Before you sit down to write your novel, short story, or whatever it is you may be writing, you should consider what you want your plot to be. Plots can be complicated, simplistic, rely heavily on a made-up worlds, the character’s emotions, or both. This blog will discuss the various methods for plotting, how much plotting you should do, and the difference between plotting and pantsing.
Planning vs Pantsing
Before we begin, I want to briefly discuss the difference between planning and pantsing, because this post is aimed more at planners. Planning your novel is where you do some work before sitting down to write. It can be small amounts of character description, a full-blown chapter-by-chapter plan, or years of copious amounts of research. Personally, I think more people are planners than they realise, because anything you do before writing the story counts as planning. For example, maybe you wrote a character description on the way to work the other morning, so that you would have a better image to go on when writing the story. That’s planning. It might be small, but it’s planning nonetheless. Pantsing is where you do no research, writing, outlining, or anything else prior to sitting down and writing that story. You might know the basic plot in your head, the ending, and what your characters look like, but pantsers enjoy the freedom that not having a plan brings. I always advise people to plan, because then you’re less likely to create plot holes, can focus on the writing, have detailed character development, and so much more. If you have already spent a few months, or a few years in my case, outlining, researching, character developing, and world-building your story, then when you sit down to write it, you can solely focus on how you’re putting the story across. If you do not do this, then you have a lot of work ahead of you when you’re finished. This is where you hear the stories of development editors telling writers to cut half their story out, because it’s not necessary or because the plot needs reworking, and it’s because the writer didn’t plan first. I’m not saying that planning will 100% prevent the need to cut your story down when you’re finished, but it will help. As a development editor, I find that clients need less story work if they have planned what they’re writing.
So, why is it so important that we plot then? I mentioned preventing plot holes, which is obvious, but it’s also about clarity. Having a clear story that follows the story structure we discussed in The Basics of Story Development is key to creating a story that readers will not want to put down. You want to leave readers wanting more, from an incredible story about adventure, emotions, great characters, and from a story that matters. Anyone can write a story, but it takes skill to write a story that leaves readers running to the bookstore to buy the next one. I firmly believe that stronger stories come from writers who plan things out from the beginning, that way they can focus on the word choice, expression, phraseology, and how the story is being told. Authors like JK Rowling, Cassandra Clare, Robert Jordan, and Philip Pullman are known for their various levels of planning, from fully outlining every detail, to knowing the ending, to leaving the details up to creative freedom, everyone has their own way. There are also authors, like Stephen King, that are strongly known for not planning their books. I think it’s important to know and understand what method works best for you.
What methods are out there? There are hundreds, but I’m going to discuss my favourite, a few popular ones, and a few other different methods that exist. This is a great place to start if you would like to know what a lot of the various methods are for plotting, though it doesn’t go into a lot of detail.
What method you choose to use is up to you, but remember that you can mix and match methods together, use some for one project and others for another. This is not a one method will suit you, so use it for the rest of your life type of process. Sometimes, you’ll find that half planning works, maybe when you have children you’ll find scatter methods easier, maybe when you’re older and your memory isn’t what it used to be you’ll need to use a full outlining method. My point is that life changes, as will your skill level, techniques, and the way you think about your craft, so plot your project using whatever method, or combination of, works best for you at the moment. Don’t let anyone tell you that your chosen method is rubbish, because if it works for you then it’s amazing!
1.) My Favourite Method
This is the method that I use when plotting my novel-length projects. It’s a bit unique to me and my life, but I thought I’d share because people find it really interesting whenever I tell them. First off, you should know that I’m a really organised person and I cannot write a project until I know every single detail, unless it’s poetry, but that’s a different story altogether. However, I like to have creative freedom when writing, so that I can be free to move details around, change the colour of the eyes, move scenes around a bit and do a reshuffle. So, how do I combat that? Well, I use what I call the step-outlining method. Firstly, I come up with an end goal, the world, the characters, and the basic story, all in my head. I make notes, do research, character profiles, map drawing (with my uber-terrible drawing skills), basic photo research on Google, and I compile it all into a lever-arch binder and store it away. I then use all that to create an outline for the first ten chapters. I go ahead and hand-write those chapters. Once they’re down on paper, I’ll outline the next ten, write them up, and so on. I use multiples of ten because my current project is thirty chapters, so that splits the novel into thirds, but you can chunk it however you wish.I use this method because it allows me creative freedom over the ten chapters I’m writing. If things change and effect the future chapters, that doesn’t matter, because they’re not set in stone yet. I can shape things up and change them around without the hassle of reworking my outline. This works for me because I’m a heavy planner, but I’m going to talk about other methods that I have come across, and discuss their pros and cons.
