ disadvantage.

I came to love turning the screws.

To me, plotting is your first chance to know your story. You may be like I was, and have an ending and one or two twists in mind, and take off to discover the rest. And there’s joy in discovering the story, finding the characters and their twists and turns.

But when I’m plotting, I get to experience that all at once. I get to discover—engineer—the twists and turns in a matter of hours, to hold the whole story in my mind (which I just can’t do with 100,000 words). As I mentioned last week, when I know what’s coming, I can plant clues, turn those screws to make the coming disasters even worse, or foreshadow. Naturally, I’ll have to go back and tweak all those things, but some of my favorite nuances have come from knowing where I’m going and finding a happy coincidence in the present scene.

I’m hooked.

What about you? To reiterate the original questions: What do you want to learn about plotting? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you changed “sides”? If so, why?

Tapping pencil by Tom St. George

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11 thoughts on “The plot thickens!”

  1. I don’t think I ever got past page five of any “pantser” projects. I have to know where I’m going in order to keep my muse focused and directed.

  2. I’ve always been a plotter. I need to have a goal to aim at, even if the details change. Now I’m experimenting with a more detailed outline. It takes longer to create, but I know the little details to add for everything to fall together. Last time I had to go back and add several scenes to have the ending chapters to make sense.

    I’ll be watching this series with great interest. Mwahahaha. 🙂

  3. I’m a plotter-ish. If I plot too precisely, then by the time I get around to writing it, the fire is gone. But if I go too much by the seat of my pants, I’m lost.

    I need to know where I’m starting, where I’m ending, and most of the landmarks in between. But I don’t always know every tiny shrub and offshoot and pathway between every landmark, if that makes sense. I might know A, B, C, an D but not every subtle thing between B and C or how exactly I’ll get from C to D.

  4. @Annette—that’s really closest to where I fall, I think. Or maybe the stories that I killed with too much plotting, I was never that enthusiastic about anyway.

    The draft I’m working on now, I came up with the ending twist, then the opening situation (crime), then I wrote the first chapter. A couple days later, I sat down to outline so I could figure out which of the two bad guys I needed to have in the opening scene and their full motivations and off-scene maneuverings. And then a week or two after that, I sketched out the major landmarks that would fall about every 10k words, which made the story even stronger. So I have landmarks, and a basic map of how to get to the next landmark, but I’m not sure how I’ll be getting from that event to the next one big event.

  5. I’m really not sure what I am. So many of my ideas don’t come to life until I’m “in” an actual scene, and yet, plot and conflict are not my strong points. That means I have to WORK at them (at least right now), and you can’t work on those unless you plot!

    So this story right now, I’m panster-plotting. As in, I’m brainstorming and writing miscellaneous scenes here and there all over the place that will probably never end up in the book, but which are helping me explore and discover the path my plot will take. So I’ve only got about 5 pages of the novel written, but I’ve got pages and pages and pages of the story written. Most of it is backstory and worldbuilding, so it’ll never end up in the book…but with each new page of all this that I write, my world becomes more complete and more thorough, my characters become more complete. So I know this will definitely all pay off, both in this novel and future stories set in this world.

    Will I go back to being a panster? Well… the short story that I have e-published is, I think, very well written. At least, it’s been a year since I wrote it, my writing skills have grown a LOT, and I still think it’s well written, so that’s got to mean something, write? But anyway, I wrote that by the seat of my pants….BUT it’s very short, I had the general idea of where the story would go when I started, and I’d already been writing in that world for 3 years, so I knew it inside and out. I think all of those things enabled me to write it well as panster. A full-length novel has to be considerably more complex.

    So perhaps in another three years, when I know this world inside and out, and I’ve learned to include complex plots and conflict without having to work so hard at it… perhaps then I’ll be able to write by the seat of my pants again.

    What would *I* like to learn about plotting? I don’t know. I just finished reading “Writing the Breakout Novel” and it was so jam packed of important information on plotting that my brain is full to overflowing right now. 🙂

    I suppose it would be kind-of fun to discuss some of those topics with others and allow what I learned to become more settled inside me.

  6. GMTA!! Mwahahacough

    Check out my post today on my blog see where I stand.
    After pantsing a few stories…they don’t turn out so go. It’s not like I didn’t do a minimal amount of plotting. The problem is that is was all plot…and no characterization. So this happens then this happens, then this has to happen…and the characters need to fall in line.
    So I’m in the middle of an experiment, trying to actually plot out a book. I literally have an 8-page outline (+ a couple pages of random notes) that forms a complete story. Not just an idea. Not just a couple of plot points. A whole story including the main characters, their emotional arcs, and occasional details to provide the flavor of the story. My next step is to turn this 8-page concept into a 30-40 page detailed outline. Then I create scenes. Then, and only then, will I write the dang thing. Which should be simple because I have an 8-page and a 40-page outline to refer to, not a 550-page unindexed text where I can’t even find the major plot points. Also, by the time I get the 40-page outline done, I should know whether the story “works” and make a go/no-go on it.
    Mind you this is my first attempt at outlining, so my expectation may not meet reality.
    I’m also concerned about having too many details in the draft and far exceeding my word count, but hopefully I’ll get the hang of it. I do hope this makes my first draft far closer to something publishable than what I get now.

  7. @Kathleen—Yeah, I think with a short story, you don’t always have to plot. A lot of the time, a short story is only one major landmark, and if you know that’s there, the rest might not be necessary. If you come up with any questions later or anything you’d like us all to ponder, let us know!

    @Andrew—I did see your post today and I meant to comment (kids. sigh.). Good luck with your outlining! That’s a bit more than I can do (at that point it does start to kill the story for me), but I know that works for many people, so I hope it works for you! In fact, I just remembered one of the plotting methods I’ve used before that is very similar, and I was going to write about it. Awesome!

  8. I was definitely a pantser for my first two manuscripts but I’m having such a hard time starting my third one that I think I’m about to become a plotter with plot storming sessions and everything. Yikes. I have a character but I have no idea where she’s going, which is…problematic.

  9. I wonder how many multi-published writers follow this pattern that so many of us are… starting out as a pantster, realizing that writing-by-the-seat-of-our-pants exposes our weak areas, and realizing that plotting is necessary to some degree. And then, I wonder how many, once those weak areas get stronger and become more natural, are able to go back to pantsting. (I think I just verb-ified a made-up noun!)

  10. I think Annette describes my situation exactly. I’m posting today about the frustrations I’ve encountered when trying to write with an outline… losing my enthusiasm (Annette’s fire) in the process. Maybe I’m trying for too much detail or control over the story. Hmmm, more to think about. 😉

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