I know there’re a great many pantsers out there who feel that writing is just writing and writing and writing until its done. And if that works for you then great. I gave it a try once and found that pantsing is fine for flash or very short stories but anything longer than that means I end up with a story that’s so full of holes I have to start again, from scratch.
I also recently discovered that I’m a scanner, something I’ll go into another time, but in this case it means that if I’ve done something once I don’t want to do it again. Rewrites to me should mostly be about tidying up, maybe adding a few paragraphs here and there. But rewriting the entire story, from scratch, litterally tearing up the work I’ve done already to do so? No, that doesn’t work for me.
I’m a plotter, that’s all there is to it.
So if you’re happy pantsing an entire story, no matter the length, with nothing more than a vague title and a name for your hero then crash on. There’ll be other articles for you.
The rest of you, read on.
My usual method of plotting is to use a modified version of the snowflake method. This involves starting small and slowly expanding on the plot:
- Write out a paragraph that explains the basic plot you have in mind.
- Split that paragraph into acts and write three or four sentences that describe each act.
- Expand on those acts (sentences) so they become paragraphs.
- Split each of those acts (paragraphs) into scenes and write a sentence or two or three to describe those scenes. This is usually a good place to break out the index cards.
- Expand each scene onto A4 sheets to write a single page description. No dialogue here unless it’s important to the plot at this point and keep description to a minimum.
- You should now have several sheets of A4 outlining your story, scene by scene.
You now have your story written out without any of the fancy stuff – things like dialogue and colourful description – to get in the way and can see what needs fixing before you get too involved. Better to find problems with a 50 page plot than a 400 page novel. You can also use the index cards to reorder the story should it need that.
All of which is easier said than done, but it works for me.
The problem with any kind of plotting method is getting stuck while coming up with ideas to move the story along. The method I use is:
questioning the plot
In one of my stories, I have two protagonists who are linked by two separate murders that seem to have been committed by the same person under impossible circumstances.
I know how the story ends and I know that the twist gets around this impossibility, but my protagonists don’t know that. I need to figure out how they make the connection so I can move the story along. Questioning the plot allows me to do this.
The method isn’t complicated, I literally read through what I have of my plot so far and write down questions that need answering:
- What information do the protagonists need to realise the impossible crime is possible?
- How will they go about finding that information?
- If one protagonist has had the answer all along, how have they not realised?
- Once they have the information, what will they do with it?
- Does the murderer know they have the information?
- What will he do about it?
And so on.
Answering these questions will help me when it comes to filling out the index cards in section 4 of my snowflake. It also helps me to fill in many holes before I get to the end which means even less work when the actual writing begins.
It’s not a huge, detailed method but it certainly helps in getting through your plot when you get stuck. Think about what needs to happen and start questioning how you’re going to get there. You’ll be surprised at the range of ideas that pop up and take your story in new directions.
And don’t think planning means you can’t also pants it.
Sometimes you’ll still get stuck halfway through your plot and in that case you might want to stop planning and start writing. Think of it as taking a run up at the problem. By the time you get to the part of the plot you were stuck at, you’ll have such a head of steam that you’ll plough right on.
Remember getting stuck is just your brain telling you to be more creative.