2.) Snowflake Method
This method also relies on heavy planning, but it takes you through the stages of creativity gently and can really help make you think of the holes that are going to appear and how to fill them. You start with a one-sentence summary and slowly build up until you have a first draft. It takes you through the planning, outlining, summarising, and character developing stages. This can really work for some people, especially if you have a brain that likes to be naturally scattered. It will help you focus and stay on point. For me this doesn't work, and the only reason is because I like to do things in a linear fashion and this method doesn’t really allow for that. It does require you to have a firm grasp of planning and the basics of story development, but other than that it can be used by everyone. This does allow for some basic creative freedom, as it doesn’t let you figure out all the details during the planning stages, so it lets you do that when writing the first draft. But this is a full-on method, and leaves little of the plot to creative freedom. This is going to be most helpful to people who are starting out with the whole planning and building-your-story-before-writing-it thing. This will also be exceptionally useful to beginners. This articles talks about in immense detail, and is an entire blog on this method alone, check it out!
3.) Sectional Outlining
This is the most basic of methods, but many, many people use it because of it’s simplicity. This simplicity allows for maximum flexibility as you can tailor it to your needs. I have adapted this one for my needs and is what I built my favourite method from (please see number one). It’s as simple as it sounds, take things chapter-by-chapter or act-by-act, and write an outline for each section. You should bullet point the main conflict of each section, what the characters are doing, where they are, how much description you’re going to use, and basic notes to yourself that you might find helpful when writing. For example, I always write a paragraph about the tone and emotion I want to convey in each chapter, because I’m aiming for an emotionally engaging story. This is full-on and makes you plan the whole story before writing it. It allows for minimum creative freedom when writing and can drive you crazy when you’re obsessing over word choice, grammar, and style during your first draft.As a side note, you can do this backwards if you like. You start with the ending and outline each chapter starting from the end and working to the beginning. This can be really helpful as motivation, but also to create a goaled and aimed story, which is important to keep readers engaged. It’s also quite an interesting way to figure out the beginning of your story, as you’re less likely to start too early, a problem we’ll explore in a later blog.
4.) Tentpole Plotting
This one is kind of obvious, but it’s not something you think about straight away as being a plotting technique. When thinking about your story in your head, try thinking about the character’s main goals and objectives. Sarah discovers a time-travelling device, Sarah goes back in time to 1847, she loses the device, Sarah learns of the key that could take her back to her own time, she starts her journey to find the key, defeats [cue evil monster/villain name], Sarah goes home. These story points are your tent poles, and everything in-between, the narrative space, is a mystery. This is good for those of you wanting something between planning and pantsing. It allows you to use a basic story structure, have aims and a plan, but also allows for creative freedom in how your character’s meet said goals. The only downside to using this method is that it can sometimes be hard sticking to those goals when you don’t always know how the characters gets there.
This one is for those of you into pretty colour schemes, detailed notes, have a major scatterbrain, and are not that into planning. This is where you use simple, or complex, mindmaps to record your thoughts. You can do this any way you wish, but here’s a great example of a simple structure.
This technique is more useful for smaller stories, but you could extend it into bigger stories if you used a really large piece of paper or created multiple maps. It could also be useful to record your ideas before planning, or to jot down your ideas before going ahead and writing the story. Whatever way you choose is fine. This allows for full creative freedom, but still recording your thoughts. You can add to it as you go and delete and update things as you discover your story in greater depth when writing it.
I have discussed various plotting methods, but there are so many more, feel free to Google ‘story plotting methods’ and they’ll all pop up. This is one of the easier things to research, so I recommend doing so. I have tried and tested the methods above and most enjoy My Personal Favourite (obviously) and the Tentpole Method.