Generally speaking, you will hear writers refer to their outlining/planning method with one of two words – “plotter” or “pantser”. Today, I’ll be discussing how to outline, what methods to use, and how I plot my books. I am neither a plotter nor a pantser --- I am a “plotster”. Some people also refer to this as a “planster”. Basically, a plotster is someone who outlines the skeleton of the book, and knows the beginning, the climax, and the conclusion, as well as highlighted scenes they know will be included in the manuscript. However, they like to pants the majority of the book, filling in the skeleton’s gaps as they move through the story. How does this work for me? What about the plotters and pantsers? How can they utilize their outlining method to write more effectively and efficiently?
Before we start, please know that the above image illustrating two contrasting sides of the brain does not imply that plotter's are dull and drab, while pantsers are colorful and creative. I am not saying that one is better than the other. It is simply about approach, and finding what works for you. Let’s start with my personal method…
PLOTSTERS (My Plotting Method)
My plotting/outlining method has changed a bit over the years, as I realize how beneficial initial plotting is. I used to pants practically everything in my manuscripts, with very little preparation. I realized, over time, that this can become very frustrating, because it is easy to lose track of details. Backstory, geography, and character details (such as physical appearance) can become confusing, and with no outline or info sheet to reference, you might end up with a green-eyed MC in chapter one, and a brown-eyed MC is chapter ten. These little details are incredibly hard to find. If you do a search in your manuscript for the word “brown”, I guarantee you’ll get dozens of results. And all of them may not be referencing your character’s eye color. Therefore, having a place to dump all your information can save you lots of stress and time later.
As writers, our heads are constantly filled with ideas (both for our WIPs, and for future projects). We have characters, plots, kingdoms, and stories circling in our heads pretty much constantly. Having to remember details (especially as a series grows and becomes more complex) is impossible. Something will be lost.
Personally, I have a very structured system on my laptop for writing. Folders are designated by series, book, draft number, and purpose. Beta copies and CP copies each have their own folder. WHAT LIES ABOVE has a separate folder from WLA #2. It helps me organize my ideas. Within the WLA folder, there is a document where I keep all details for book 1. Characters, including their backstories, physical appearances, love interests, motivations, and important future scenes, are housed here. There is also a long synopsis of the trilogy’s overall plot. This helps me track the flow of the story between books 1, 2, & 3.
I cannot stress enough the importance of plotting the general story for the whole series upfront. Do not wait until book 1 is published to start considering the conclusion or direction of the next books. The issue with this is that you may (and, in fact, should) include some details in book 1 that will be explained or tied up later in the series. This adds the elements of surprise and continuity among all books… yet another reason why plotting upfront can be very beneficial.
Anyway, back to my method. Like I mentioned, I have become more of a plotter over the years, as I realize its benefits. However, I still do not outline completely upfront. I find it too constraining. I like to see where the story goes in the first draft. I can always fix plot holes while editing, although this does often lend more stress during the editing process, especially if I need to add a large change. With WHAT LIES ABOVE, I would not change a single moment of my journey, since it taught me so much. However, I did several huge rewrites on the book, as well as many smaller revisions. Some of these may have been avoided by more upfront planning. Like I mentioned, however, I am so proud and happy with the way the manuscript turned out, even though it was sometimes stressful and frustrating to fix issues I didn’t know how to fix.
I often find that when I write more loosely, without a rigid outline to follow, I discover new twists and turns to the story, and allow myself more freedom to explore. I fall in love with the characters, because they sometimes surprise me. I get into tough places, and then have to backtrack and rework, but it makes me see the plot differently. My process is very strange and messy, but it works. It takes more effort, but I love it. It won’t work for everyone, but it works for me.
I love to create setting and characters up front. I lay a strong foundation, but leave a lot of the plot up to pantsing. Part of this reason, I’ll be honest, is because I am very impatient when it comes to new WIPs. I am so excited to start that I do a little planning, and then just jump into writing. My greatest push of motivation comes at the very beginning of a new MS, and at the very end of finishing one. People who plan upfront and in-depth have incredible patience.
And that brings us to the plotters…
PLOTTERS (The Planners)
Plotters are very structured. They outline every detail, sometimes scene by scene, before they ever begin writing. For them, knowing the specific direction of the book helps them stay motivated and focused. My CP is a plotter. Her outline was crazy in-depth, and I got such a strong sense of the story just from reading it. I am pretty sure it was somewhere near 20 pages, and she’s since added more content as she writes. A plotter’s outline is fluid and flexible. It isn’t set in stone.
