In writing lingo, authors are loosely classified into two camps – plotters and pantsers. Plotters tend to work from an outline, or they’ve at least planned out a good bit of their story arc before they sit down to write. Pantsers, on the other hand, like to fly by the seat of their pants and let the story go where it will.
I’ve always leaned toward the plotter side of the house naturally, and the more content I have to create, the more I see value in working this way. No judgement if you’re a pantser who likes to see where the writing takes you, but if you’ve got a job to do, here are some thoughts on why you might want to jump ship and join us plotters.
First, plotting and outlining doesn’t mean you have to write pages of detailed notes like you did during high school history class while prepping for a test. For me, it means working out the following pieces of my story before I actually dive in:
I’ve changed the actual first chapter of my books in the past, but I always know where my characters are in their lives and what’s happening on their world when their story begins.
The inciting incident
The official definition of inciting incident is the particular moment that thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story. Sometimes the inciting incident is the opening scene. Sometimes it requires a little build-up to get to the inciting incident. Regardless, I need to know what it is and how it will help drive my story arc.
The main conflict
What does your main character want and what or who is preventing them from getting it? The main conflict is loosely defined as the struggle between two opposing forces. This doesn’t only have to mean the Jedi against the Sith. It can be a young woman who doesn’t think she is worthy of love, so she fights her attraction to her dream guy.
The main characters
I know more about my main characters than I’ll ever reveal to my readers. If I know intimate details about them from their deepest fears to whether or not they make their beds in the morning, I can portray them believably for the reader without pages of info-dumping. For more on character building, check out this article: Who Are You?
A couple of supporting characters
The supporting cast fills out your narrative and brings life and color to your story. I always like to have some of these roles filled before I start writing in earnest.
If I don’t know how I’m going to end my story, I feel paralyzed. Even if I don’t know the exact mechanism for how I’m going to wind things up, I have to know where I want my characters to end up when I leave them.
There’s still a lot of creativity happening when I write the first draft. Just because I have a roadmap doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting, unexpected things I’ll see along the way. At the end of the day, we all want to tell a good story, and sometimes it takes a while to get there regardless of how much planning and plotting we’ve done head of time. I find, however, that spending time plotting on the front end helps, and here’s why:
I won’t get lost.
There’s less a chance I’ll get lost chasing an interesting but tangential plot line down a rabbit hole. More on that here: Have You Lost the Plot?
I’ll avoid writer’s block.
There’s less a chance I’ll hit a true block. I may have bad writing days, places where something still isn’t working, but I still have my general roadmap, and that keeps me heading in the right direction.
I’ll hit my deadlines.
Maybe you don’t have an outside deadline, but at some point, you probably will. When I’ve planned out my story more fully, it’s much easier to stay on track, plan my daily output, and finish what I start in a timely manner.
It’s less stressful.
Back to the roadmap analogy. There’s always a moment when I’m drafting a new manuscript when I feel completely lost. I question everything from the solution to a plot tangle I thought was brilliant just a few days ago, to my own life choices. It’s a terrible time. But when I’ve already thought through my story, and I can follow my own roadmap, I regain my confidence in that story more quickly.
As you decide whether or not you’ll take the time to plan your story ahead, here are some final thoughts:
- Consider plotting and outlining as part of the creative process, not time wasted. Just because you don’t hit a particular word count on a planning day doesn’t mean you haven’t made progress. While you are working out plot tangles and twists, and imagining your characters’ backstories, you are creating your story.
- Messy is okay. I don’t keep my notes in one place. I have story notes on my phone, on napkins, on scraps of paper in the kitchen. My plotting system is messy, but it allows me to capture thoughts as they appear in my overactive imagination.
The process of thinking through major points and developing my characters before I start writing in earnest keeps me on track, helps me save time on my project overall, and gives me the confidence I need to get through the bad days. So, plot on, writers!