PLOTTING FOR PANTSERS ~ Anne Gracie

Today, Anne Gracie is our guest blogger, with a craft article.

A lot of writers claim they don’t plot; they write by the seat of their pants, or just “fly into the mist.” I’m one of them, although I prefer to use Robyn Donald’s term — an organic writer. (“Pantser” carries too much of a visual of my granny’s bloomers flapping on the clothesline.)

It’s not quite true, however, that we don’t plot. We don’t pre-plot. We don’t sit down before we write a book, work out a detailed plot and then flesh it out in the writing. Pre-plotting works well for many writers, but there’s no one right way, just whatever works for each of us.

I’ve tried the pre-plotting method and for me, it doesn’t work. I can work out a perfectly good, detailed plot, but the moment I start writing it either the characters morph and take the plot in a different direction, or I get bored because I already know what’s going to happen.

But pantsers do plot. At least the good ones do. Some people pants blind.

 

The Problem with Blind Pantsing

 

Some pantsers get all fired up by an idea and write like fury until they run out of steam, and then get another idea and think, “Oooh yes, I can have this happen” and write like fury until they run out of steam and then they think, “What about this?” and they write like fury etc. etc.

And sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn’t.

The trouble with that method is you can waste a lot of time heading up blind alleys. And doing a LOT of rewriting.

Worse, you can end up with a story that’s a rambling series of sequential events, where the end bears little relation to the beginning, a directionless muddle.

Yes, a story is a series of connected events, but a story must also mean something.

Sometimes I’m almost half way through a story before I know what the story really means, what it’s really about, and then I have to go back to the start to tweak it, change the angle slightly on some earlier scenes, subtly emphasize some aspect.

You can save yourself a lot of trouble by sitting down and asking yourself some questions quite early in the writing stage. Maybe at the first point you’ve run out of steam. I know a lot of people need to start writing, to have the characters interacting on the page before they know who this story is about. Romance, after all, is a character driven genre.

Play before you write

I’d suggest, though, that you play with your characters a little more, rewrite some of those early scenes — not to polish your writing, but trying different scenes and settings to see what is going to bring out the best in your characters. Don’t think of those early scenes as the beginning of your book, but just some practice writing.

You have them meet in an office? Try having them meet somewhere else — a gym, or a train station, or at the scene of an accident. Choose a setting/situation that will bring out a particular characteristic of at least one of your characters, something that’s fun/interesting/exciting/dramatic.

You want your first scene to be a fabulous, “suck-me-into-your-world” scene, and that takes work and thought and rewriting. And something fresh.

You also want your opening scene to give the reader a clear sense of what the book is going to be about.

Once you’ve played with a few possibilities, you’ll know more about the kind of story you want it to be, that kind that will stretch and challenge your particular characters. This will help you define the kind of conflict that will be at the core of the story.

While your characters are coming to life in those early “play” scenes, ask yourself what does each of them want and why they can’t have it? If a character has a visible goal, it helps clarify things enormously. Then you ask yourself what might they do to achieve that goal? How might they change and develop through the story? Playing with possibilities…

What Kind of Story is it?

This then helps to clarify what kind of story you’re writing. Is it a convenient marriage story? Or a forced marriage? A secret baby story? Second chance at love? Revenge? Friends to lovers? Wounded soul? There are dozens of beloved tropes in romance and readers like to know what they’re getting. They also like a fresh take on a beloved trope.

Once you’ve worked out what kind of story you’re writing, you can make a list of some of the pivotal scenes that you expect will go with that kind of story. Eg. the scene where she tells the hero he has a child. The scene where he meets that child. And so on. And then you can decide how you’re going to handle this scene your particular way.

They’ll form the bare bones of your plot. Again they’re just possibilities, not requirements.

Your story needs structure

Next, I think about the three act structure (or the 5 act structure if you prefer) because I know my story is going to roughly conform to that, because all the stories I’ve ever written have, even though I never consciously applied it when I was writing most of them.

I have a noticeboard in my workroom, with a grid drawn up for my current story plan. It has 20 squares, because generally my books have roughly 20 chapters.

