Plotting by the Seat of Your Pants (Or Not)

So, you’re on your way to writing the greatest novel of your career. You’ve put in the worldbuilding time and created a setting that’s vast and immersive, something you know your readers will love. Now you’re ready to really get started on your dream project!

But then there’s that small matter of the actual “story” part…

Every story needs a plot, a series of events that propel the characters and setting forward. A novel that’s stagnant and conflict-free isn’t a proper novel at all, or at least not one that will hold a reader’s attention for very long. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate plot, but it’s got to be something that will keep you and your characters busy for a while. It can be an epic spanning multiple books or something as simple as “find the Special Thing” or “Get to Location X before Person Y.”

For some writers, the plot or a basic premise is the first piece of inspiration that comes to them. Others need a little time before they can nail down their plot. Maybe you already know the setting and/or characters you’d like to use for your story, but you aren’t sure what will happen with them just yet. That’s okay, though, because you already have the perfect laboratory in which to develop your plot. Take some time to brainstorm a few possible inciting incidents for your setting and characters. What discovery or event can throw your characters’ lives into turmoil? What circumstances could arise to prevent them from getting or pursuing what they want? You don’t have to commit to a single idea right away. If one doesn’t quite work for you, set it aside and focus on another. Ideally, you should find a concept that inspires and intrigues you and makes you invested in following this plot to its conclusion. If you can’t feel that way about your own story, your readers won’t feel that way, either. Remember that term inciting incident: we’ll be coming back to it later.

When you do finally find that perfect story starter, what you need to do next is help it grow. There are several different ways we can do this, but they can all be placed into two broad categories, plotting and pantsing. The former category revolves around meticulous outlining and knowing the main beats in your narrative before you write, if not sketching out every scene and plot point beforehand. The other way originates from the term “writing by the seat of your pants,” and it means that when you write, you just go. There’s no solid outline or structure, only a hazy notion of where you’re going. Sometimes you don’t even have that, and you’re wandering around the page just seeing where your idea takes you.

It’s tempting to be loyal to only one category. Some writers and/or writing teachers may have their one favorite method and tell you that any method from the “opposing” category is not going to get you the results you want. Like most writing advice, however, the truth is that it all depends on your personal preference and the type of story you’re planning to write. For me, the method of plotting I use is determined by the length of the story in question. For a novel, I’m going to want to have a full outline beforehand since the plot is more complex and I’ll need to have a handle on how things play out and link together. That’s why I want to discuss a few different methods of planning and outlining a story, to show you some of the various options you have as a writer.

  1. The Synopsis Method: This is a pretty basic method that works exactly the way it sounds. You go through your story chapter-by-chapter and write a paragraph about what is supposed to happen in each one. This was what I used when I was first starting out writing longer works. But it only helped me flesh out the different sections of my story as opposed to making them work as a whole. That’s why I’ve switched to different approaches by now.
  2. The Snowflake Method: Invented by Randy Ingermanson, this set-up is my current go-to method for planning a long novel. To be brief, it’s a nine-step process in which you start from a basic premise and a set of character blurbs and build those into full outlines, alternating between plot and character as you go. The name “Snowflake Method” comes from the process of drawing a snowflake: by starting with a simple shape and building on that, Ingermanson says, you’ll eventually end up with something complex and impressive. This is a great method to use if you only have a basic idea and aren’t sure where to go next.
  3. The “Save the Cat!” Method: This method is the one I’ve been introduced to most recently and also the one that gets me the most excited. Blake Snyder originally designed it for screenwriting purposes, and more recently, author Jessica Brody modified it for novel writing. I would highly recommend her book Save The Cat! Writes a Novel for more details, because it provides a more succinct and effective guide than I ever could. But to be brief, the STC! Method is focused more on character than plot and provides a 15-point “beat sheet” for tracking how your protagonist develops over the course of your narrative. I would find it more useful for revisions than plotting out your first draft. It’s also better suited for works that have a single identifiable protagonist, which might turn off some people who are working on something with lots of characters, but it can be used for multiple protagonists with a bit of work.
  4. The String-Together Method: I use this approach almost exclusively for short stories, and it’s also useful for making up premises for longer works. What you do is take a writing prompt and spend a couple of minutes (I would recommend 3-5) writing down the ideas you get from that prompt. Once your time is up, switch to another prompt and repeat, using this new prompt to build on the ideas you developed with the previous prompt(s). I would recommend doing this until you’ve gone through 4 to 6 prompts: the whole process shouldn’t take more than half an hour. Once you’ve finished, you have the nuts and bolts of a short story that you can then use to craft into a proper narrative. I actually got this idea from the Writing Challenge app developed by Liternauts, which is designed for this exact process. There’s a general version and a kids’ version, which can be used for developing something aimed at younger readers.

So, there you have it. Those are the four methods that I use when I’m trying to plot out a story. They are by no means the only methods out there, but they are the ones that have worked best for me over the years. Hopefully they can work for you, too.

I want to pick up the pace for this blog again in February. I’d love to do something for the Oscars by taking a look at the Best Picture nominees, and one of my Christmas presents from last year could provide ample fodder for an ongoing review series. Whatever I decide, you should definitely be seeing more of me in the coming month!

— Dana

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