Plotting is very beneficial in that it helps keep track of all the small details of your story. Writing a book is very complex, and backstory, twists, and geography can all get lost if there is no structure whatsoever. This is why some outlining or plotting is necessary at some point.
There is a LOT of complexity in the overall plot of WHAT LIES ABOVE. If I did not keep track of who did what and how the stakes are all intertwined, the entire book would just fall apart. It’s already confusing enough to weave the details into the narrative. Forgetting or losing track of bits is just not an option!
Plotters often labor over an outline for weeks. Probably the #1 benefit of plotting (besides having everything organized and together) is that drafting then takes a relatively shorter amount of time. This is because plotters often write chunks of scenes as they outline, fitting them into the plan, and then connect the dots, so to speak. Their outline is pretty much a watered-down version of the book, and then they just add the meat.
Now, I am not saying that plotters find drafting easy all the time. Drafting is frustrating for every writer at some point. I am simply saying that in-depth outlining can help a writer stay on track and avoid some of the roadblocks of not knowing where the story is headed. This is why, at times, I run into huge blocks and have no idea where the story is leading. I then sit down and outline the entire book, and it gives me fresh vision and new direction.
PANTSTERS (Less is More)
Oh, you lovely pantsers. I still have a foot firmly planted in your playing field. There is something about pantsing that is so freeing. You explore and experiment, and sometimes it is a garbage fire, but other times it is beautiful and surprising.
The biggest downfall of pantsing is that it can be INCREDIBLY. FRUSTRATING. It is kind of stop-and-go, and you can hit walls very frequently. You really have to embrace this kind of method in order to be a pantser, because it can drain you.
Also, if you are on the road to traditional publication, or are already signed and on a deadline, pure pantsing can be very inefficient. You need some form of outline to keep the story moving and hit that deadline. This doesn’t mean you structure every scene, or lose that freedom. It just means you may have to do a little brunt-work up front. You may have to become a plotster!
Like I mentioned earlier, it can also be difficult and frustrating to keep track of details when you have no plan or outline to keep information straight.
Wait, what color eyes does that love interest have again?
Oh, and that sibling now needs to be eighteen instead of sixteen, but then I have to shift that memory back a little to make sense. How old were they back then again?
See how small things like age or appearance can become incredibly important, and can cost a lot of time to track down without a record?
Large plot points can become muddled too. If you have a very complex, twisted plot (don’t know anyone like that *cough*), writing your story is like weaving together thousands of threads. If those threads become muddled and confusing, it is very easy to get tangled up in them, to the point where you are confused and frustrated. Pulling them back apart to reorganize and regroup can be immensely pain-staking. Sometimes, it has to be done, regardless of your outlining method. I have done it countless times.
There is definitely a plus to keeping track of important details, even if you decide to pants the majority of the scenes in your manuscript.
With my fantasy WIP (the book I started after WHAT LIES ABOVE), I pantsed the entire first 1/3 to ½ of the book. It was completely unplanned, and although I had a general idea of what was going to happen, there was a point where I was literally making it up scene by scene as I went along. It actually worked for a while, but then I reached a point somewhere around 30,000 words, and the story started crumbling. I knew where I wanted to end up, but had no idea how to get there. And I realized that the overall plot of the book made no sense. Without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say my antagonist had no motivation, and the story was leading no where beyond book one. I had no clue how the series would resolve in the end.
So, I sat down and worked through the entire plot, not for individual books, but for the series as a whole. I then decided a loose break up for each book. But, in writing out the whole story and working through some major plot holes, I discovered new villain motivation, backstory, and personality. I discovered a (really shocking and fantabulous) new plot twist, and it helped me take charge of the book.
So, even if you are a pantser, plotting can be your friend.
I do want to mention this a little more broadly, in saying that, no matter what outlining style you have, there is no black and white way to write a book. You can be a mixture of any of these styles. You can plot a lot or a little, or anywhere in between. Finding what works for YOU is the key. This will take time, and experimenting, and experience. I still don’t have a flawless outlining method, and I’ve been writing seriously for almost eight years! With every book you write, you learn and grow. Don’t stress too much about doing it “the right way”, because every writer is different! Focus on what works for you and your story!