Pantser though I may be, I’ve learned the hard way not to wander blindly into a first draft. My first novel didn’t take long to draft, but I spent several years and countless rounds of cuts and revisions wrangling it into a viable book. I learned a lot from those revisions. I also wasted a lot of work.
That experience didn’t turn me into a plotter, though. I’ve tried writing fiction from an outline and it simply doesn’t work for my process. You can get a cohesive, well-plotted first draft without extensive plotting or outlining. Here are a few of my go-to strategies:
Pay attention to your genre
Many genres have their own set of plot expectations. Some, like romance, have a specific plot formula readers expect when they pick up a new book. Others have a looser set of norms that nonetheless make books of that genre feel familiar. When someone says they prefer a certain genre, they’re often talking not only about world-building and setting elements, but the type of story those books tell.
Read widely in your genre or category. Analyze successful books. Ask yourself:
- Are their plots more focused on characters’ inner journeys, or on external events?
- Does the protagonist usually go on an adventure or journey, or does the story take place close to home?
- Is there a heavy focus on science and technology? World-building? Weapons?
- How often does the plot feature a love interest?
- Is the central conflict between large groups or factions, or between individuals?
- Do plots focus on larger philosophical questions and moral issues, or on individual journeys?
Your plot can fit into your genre without feeling completely formulaic. However, people will connect to your story more easily if they have an existing frame of reference. Know your market and know where your book fits into it.
Build from what you know
Even the most die-hard pantsers begin writing from a kernel of an idea. In his book On Writing, Stephen King likens drafting to an archaeological dig: we begin by uncovering the smallest portion of the fossil. As we flesh out our first draft, we reveal more and more until the full creature takes shape.
My stories tend to spring from a single moment or concept: a teenager reaches a breaking point with her dysfunctional family and runs away. Two adult siblings meet to clean out their late mother’s beach house, but disagree on whether to keep the place or sell it. From these moments, I get to know the characters and start asking questions.
Play “what if” with your existing story elements
As you get to know your characters, you can begin asking questions about the story elements you already have in your head. Play a “what if” game to reveal turns your plot could take. What if the girl regrets running away, but fears her parents’ reaction if she returns? What if there’s more to her parents’ story than she realizes? What if those siblings come around to each other’s points of view on the house, but that still leaves them at odds?
Think of situations that would increase tension and put stress on your characters. This tension will clarify character traits and realign priorities. Choices your characters make will spin the plot in an unexpected direction. As you explore your story, you might be surprised by what you find.
Start with your query letter
I first read this advice in a post from literary agent Jessica Faust. Faust suggested writing your query letter or back cover blurb before you draft your book. This can give you a stronger first draft without confining your process to an outline.
Stakes and tension are paramount in a query letter. You have very few words to make your book sound like a must-read. Weaknesses in the query letter can point to weaknesses in the plot, especially when it comes to stakes and tension. This makes it a great place to problem-solve your plot without outlining the whole thing in detail.
Draft your query letter and give it to a critique partner or beta reader for feedback. Hone that blurb until it feels perfect for your book’s back cover. Then refer to it often as you write.
Write the scenes you need
Starting with the query also gives you a wist list of sorts: a rough idea of which elements will excite readers and draw them into your story.
If you wrote your query effectively, you know your story’s central conflict. Think about what needs to happen to bring your characters to that conflict. Which other characters are prime candidates to nudge them in that direction? What kinds of events would increase tension and foreshadow the conflict?
When you have a clear idea of your Point A and Point B, you can write the necessary scenes to get everyone there. Knowing the stakes for your main character lets you infuse that tension into every chapter. You don’t need to outline your whole plot before you start writing. You can answer a lot of questions as you go. However, knowing the source of your story’s tension and conflict will help ensure your story has a working plot at the end of the first draft.