Pantser or Planner?
Ah, yes, we’ve entered the old debate: are you a pantser
or a planner? The idea is that you’re either flying by the seat of your pants (pantser), writing as you go with no real plan, or you’re a planner, plotting out your project in detailed outlines before sitting down to write.
While the choice is largely one of temperament, in my experience, most writers are a mix of both pantsers and planners. As we mature as writers, we quickly figure out that at least a little planning and outlining is a really good idea. An outline is like Google maps for our project: have a clear road map for where you’re going ahead of time, and you’ll get there a lot quicker (and with a lot less stress).
Still, there is an idea out there, particularly among literary writers, that we need to write “organically.” In other words, we don’t plan, but take a meandering journey towards finding structure. And there is something to that. Writing literary is different than writing commercial fiction. BC writer Bill Stenson likens writing literary fiction to planning a vacation.
You may organize the flight and hotel, but you want to stay open to the serendipity that pulls you this way and that along the way. That approach to finding plot can be fun, but also discouraging and just plain hard.
Why is finding plot and structure for a literary novel so difficult? Well, with each (literary) project, we are reinventing the wheel. Here’s what my mentor Jack Hodgins had to say on the subject in a discussion he and I had by email (used with his permission):
“Something in me (the someone in me who almost became an architect) feels that structure is as important to a novel as it is to a house. Every house has its own structure suitable to the functions of its whole, and so does the novel.
Well, most genre novels (except the very good) are more like those rows of wartime houses, the structure being mostly the same for all though the content might (should) be quite different. "Literary" novels should have (I think) their own blueprint appropriate to the content and intent.”
I took the winding road approach to finding the unique plot of my first literary novel and it took me seven years to write. Seven frickin’ years!
I finally clued into the fact that if I didn’t put the time and effort into really understanding plot and structure, and planned ahead, writing a novel would take a very long time and be so much more frustrating than it had to be.
So, I learned about structure and outlining and hey, the next literary novel took way less time. I actually wrote it in about two years. And as my first novel had been, my second was also short-listed for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, thank you very much. Lesson learned.
I now plot and outline all my projects, big or small. Outlines aren’t just organizing tools. They are, more importantly, brainstorming tools that help me find conflict, because outlines keep me focused on story goals.
Okay, so what does plotting look like exactly? Here’s how I, at least, approach plotting a novel.
Start with that big idea: is it big enough?
Is the central idea or premise
of my project big enough to support a story? Is there enough potential for conflict, and enough potential for my protagonist to be truly active, rather than passive?
For example, with my thriller The Almost Wife, the central idea was that a young woman, Kira, was caught between two warring exes going through a difficult divorce -- her fiancé, Aaron and his unstable wife, Madison -- and, more, that Aaron forced Kira into a position of protecting their baby and her stepdaughter from Madison.
Is there enough potential for conflict in my big idea? You betcha. Can the protagonist be truly active? Absolutely. She must protect the two girls from Madison as Madison stalks her.
If the idea isn’t big enough, or doesn’t offer enough opportunity for real conflict, or an active protagonist, narrative drive just won’t get up and running. For example, if Aaron, Madison, and Kira got along well, and everyone was happy, there really is no story.
Ask: Am I sure I know who my protagonist is?
Very often we think we do, when maybe we don’t. Most often we start with a passive
protagonist who isn’t centered in the conflict. Instead, they observe and report on the conflicts of those around them, like we do. In other words, the protagonist isn’t active.
So, as I’m figuring this one out, I ask this question: in this situation, who has the most at stake? Who should have the most at stake?
And you also want to be clear on point of view because when it comes to plotting and structure, changing your point of view changes everything.
So, who is in the best position to tell this story?
Remember: plot arises from character desire.
We’re talking story goals
here. What are your protagonist’s goals? What do they want? Once we’re clear on that (and have investigated structure), the story will start to flow.
The questions to ask here are: what does my protagonist want/need/desire? What is stopping them? And what are they actively going to do to reach those goals?
That’s narrative conflict
in a nutshell, and that nutshell holds the seed of your plot. Ask these questions of each scene, each sequence, each chapter and the project as a whole, and your plot will start to come into focus.
For example, in The Almost Wife, my character Kira wants a peaceful family life. What’s stopping her? At first glance, it’s Madison, who appears to be stalking her and trying to get to Olive, Kira’s stepdaughter who Kira has sworn to protect.