The squares are labelled in different colors, for the 3 act structure. (Google the term if this is new to you.) You could also use Blake’s Snyder’s beat sheet as a structure if you wanted — I’ve also found my books conform roughly to his breakdown, too.  Structure, not determinism.

 

All it means is that I know when I’m getting to chapter 4 (for instance) that pretty soon I’m going to want to add some new element to shift the parameters of the story; a turning point, a new character, a new piece of knowledge, a change of pace or setting, or the rise of a subplot for instance.

Don’t think of this as a must. Thinking “must” is deadly to pantsers, we need to let our muses roam free. It helps me to recall that my earliest books all had this structure. Even though I thought the three act structure was for playwrights and nothing to do with me or my writing, pure story-telling instinct (developed by reading thousands of books) had led me there anyway. Structure is my friend, not my jailer.

So when I’m writing chapter 3 or 4, some part of my brain is sifting possibilities for future chapters or scenes, coming up with possible subplots or turning points, a black moment, whatever.

I always write down these thoughts when they come to me. Sometimes they’re just snatches of dialogue, sometimes whole scenes. And I’ll make a note on a yellow sticky and put it on my story chart.  Some never get used, some become the central guiding light in my story, where everything heads toward that point.

Summing up

All the time I’m writing, some part of my brain is plotting; thinking ahead and narrowing choices between the many possibilities depending on what kind of story I’m writing, what the central thread of conflict and the emerging theme is, and how my characters and story are developing. Like a scout exploring ahead for the best routes.

And thus I plot. Not a firm plan set in stone, but a constantly evolving range of exciting  possibilities.

For another take on “flying into the mist” go to Jo Beverley’s excellent article

http://www.jobev.com/fim.html

So, what about you — are you a plotter or a pantser, and what difficulties have you found with your method?

Anne Gracie’s latest book Bride by Mistake is out now.

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27 Comments

  1. Fabulous post, Anne. You have no idea how reassured I was at the NQ Roadshow to find I follow a similar process to you!!

    Love your suggestion about playing with characters in different settings before you get settled with where the story begins. I’ve had new opening scenes for all my stories.

    I think I have become more efficient at tweaking as I go. I build a time-line now as I write each chapter and fill in character maps as they evolve.

    I still find myself re-writing some scenes from different POVs once the book’s first draft is finished because I haven’t identified who had the most to lose at that point. (Of course, that may be because one character is a whole lot more vocal and pushy than another…)

    Reply
  2. Thanks, Helene, I think the first author I met who confessed to writing like this, was Jo Beverley, when she spoke about “Flying Into the Mist” at an RWAmerica conference. I put a link to it at the end.

    Playing is such a good exercise, i think. Glad you like the idea.

    Love the idea of your time line, too. And yes, I rewrite scenes a lot too. I suspect even Really Organized Plotters have to play with their scenes from different POVs too. Like trying on shoes in a shop.

    Reply
  3. Great post Anne, I was sorry when it was winding down to the end. I’m not a pantser or flimmer, I’m a hard and fast plotter. Or am I? As I read this article, I couldn’t help by question that fact to some extent.

    My analysis is that in recognsing some aspects of my own behaviours and processes in yours, I suspect that many of us are a mix of both plotter and panster. For me, the one hard and fast I have to have is that I need – NEED in capitals – to know the plot twists and the ending. I’m never bored by that – in fact it gives me great peace in knowing that when I sit down to write, I have a goal, a place I need to reach.

    It’s on days that I don’t know where I’m going that I flutter about and the day disolves into a thick treacley fog and I get quite stressed. But then I’m a gal driven by structure, motivated by goals and activated by lists.

    Perhaps my need to know where I’m going has also been exacerbated by my writing for younger kids – as this often has a very short deadline period, so I don’t have time to experiment as much.

    Whatever the reason, you’re right – there is no one correct way to write, it’s whatever way works for us. However, now that you’ve managed to confuse me completely, I’m now not sure what I should call myself. A Plotanser? A Panstplot? As my mind boggles, I have only one thing I’m grateful for: that this article wasn’t about gender identification. Heavens knows what I would have gotten myself confused about then!

