Monday, February 8, 2016

Plotters, Unite!

by: Brighton Walsh

In Authorlandia, writers usually fall within three groups: the plotter, the pantser, or the plotser. The biggest hurdle, I think, is figuring out which of these fits your writing groove best. I’m sorry to say that whatever I tell you in the next thousand words isn’t going to be the magic beans of the writing world. Unfortunately, the only way to figure out which will work for you is to try one or more and see what works best.

I’ve tried both plotting and pantsing a novel. I attempted to pants my first novel, and after a year I still hadn’t completed it. While that sucker was on hold, I got the plot bunny for Caged in Winter, extensively plotted it out, and 4 weeks later I had a complete manuscript. Magic? Unfortunately, no. I just realized that I work best under a script (and a massive deadline, but that’s fodder for another time), so I knew what needed to happen before I sat down to write. Otherwise, I found I had Stare-At-The-Blank-Doc-itis.

Even within each of those categories—plotter, pantser, plotser—there are a hundred different ways to do them. Again, finding what works best for you will be trial and error and the key to your writing success.

Once I figured out I was a plotter, I dove headfirst into that world and looked for any technique I could utilize. I’ve written nine novels, and I’ve tried a different method for nearly all of them. So far, I haven’t found one that works better for me than another, but that doesn’t stop me from searching.

The biggest thing I hear from pantsers is that they don’t like plotting because they don’t want to be tied into anything specific in case their characters start to go in a different direction. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: even if you plot out every single detail of your story, you can still listen to your characters and veer off the path when needed. Know why? It’s your book, and you can do what you want.

The Plotting Techniques

Beat Sheets
The first thing I do as a mentor is have my mentees fill out one of these. I have yet to get a manuscript that didn’t have some issues in the pacing department; I think it’s pretty common for many manuscripts. And since pacing can make or break your book, it’s important to pay attention to it. There are certain things that need to happen at certain points in the book—that’s true no matter the genre or category. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat is a great resource, and I’m pretty sure you can apply it to any genre. The one I use for my mentees is Jami Gold’s beat sheet, as it’s specific to romance. In fact, she’s got a ton of different beat sheets—not just for romance—and you might find one that clicks for you. Even if you don’t plot this way, it’s a great resource to check after you’ve drafted to make sure your pacing is spot on.

The Snowflake Method
This method is a great, non-overwhelming way to plot. It takes you step-by-step, building on each item until it—yep, you guessed it—snowballs into the big picture. If you write in Scrivener, I’ve got an even bigger treat for you. Did you know there are all kinds of free templates online that you can use to build your novels? YES, SIR. And there’s a Snowflake Method template out there to get you started.

The Tentpole Method
I first saw this mentioned on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and I was immediately intrigued. Sometimes, sitting down to plot a novel can be overwhelming. It is a lot to tackle at once. Because of that, I really liked the idea of the Tentpole Method, because it allowed me to figure out the really big things that happen (based off the beats needed, per the beat sheets), and then I could fill in from there. Or not. Whatever works for you.

The Outline
This is exactly what it sounds like. It’ll take you back to fifth grade and those godawful reports you had to do, but it really works for some people. I’ve tried this method as well, and I did it in the following format:

A.     Chapter 1 – Brief descriptor (i.e. Meet Cute)
a.     Scene 1 – Brief descriptor
b.     Scene 2 – Brief descriptor
B.     Chapter 2 – Brief descriptor
a.     Scene 1 – Brief descriptor
b.     Scene 2 – Brief descriptor

And so on and so forth. This allows you to really get into every small detail of your book and figure out what’s going to happen and when.

Personally, I think this is best done with either a blank wall or a large posterboard and some colored post-it notes, but you can do it however floats your boat. The different colored post-its can represent anything you’d like—hero and heroine; Act I, II, or III; villain; tentpole moments; whatever strikes your fancy. The idea here is to write out all the parts that you know need to happen and move them around as needed once you get into the thick of things. I found this method really worked well when I was revising a novel. It’s daunting to look at a novel already completed and figure out where you need to fix things. This helped lay it out for me and made it clearer.

There are dozens upon dozens of other methods out there, and if you Google “plotting techniques”, or even ask around in your writer circles, you’ll no doubt find something else that works for them, and maybe for you too. One thing I want to stress is that no method has to be black or white. There’s no wrong way to plot, and if you want to mix five of these together and get your method, you can do that. If you want to start plotting, then get halfway into your story and toss your outline in the garbage, you can do that too. If you want to pants the first half of your book, then tentpole the remaining half? Yep, you guessed it. You are the boss and you can do what you want.

Because I’m always on the lookout for other techniques, do you have any that you’ve used and found success with? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


  1. I have tried several of these methods, but still haven't found a good fit for me. I usually do pretty well plotting things out until I hit the midpoint. There I stop and look out over a vast sea of options. Which will my character choose?

    What works for me then is to start writing the book. By the time I get to the middle, I finally know my characters well enough to listen and let them tell me what happens next.

    I guess this makes me a plotser?

    P.S. I usually have an ending in mind when I start writing. So far, that ending has never made it to the page...

    1. I do this same thing! I still consider myself a plotter, though, because when I get to that halfway point and I figure out how the book ends, I still plot all that out. :)

  2. Sorry if I missed it (in reading this rather quickly as it's just before bed... Aim to reread tomorrow) but can you please reiterate the difference between a plotter and a plotser? I assume a pantser is someone who "flies by the seat of their pants"?

    1. You are correct on the pantser. And a plotser is someone who is a mix between the two--either very loosely plots (on cocktail napkins, perhaps) or plots, but may meander from it.

  3. Sorry if I missed it (in reading this rather quickly as it's just before bed... Aim to reread tomorrow) but can you please reiterate the difference between a plotter and a plotser? I assume a pantser is someone who "flies by the seat of their pants"?

  4. I'm always amused that some writers think plotters don't deviate from the plan whenever necessary. To me, a plotter and a plotser is just someone who tries to separate the vision of the story from the nuts and bolts of the writing and the outline or whatever is just a way to capture the vision, whereas a panster is doing both tasks at the same time all the time - whatever works, of course!