What is Kira willing to do to reach her goal? She flees with the two girls to Manitoulin to escape Madison.
But only to find Madison has followed her. And the chase is on!
As you can see, working up structure goes hand-in-hand with working up a protagonist’s conflict.
Get to know story structure.
As Jack Hodgins pointed out in that quote I offered earlier, just like every house has an underlying structure that holds it up, one that is covered by drywall, siding and paint, our stories have an underlying structure that supports them. These story structures differ according to type or genre, but the “bones” of the story remains surprisingly consistent.
We’re talking narrative arc
here, the basic route all stories take, that three-part story -- beginning, middle, end -- that is as old as the art of storytelling. You’ll see this basic narrative arc in most story structures. And there are many story structures.
If you own a copy of Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative, take a look at his chapter called Structure: The Architecture of Fiction. You’ll see some of the more common story structures doodled there. And here’s a link that offers an overview of common story structures
But as you study all these structures, here’s the take home message: there is no formula or template to your story structure. Each story, even in commercial or genre fiction, really is unique. So, while we can learn a whole lot and find inspiration in these structures, that’s only the starting point. Your structure will evolve naturally from your character’s flaws and desires, their goals.
But mapping out your project using these structures can really speed up the task of finding your own plot and structure.
Learn a thing or two from genre fiction.
Whether we are commercial or literary writers, we have a whole lot to learn from genre fiction, and even from Hollywood movies, when it comes to finding the structure of our own projects.
It’s here, in genre fiction and in those highly formulaic Hollywood movies, that we can see dramatic structure at work in a simplified way. That can help us wrap our minds around the more complex structures found in literary fiction.
And the most commonly used structure there is the Save the Cat! Screenplay structure championed by Blake Snyder. Novelists have been using the old save the cat! screenplay structure
for a long time to map out their projects. It’s far from perfect, as many novels don’t fit easily within the three-act structure, but it’s an excellent brainstorming tool. Jessica Brody has an excellent guide on that called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel
. The nice thing about Brody’s guide is that it offers examples of how this structure may be applied to a variety of story types and genres. I used the Save the Cat! structure as a starting place to outline The Almost Wife
To get a handle on this basic three act structure, I suggest this exercise that I gave my MFA students at UBC, and it’s a deceptively simple one: watch a Hollywood movie and pick out the story beats or main plot points of the Save the Cat! structure. Sounds easy, right? But it’s really tough at first. Marvel movies work great for this exercise.
Investigate other structures:
Start with the hero’s journey
. If you watched Star Wars, then you know the hero’s journey intimately. First championed by Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey structure has been used long before we had a name for it. It’s a basic story structure that we find in so many world stories, and it’s often found in commercial fiction, in mysteries for example.
A structure you may be less familiar with is the virgin’s journey
structure. A great guide for that is Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise
. The virgin’s journey isn’t just for coming-of-age stories. It’s a really great structure for any story where a woman is forging a new identity after a loss of some kind. And as it usually involves a woman struggling to free herself from a domestic cage, it’s also sometimes called the anti-hero’s journey, as women most often work against societal expectations in forging a new identify for themselves. So, it can be just as useful for male protagonists who are anti-heroes.
I often use the virgin’s journey in conjunction with the Save the Cat! structure to map out my story initially and later to keep me on track. I did just that with The Almost Wife. Coupled with the thriller structure, the virgin’s journey lends itself quite nicely to the domestic thriller. But it’s equally useful in other genres like romance. I’ve used it to help map out my literary narratives.
Literary writers often turn up their noses at genre structures, in particular the romance, but I definitely use it in conjunction with the other structures I mention above. And not just in a romance story. The romance structure can also be useful in mapping out friendship or mentorship elements within a narrative.
One of my favorite structures is the gothic
. And I don’t have to wear black lipstick to use it. The gothic novel structure is all about meeting the monster within, and about transformation. It’s a truly brilliant structure and worth looking into further.
There are SO many structures to look into. But how do you go about using these structures to map out your project?
Write a synopsis first.
A synopsis is a tool used to sell a novel to an agent or acquiring editor. It’s dry and a huge pain in the ass to write.
However, it’s incredibly useful in hammering out situation, point of view and story. It other words, it’s a really excellent brainstorming tool.
When I taught at UBC, as an exercise, I asked writers to apply for a provincial or Canada Council grant or at least pretend to. What I was most interested in was the description we are forced to write when applying for a grant. In other words, we have to write a synopsis of our project. It forces a writer to really think about situation, and what their story is really about, and to map out the basic story beats.