    Great article Anne, Thank you. Oh and I also love your 20 grid chart – thank you. Consider that idea shared as it is going up in my office today. Brilliant idea.

    Reply
    • Kerri, loved your response, thanks. I also like to know where I’m going when I sit down to write a scene — I completely agree that not knowing what happens and the purpose of the scene.

      However what can happen sometimes is that when I’m on a writing roll, I’m in the middle of writing the scene I planned to write and it throws up something new I hadn’t planned; a twist, another possibility I hadn’t planned for, and if it’s better than I planned, you can bet I’m going to keep it and follow on from there.

      Reply
  4. Hi Anne,
    Thanks for this post. The organised side of me wants to be like Elizabeth George with the whole thing plotted out scene by scene because I imagine it must be great to then sit down and write a scene or two a day. I’ve tried but the truth is I know where my story’s going generally but just can’t pin specifics on it. I need that muse to knock me up the side of the head and say ‘what about…?’

    Reply
    • Louise, if I were writing the kind of book Elizabeth George writes, I suspect I’d be much more of a plotter — crime novels need dense and careful plotting, especially when they’re as complicated as hers are. And most crime stories are plot driven. But romances tend to be character driven, and I don’t know about you, but it takes me some time to get to know my characters and get deep into their minds.

      It’s interesting, though — I’m currently attending a short screenwriting course, and we’ve spent two days talking about plotting without even a word of dialogue being written. Actions and events come first in screenwriting, and often dialogue is the last thing to be written.

      Reply
  5. Hi Anne – great post 🙂

    I’m a definite plotter. I love knowing where I’m going with my mansucript but in saying that things can and do change 🙂

    Reply
    • Joanne, that’s great. I am trying to become more of a pre-plotter, but I don’t ever think I’ll be able to follow a plot from beginning to end.
      I can’t even follow a recipe without subverting it! 😉

      Reply
  6. Awesome post, anne! My process is pants all the way (take that however you will, lol). I most often end up with the rambling mess you referred to and have lots of rewriting to make it hang together. I recently found blake snyder and his beat sheet and somehow this really works for me as i’m pantzing along and even beforehand when planning to see if i’ve got enough story. So after reading your article, i think i might be actually on the right track! it certainly feels right, which is half the battle.
    Rob

    Reply
    • Robyn dear, I’d rather not take your pants at all, if you don’t mind

      I do think the Snyder Beat Sheet is a very useful tool, as long as you use it as an editing tool. I would never use it to start with, or as a template to fit a story into. I think that’s like binding a baby’s feet — crippling your story by forcing it into a mould before you’ve let it grow and develop.

      Mostly when I use it I’m having a crisis of confidence on the way to finishing a book — happens almost every book (scrub the ‘almost,’ I hear my writing buddies mutter) — and I use Snyder’s Beat Sheet to check whether I’m on track or not. So far I have been every time I’ve done it.

      Reply
  7. What a fantastic article for writers like me! (I too resist the “pants” image, especially since it seems to have an alternate definition here in Britain–people use it to mean “awful” as well as knickers!)

    I am currently at the crisis of confidence point in my book, heck, in my entire writing career, having decided I’m “pants” at writing and will never write another word! This article makes me realize my scatterbrained method isn’t so unusual and some very good writers have made a go of it without creating a plot before they set off “into the mist”. Will definitely check out the beat sheet, though I suspect I’ve been doing something similar in my head all along. Again, realizing that I DO have what it takes (somewhere in there!) is really encouraging! Thanks for writing this. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Kathryn — yes, we occasionally use that expression. As for being “pants” at writing, I think we all go through crises of confidence, and the important thing to understand that it’s an aspect of creativity you need to manage. A big chunk of writing is just a matter of showing up to the page and working at it, and we can all do that.

      And if you feel your story is working, don’t worry about the beat sheet — it’s there for when a story’s not working and you need to analyse why. Most writers have an instinctive feel for story telling developed from years of reading and listening to stories. Trust yourself.

      And remember this piece of timeless advice from Nora Roberts — You can fix a bad page, but you can’t fix a blank one. Best of luck with your writing.

