Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 3: The Plot Wars

To Plot or Not To Plot

The closest you come to holy wars among writers is on the matter of plotting versus pantsing. Pantsing is a highly technical term, roughly translating as “flying by the seat of the pants.” Plotting in this case means working out the details of your story in advance.

Should someone ask you if you’re a plotter or a pantser, you might think it is just a matter of curiosity; but be careful how you answer.  Whatever your answer, there is an even chance that if your listener is a writer -- and even if he isn’t -- he’ll have strong opinions on how you’re doing it wrong.

The only people without strong opinions on this are people like me who started as strict plotters, became somewhat looser plotters, and now find themselves as pantsers.  It is not an unusual journey even if the opposite trajectory is almost unheard of .  I have the theory that plotters who become pantsers after a number of books have in fact internalized the structure of a novel so well that the subconscious is pulling its own weight.

Plotters defend their method of work as resulting in tighter, cleaner books, and pantsers defend theirs as letting unexpected genius shine through more often.  And yet, I know many plotters whose work has sudden, unexpected surprises, and many pantsers whose plots work as precisely as a Swiss watch.

So, instead of telling you the way you should work, I’m going to assume you’re an adult and know yourself best. Besides, if you start out one way and it doesn't work, you can always change.

What I’m going to tell you -- quickly -- is how some people write plot outlines, and then how other people write without mapping plots in advance.

The Nefarious Plot

The simplest form of a plot is a “high-points plot.”

Take Romeo and Juliet.  The high-points plot could be relatively detailed, or it could fit in the back of a postcard, in which case it would go something like this: Romeo falls in love with Juliet.  Parents enemies. Lightning-fast romance.  Secret marriage.  Forced separation.  Juliet pushed to marry Paris. Confusion.  Double suicide.  Parents chastened.

If you are the more detailed type of high-point plotter, you could have in stuff like the duel with Tybald, or the friar’s plot to fake Juliet’s death.

A more detailed form of plot is a chapter plot.  My chapters tend to coincide with scenes, so it would go something like this:

1- A duel between Capulets and Montagues on the street.  Supporting characters introduced, including Benvolio.  Duel is broken up by the prince.

2- Montague interrogates Benvolio about the cause of the quarrel.  Conversation turns to Romeo, whose behavior has been worrying his parents.

3- Benvolio interrogates Romeo on the cause of his changed behavior, and finds that he’s in love with Rosaline.

If you have no idea on how a plot should go, there are many guides to use, including Campbell’s the Hero’s Journey or (depending on the size of your endeavor) the simple injunction that your character should start the story in some sort of trouble and that his efforts to dig himself out of trouble should bury him deeper and deeper, until a grand climatic battle, confrontation, or effort is necessary to restore him to his normal life.  (Or get him better off than he was when the plot started.)

Most people do know how they want the story to go, though.  Depending on what you’re writing you probably know at least how it ends, and you can reverse engineer it every step of the way to see which scenes must be in there to make it work.

You should be aware that many beginning writers complain that once they have outlined the plot, they no longer wish to write the story.  In that case, you might wish to consider simply doing a high-points plot and leaving your subconscious to fill in the details as you write.

You should also be aware that sometimes the plot changes as you write and characters take on a life of their own.  This happens to some writers all the time, to others not at all, and to some occasionally.  If it happens to you, you’re normal.  Just roll with it, and change your plot as you go.  Of course, then you might find yourself becoming a pantser.

Flying by the Seat of Your Pants

I used to write plots so detailed that I’d just fill in dialogue and description, and I had a full novel.  And then… it changed.  I could write all the plots I wanted, but the story would refuse to conform.  Or the story blasted through so fast, I had no time to plot.

This is very unnerving and requires a great deal of self-confidence, which few writers have.  So you might find yourself spending an unconscionable amount of time doubting your novel's course, what you're doing, and even your sanity.

It’s okay if this happens to you.  No, really.  It’s disconcerting and worrying, and it makes you feel like you lost your mind -- or at least it made me feel like I lost my mind -- but it is not unusual and it is not in any way wrong.

Lots of bestselling authors wrote and write that way at least part of the time.  The ones that come to mind are Agatha Christie (who wrote that way sometimes, and who likened writing that way to driving down a road at night, seeing only a car length ahead of you at any time), and Terry Pratchett, who writes that way all the time, and whose works are some of the more intricately plotted fantasies ever written.

So, first, stop being scared.  Take a deep breath and start.  Trust your instinct and your voice.  Remember these magical words: you can always fix it in edit.  The reader will never know.

Second, if you get irrevocably stuck, try deciding if you might have painted yourself into a corner or if you're afraid of what you have to write next.  If neither of these circumstances apply, take a couple of days off.  Go for a walk.  Read a couple of books.  Watch a movie.  Usually in the middle of other activities, something will click and suddenly you'll know how to go on.  However, even if that doesn't happen, come back to the book and try again.

The risk of pantsing is, of course, that you’ll need to do extensive edits, as the novel doesn’t go where you intended and/or has iterative chapters in the middle where the characters are stuck in a purposeless action loop. The good thing is that you CAN edit.

But at least you’ll have all the material right there, in front of you, which might suit your mind better than plotting it all in advance.  And, hey, you can always publish a "blooper reel" for the book on your blog and amuse your fans.

Full Steam Ahead

Whichever way you’re going to do it, pick one, and start writing.  Despite the heat writers generate when arguing over methods, if your results are good, no one cares how you got there.  And if your results are bad, it was a learning experience.

You can always change from one method to the other, if it doesn’t suit you or even if it stops working for you.

It’s your method, and you can do it however you want.  If the other side declares you a plotting/pantsing infidel, tell them I gave you dispensation.

We’re writers, anyway.  The worst any of us would do is kill you in a story, and since we also routinely kill our best friends and fans, that’s almost a compliment.