On the battlefield of writers and so-called experts hurling grenades of advice into cyberspace, there are two generalized camps when it comes to how to plot your novel. These two schools of thought, as best as I can simplify them, are as follows. I’m not going to go into too much detail because there are heaps of articles about this kind of thing out there already. But if you have never written a book before these may help you get started.
In the first camp there are the “Plotters”. Writers and editors who advocate sitting down and painstakingly plotting out the entire course of your novel and characters until you know exactly how the story gets from point A to point B. The depth to which Plotters plot varies. Russell Nohelty I believe structures his books in 250-word scenes. Others have a broad chapter by chapter overview of the essential action. But essentially, they know what is going to happen in their story at any given moment. The second camp is the “Pantsers” who believe in sitting down and just writing.
The first thing I want to tell you is this: there is no wrong way to write your novel.
I don’t care what someone is trying to teach you, sell you, or give you. As long as each step you take, each thing you do, gets you one step closer to that story being finished: you’re doing it right. Just like there’s no single right way to paint a picture, there’s no one right way to write a book. That said, I recommend researching the different ways to plot, and trialling them in your own work, so you can find a way that best suits you.
So, what do you need to know about Plotting? Some writers dislike the rigidity of plotting. I struggle with it, especially when you need to change something in the story and the plot suddenly takes a 90-degree turn, something that happened to me when I wrote The Horn of Gabriel. A throw away character suddenly became a major plot point and a part of the supporting cast. Others need the structure to get anything done. If you write to a schedule (for example if you’re doing NaNoWriMo or following Ella Barnard’s Done In Three Months) you’ll probably find plotting everything out before you begin is beneficial. It can help eliminate writer’s block (although I don’t know anything that will inoculate against it 100%) because at no point in the story do you not know what’s coming next. There is a logical progression of what happens from point A to point B, and you simply have to add the action, dialogue, and description. It’s one of the ways successful writers (Indie or Trad) churn out book after book on a yearly basis.
Sounds pretty simple doesn’t it? But some people’s brains don’t work like that. They bounce from idea to idea, or just have a very vague idea of where they want to go. That’s where pantsing comes in. As a term I believe “pantsing” comes from the saying “flying by the seat of your pants”. In terms of writing a novel it means sitting down and writing whatever the hell comes out. Maybe you know your character starts their story by jogging down the street and meeting a Fallen Angel like Grace does in The Lady of Zion. When you pants you uncover the story in much the same way the reader does when they read it, although you have an idea of where the story is going. This way doesn’t work for me particularly because I find that when the inspiration disappears and writer’s block sets in, I just don’t know where to go next. It’s part of why it took me nine years to write my first book. Plotting helped me write my last book in two months.
Are you thinking, “Wait a minute! She said she isn’t a plotter and she isn’t a pantser. What the hell is she?” (Imagine a montage of horror movie monsters with someone saying “what is she?” Please.)
Well, I’m more of a Lamp Post Tarzan. Maybe you will be too. I picked this term up from an excellent article describing the different ways to plot a book, but do you think I could find it again to reference in this article? All my varied searches of “Lamp Post Tarzan” came up with were a lot of hits for Edgar Rice Burroughs and IMDB. ((Side note: If anyone comes across that article can you send me a link to it? It was fantastic))
But what does it mean? It means that you have a rough idea of how a character gets from A to B, with the major plot points between the two, but there is room for the story to grow organically between the check points.
Sometimes you can find benefits in using both approaches in conjunction like I do. Personally, I like to plot out a vague idea of my story and see what happens between the plot markers. There are a couple reasons for this. First, sometimes dialogue or scene will pop into my head and I have to write it down or I’ll lose it. This may mean that while I’m writing something in the beginning of the story, something that happens towards the end may require me to write it until I run out of steam. For example, in my first novel, The Kingston Chronicles, I knew that Anastasia needed to leave Tennesse and go to LA. I knew she would end up falling in love with Aidan, I knew who her stalker was and why, and I knew where the story would end. I didn’t know what each date would look like in great detail. I didn’t know what the magic classes would look like, or exactly how conversations would go. I just let it flow.
Another way you can combine the two to great effect (I’ve used this technique quite a bit for The Lady of Zion Series), is to have an idea of the story, pants the first draft, then using that, build a more structured plot for the second draft where you can layer in more detail. It also allows you to clean up sub-plots and invest more time in building the character relationships, knowing that the main action has already been taken care of.
Want to find out if you’re a pantser or a plotter? There’s a few ways to tell. Sometimes your personal life will indicate what approach might work for you. Are you a schedule everything down to the minute type person or do you just take the day as it comes? If you need a game plan you might just be a plotter. Another way to tell is to just pick an approach and see how it goes. Couldn’t stick to that chapter-by-chapter outline? You might just be a pantser. The only true way I’ve learnt to be even halfway successful in finishing writing a book is to just do things by trial and error. At the end of the day the only approach that really matters is the one that gets the work done.