      Reply
  8. Sue Rees

     /  January 24, 2012

    Annie,
    Thanks for this post. Like others, I identify closely with being open to possibilities. In each of my mss, the characters have taken over, telling me what they should be doing. I go with the flow and love the scenes that follow when I do. I will try your 20 square plan too; it makes so much sense.
    Thanks again for sharing.
    Sue

    Reply
    • Sue, I’m glad it’s useful. One of the metaphors I’ve heard for this style of writing is heading into a dark tunnel with a torch. In the torchlight you can only see a certain distance ahead, but you keep going, having faith that eventually you’ll reach the end of the tunnel.

      I’m not so keen on that analogy — I always expect a train to come out of the tunnel 😉

      Reply
  9. carmen

     /  January 25, 2012

    Hahaha! ‘I can’t even follow a recipe without subverting it! ;)’

    That’s me!

    Loved this article Anne. Thank you and all the best.

    Reply
  10. Thank you Anne for your article which has explained my difficulty with book #2 (newbie here, 🙂 ) The first story just flowed with editing obvious adjustments as I went then numerous edits at intervals since.
    The second began with great promise having joined RWA, read numerous craft articles and books, which I can see really did improve my creative writing skills, but apart from Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, I have put them all aside.
    Why, because I’m obviously a pantser and too many charts, directives and different slants on the same thing were threatening to pop me back into my scientific writing style, a tight mould I’ve just escaped.
    I’m a pantser, yeh!

    Reply
    • Wendy I do think you can overwhelm yourself with how-tos. Part of every writer’s journey is to discover what works for them. For me, it ALWAYS come s back to the characters — even when I’m deep in mid book “this is a disaster” mode, as long as I stick to my characters and be true to them, it works.

      That said, I have to have thought out a good source of conflict as well, that will carry the story and the characters. Often I think people run out of steam because they’re working with a weak or too easily resolved source of tension.

      Reply
      • Thank you Anne for your reply.
        I loved my characters in #1 – so it was easy for them to take the limelight.
        …and I think a stronger conflict with the new ms will go a long way to solving the problem. Thanks. W

  11. Jo Beverley first introduced me to the concept of Flying into the Mist and I could have jumped up and kissed her. I thought there was something seriously wrong with me…I couldn’t plot! Plotting just killed the story for me and I always felt she gave me permission to write organically.
    Anne, your advice is spot on. Pantsing doesn’t mean you start with a clean sheet of paper and just start writing, it’s about knowing who your characters are and setting them out on a journey with a few predetermined “lily pads” along the way for them to jump on to.

    Reply
    • Sue Rees

       /  January 25, 2012

      Oh I like this image! A journey via lily pads!
      Thank you.

      Sue

      Reply
    • Alison, yes, we were at that talk together and you wrote it up brilliantly — it was looking for your article that caused me to find Jo Beverley’s.

      And I also like the lily pad concept.

      Reply
  12. Anne,
    More wonderfully inspiring ideas from you. You’re such a wise woman.
    Thanks for once again sharing some of your craft tips. I love your train in a tunnel analogy.
    Suzi

    Reply
  13. A great post, Anne, and thanks from this “pantser” for some invaluable reminders. Now, if only I can make time somehow to get back into my poor, neglected, current manuscript.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Mary. and no doubt your poor neglected manuscript is because not only is a minister’s wife’s work never done, but because of all the time you and other Tassie folk are putting into the Tassie Roadshow. Good luck with it.

      Reply
  14. Imelda

     /  January 31, 2012

    I loved this, Anne, as I love all the insight/advice you give. You seem to have a knack of being instructive and encouraging at the same time!
    The further I go into this writing thing, the more I think that pantsers and plotters, once they get past the beginner stage, aren’t that different. We all work out the story, we all try to give our characters what they need to thrive and we all have some sort of structure. We just give different lengths of time to the different stages of the process. And I suspect there are many of us who are a bit of both. I like the sound of your board. I am still struggling with how to physically manage all those middleofthenight what-ifs that come up!
    Thanks again!
    Imelda

    Reply

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