And to do that, of course, you can look to any of the structures I point out above, depending on what kind of story it is. Find the main turning points in those structures and use these to decide what those main turning points are in your project and then build a synopsis around that. Here’s how to write a synopsis.
The first step in this process is to brainstorm, again using these structures I mention above. I use mind-mapping, those spider drawers, to doodle out ideas (and you can see a sample of real-time doodling by clicking on my creative writing course
and scrolling down). I also brainstorm with my husband, my agent and my editor as I’m developing the synopsis. So, find yourself a brainstorming buddy who can help you stay focused on story goals and conflicts and help root out inconsistencies in logic.
Many writers use the snowflake
method of writing a novel summary and/or outline.
Then write an outline.
I then use that detailed synopsis to craft an outline. For this, I use Scrivener
. For those who aren’t familiar with it, I suggest checking into it. As I recall, those participating in National Novel Writing Month get a discount on it. Scrivener allows a writer to create an outline as we write scene, and you can move those scenes around easily as things progress.
I map out the Save the Cat! story beats on Scrivener first, as a starting place, and then plug in my existing main plot points from my synopsis. Then I work up other plot points.
But: I do this knowing that this is only a brainstorming tool. My plot points will change and change in the writing process.
If you don’t have Scrivener, just list each of the Save the Cat story beats in a Word document and then plug in your plot elements. This may only be a sentence or two per story beat. Not sure of all the story beats for your project? Fake it! Trust that your story beats will manifest in the process.
Dive into a discovery draft.
Once I’ve got my basic outline, I then jump into my discovery draft. A discovery draft is just that, a place to discover what your story and characters are really about.
I just start writing the scenes I’ve sketched out in that outline, but NOT in chronological order. In other words, I do not write scene in the order the reader will eventually read it. If you go that route, you can often end up in what I call “beginning hell,” where you rewrite the beginning over and over. It’s in later key scenes that we really come to understand the story.
As I write that discovery draft, I try to focus on the big scenes first: the opening image and setup, turning points into Act II and the midpoint, the turning point into act III, the climatic scene, and the final image.
But, again, I write knowing that I may ditch these scenes and if I keep them, they very likely won’t fall where I first think they will. I continue to move scenes around and around throughout the writing and editing process.
If the discovery draft doesn’t seem like a step in plotting, consider again that the discovery draft is all about discovering what is there. It’s that winding part of the journey that literary writers are very familiar with. And even with a highly planned and outlined commercial novel, like The Almost Wife, I write to know what I’m writing about. It’s in the writing that surprises turn up.
The key in the discovery draft is to write scene -- action and dialogue -- and not exposition, tell. And to put your protagonist right in the heart of their conflict, rather than avoiding it.
Lastly, write badly. Make a point of writing truly crappy prose. The point of the discovery draft is to throw it all to the page to see what’s there. This is not the time for perfectionism, or for editing.
Fold in other structures.
I don’t work with just one structure on any given project, I use two or more. My personal favorite combo is: Save the Cat! layered with the virgin’s journey and gothic novel structures.
If it’s a thriller, then I use Save the Cat! and speed up pacing and focus on plot twists. But I still use the virgin’s journey and gothic novel elements, along with a dash of romance structure.
Toss all these structures out the window.
Again, I view outlining with these various structures as a brainstorming tool, to help me find my story.
But if you view these structures as a template that you must follow religiously, you will end up with a story that feels formulaic and forced, stiff and without life.
And just as we must leave room for serendipity when planning our vacation, we must leave room for the surprises that turn up in our writing.
So, as you are engaged in writing scene, forget all about structure and just write. But, again, write scene, action and dialogue, so you allow your characters to tell you what the story is really about, and more importantly, what they want. Allow them to be truly active in pursuing their goals, and they will offer you the plot points themselves. Structure will arise, in part, naturally.
Having said that, after a day of writing, and certainly during self-edits, I revisit these structures to see if story goals and story beats are strong enough.
Be both a pantser and planner.
I’m both a planner and a pantser. I plot out my story, but then, in the writing, I allow for that winding journey where surprises arise, which I incorporate back into my outline. As I do that, ideas for scenes pop up in the outline, which I then go on to write. It’s like following trail on the one hand, but then stepping off the beaten track to wade into the wild, wild wood. If we don’t venture off the trail and into the forest, we’ll never see the amazing wildlife that’s there.