November 8, 2010

plotting your story

Most of you know by now what side of the plotting field you play from… I’m a pantser. You may be a plotter. If you don’t know, a pantser is a writer that just sits down and writes a story with little to no planning. A plotter is a writer that plans everything out before they sit down to write. 

I’m a pantser, but that doesn’t mean I completely forgo plotting. I’m curious to see how other people plot their stories, especially other pantsers.

My plotting process goes as such:

1. Idea. I get an idea for a story that really moves me, something I can’t help but write. I start working it through my head without writing anything down at first.

2. Character Sketches. I figure out my main character, the main villain, and maybe one important secondary character. Most of the time this is done by character interviews, but Jo Hart has an excellent post on character sketching at her blog here.

3. Candy-bar scenes. This is a term I take from one of Holly Lisle’s workshops, Create Your Professional Plot Outline, which is free, and if you have yet to find her site, read every single article she has ever written right now. Most of my plotting techniques come from this, but I like to vary it up to what works for me. Candy-bar scenes are scenes that you have to write. They may be epic space battles, a heated break-up, or a joy ride in the Aston Martin DB5 from the Bond films. These are the scenes that get you excited about writing the story in the first place. I usually have these in my head as soon as an idea hits me.

4. Start writing. If I plan any further than this, then I don’t want to write the story anymore. I figure out everything else as I go.

5. Figure out the ending. I didn’t know where I wanted my NaNoWriMo story to end until about 10,000 words in. With my first novel, I had an idea for the ending before I started writing, and about 10,000 words in, I had a completely different ending in mind. I’ve found that this works best for me, because by this time, I understand the characters’ motives and weaknesses completely and what constitutes a satisfying ending for their story.

6. Finish writing. Self-explanatory.

If you are a plotter, how in-depth are your outlines and prewriting exercises? If you are a pantser, what plotting tools do you employ, or do you completely ignore all plotting? Please leave comments below. I really am interested in how everyone else plots a story!


  1. GREAT post, Brooke! I agree that even "pantsers" need to think about plotting. :) My favorite point was probably #5. I don't think I can write without having at least SOME idea where I'm going to end. (Even if that's going to change later!)

  2. I'm in between. I do all of your steps, though I tend to only sketch one character out fully, and rough in the rest as I go. Notecards are my friend, and I use them while writing to get all my ideas straight so I'll have as little editing to do as possible.

    I can't plot out the whole thing though, or I lose my interest in writing it. Doing too much research to prepare will feed the drive, but often I have to cut myself off from it before I really want to because I know I will read and plot in my head forever and not write it down if I don't just stop research and planning and start writing the book.

  3. I don't always use an outline before I write, but I do know what my characters are and what the plot is. In fact, for all my fiction short stories, I have never outlined anything! I use an extensive outline for when I write scripts, but that's it.

    I'm just starting my first YA novel and only outlined the first five chapters. I want the characters to tell me what happens next.

  4. @Julie thanks! i agree... i need to have some idea where it's going so that i can write in that direction.

    @June i've never been able to employ notecards. i've tried and failed. i can get excited about planning a book, too, which is why i avoid it 99% of the time. once it's planned for me, there's no fun in writing it anymore.

    @Sara i never outline for short stories, but most of my short stories fall less than 3000 words, the majority under 1000. good luck on your novel, and let your characters take you where they want to go! :D

  5. I'm the same about losing the fun when you plot too much, although most of the time I'm a pb writer sothat's by-the-by. I have just started writing a rhyming MG novel and I plotted the start, the middle and the end. Length wise I am about one and a half chapters in but story wise I'm about a quarter of the way through *panics*. I'm actually stuck right now, so I'm taking a break, but would love to know how you plot the smaller scenes, especially with few people (I mean animals) in the whole book.

  6. By smaller scenes, do you mean the "filler" scenes - the scenes between the big scenes? I'll be 100% honest, most of the filler scenes just pop into existence.

    The most important thing you have to remember is that every scene something has to change... Something has to be different after writing it. It could be the main character learning something they didn't know, finding a clue, meeting a new person, an inner reflection of themselves that brings about an idea, a toy breaking... etc. You get the idea. Something has to happen, even if it is something small. Hope that helps!

  7. To be completely honest, I'm a notorious plotter. My current story has a four-century-long timeline, a ridiculously outrageous family tree, and several key scenes written in at least two different perspectives. I have character notes scattered on two computers, several notebooks, and even a couple of brains.

    If I could just Sit Down And Write, that would be a miracle.