The Bridge Between Plotting and Pantsing
"Are you a plotter, a pantser, or just plain stuck?"
"Are you a plotter, a pantser, or just plain stuck?"
Once upon a time… There was you! Stephen King told you that you weren’t a real writer if you weren’t a pantser. So you become a pantser. After writing yourself into a corner five times, and finishing ten drafts… you still don’t have a novel. JK Rowling’s hand-written spreadsheet detailing characters, and scene summaries convinces you to become a plotter. You sit down to write only to discover your characters don’t want that scene, or you’re already bored by your story...you still don’t have a novel.
Pantsers, fly "by the seat of their pants." These individuals revel in discovery, letting their characters and scenarios unfold in real time. While this method offers exhilarating freedom, it can also lead to meandering narratives and increased editing or rewrites.
Plotters, as their name implies, meticulously chart out their story. They're the architects, the builders who lay every brick with precision. To them, writing without a plot is like embarking on a voyage without a map. However, the risk here is predictability; some plotters might feel restricted by the boundaries they've erected.
I’m a hardcore plotter. I like to have a scene-by-scene outline mapped out so I can quickly write through my first crappy draft. The outline doesn’t always stay the same, and the characters do boss me around sometimes and force changes, but I’m the type of personality that likes as much order as I can get. It doesn’t work like that for everyone, though, and when teaching undergraduates, I discovered very quickly that my method could bring their creativity and progress to a complete halt.
Why not try storying?
There is a middle ground! It’s a bridge between pantsing and plotting that will help new writers find their way. I call it storying.
When the brilliant Paul Ashton from the BBC Writer’s Room observed, "Plot is the route you take; story is the journey you make," So don't become a plotter or a panster… embrace the concept of storying.
Storying is when you focus on the journey, not the route. It doesn't bind you to a strict outline, or leave you lost in the woods. Storying provides you with a map to navigate the vast landscape of your narrative. Think of storying as the connective tissue between the blank page of pantsing and the detailed minutia of plotting. Storying will take some time, but not nearly as much time as the multiple rewrites of a pantser, or the hours of outlining of a plotter.
The storying solution in THREE easy steps!
Start with the heart of any tale: the protagonist. Define key aspects of their character:
Identity: A summary. Who are they? What do they look like? Where do they live?
Elizabeth George schedules a free-writing session for each character in her novels. Set a timer for thirty minutes and start writing. You’ll be amazed at what you discover.
Flaw(s): Every interesting character has one major, or, multiple flaws. What are they?
Narrative Therapy calls a major flaw a Core Conflict. A problem that has inhibited a person from reaching their life’s potential.
Wound/Ghost: A past pain or trauma that motivates present action. What caused the character's core conflict or flaw?
Examples are the death of Harry Potter’s parents or the past rejections of Snape.
Want/Desire: What do they want? What are they consciously chasing in the story?
This is also known as the external conflict (they want something they don’t have)
Need: Delve deeper. This is their subconscious quest. What needs to happen for them to resolve their flaw?
This is also known as the internal conflict.
Stake: What’s at stake if they don’t resolve their flaw? If they don’t get what they need (not what they want).
Make it big. Life-changingly, world-endingingly big.
Repeat the above step for every essential character, but most importantly, for each character with a point-of-view.
Create Beats, not scenes.
Every story follows some form of structure—every story. But the structure is so flexible that every story is different. It’s like faces, right? Every face has two eyes, a nose, and lips, but no two faces are identical (the exception being identical twins, but that would be plagiarism.)
Pick a story structure (I’m particularly partial to Save the Cat) and write the beats against each component of the structure. Beats are simple guiding sentences for your story relating to each step.
Here’s an example from one of my novels (main character, act one):
Cat wakes up in her apartment to realize that her Dad has stolen her bus money into NYC, where she works in Waldorf Astoria, as a bus girl in the restaurant, hoping to become a waitress at some point. She is running to try and get to her boyfriend's job, where she can ask him for fare. She phones him, and he denies it, although she has convinced herself he will give it to her. She trips and falls. She ends up at her friend's apartment to get the money.
Her friend tells her that her boyfriend or Dad won't save her. She will need to save herself. Cat doesn't see how that's possible.
Her Dad calls her back to the apartment, and she goes and tries to help him.
She is late to work at her new job, busing tables at a ritzy hotel.
Scenes for things that need fixing:
Relationship with Dad
Sticking up for herself/belief in herself
Acceptance of the status quo
Looking for someone to save her
Eagerness to please
She gets rescued from being fired by a ballsy Christopher, who invites her out.
She helps Christopher win his blackjack game.
She talks to Christopher about her Dad and his gambling problems and money issues, revealing that he could be bought.
She argues with her Dad about the rent.
Establish her want in a conversation with a friend who warns her. Cat says don't worry, she would never leave her Dad.
She returns from work one day and finds all her stuff out on the street. Her Dad is drunk and raging and has kicked her out of the apartment. This has happened before, so she goes to her friend's house. A friend's asshole husband says you can't stay here. Christopher shows up in a limo and asks her to come to the Bahamas with him. We find out later that Christopher paid off the Dad.
Chris sends a car for her in a few days. In the meantime, she stays at a very contentious house and tries to call and get in touch with her Dad. He isn't there. Chris gives her money for clothes, and she takes it even though her friend tells her not to take it and not to go. She ultimately decides her Dad doesn't want her so she can leave.
Regardless of your story structure, these beats will illuminate your character's journey, mapping their evolution from their initial wants to the eventual fulfillment (or failure) of their deep-seated needs.
Once upon a time… you were flipping back and forth between pantser and plotter and getting nowhere near the completion of your novel. Now you have embraced storying. Now, you experience the joy of spontaneous discovery, like pantsers, without getting entirely lost. At the same time, you have a map, a guide, and a path through that mucky middle without being too restricted or bored.
I cover all of this and more in The Novel Journey. It’s an in-depth course on storying that expands into outlining and includes, worksheets, checklists, and samples to get your novel from your head and onto the page. You can be one of the first to hear when the course is ready by signing up here for the FREE The Novel Journey newsletter.
I am also introducing a new adventure for women who feel stuck. It’s called Heroine’s Adventure. It’s a life-planning course that uses the secrets of story and the Hero’s Journey.