Everyone’s heard the planner/pantser (or architect/organic as G. R. R. Martin refers to it) differences in writers. We tend to be naturally more of one than the other and can fall anywhere on the spectrum.
The most common fallacy about pantsers is that we don’t plan. We do, but we plan unconsciously and it feels as if we discover much of the story in the writing, whether that’s actual draft or pre-write. This might be why we say the story comes from someplace other than our conscious mind. It does, including the planning.
As a pantser, I’ve experimented with several methods for “outlining” a novel. I’ll include a quick overview of just three of these methods. I think it’s good to try different things, so you can incorporate the parts that work for you into your process and disregard the parts that don’t.
The MC Arc
One method of planning a novel is to simply plan the Main Character Arc and work the plot elements into that arc. The elements you need to know are:
- Where your character starts in terms of mindset, emotions, situation, and relationships.
- The event that sparks your character’s story and how she reacts to it.
- The choices and options available to your character as a result of the event.
- The low moment in the story, the scenes in which your character feels all is lost.
- The big action or decision (the tipping point) your character makes to change their future.
- Where your character ends in terms of mindset, emotions, situation, and relationships.
By thinking about and planning these sections of your novel, you’ll have elements to write toward. Of course, the elements might change as you write, but it’s good to have a starting point. This method works well for character-driven novels.
Sometimes stories start with a character. Other times they start with a plot. Planning your pivot scenes is very similar to the MC Arc, but instead of focusing on the character, you’re focusing on your plot twists and development.
- Starting point – The shortest part of a novel, this leads quickly to the inciting moment
- Inciting moment – This is where your story actually begins.
- Crisis point One – This is the first obstacle/plot event.
- Crisis point two – A second obstacle/plot event to complicate things for your character.
- Crisis point three – Third plot event/plot twist, optional depending on length.
- The climax – The big moment of your story.
Again, very similar to the MC Arc, but a good way to work with a story idea that comes to you with plot first.
This is the method I’m currently working with, and I’ll admit it works a bit better for me after I’m about 20k into the story. It is my roadmap for the middle of the book as well as revisions. There’s freedom to move scenes around for maximum impact and helps ensure I don’t miss key elements.
Advantages include being able to maintain micro-tension, plan chapter endings that make the reader turn the page, and spacing sub-plot elements over the length of the novel. If you have multiple points of view, it also helps ensure the POV is balanced between characters.
Essentially, I make a table or draw a grid on paper and label each box with a chapter number. I plan three to four scenes per chapter and the number of chapters depends on the length I’m aiming for. Since it’s a bit more involved, I’ve included an image of a current project so you can see how I use the boxes. This particular novel has multiple POV, so scenes are color-coded for the POV character.
I pre-write up to half the word count that will appear in the final novel, and from that exploratory document, I’ll fill in the boxes. This novel is targeted for 80,000 words, so I have 80 scenes broken roughly into 20 chapters (this is just a benchmark as the actual word counts per scene and chapter will vary). About 50 of the 80 scenes are noted. The rest will be filled in as I write.
Pantsing is an intuitive way to write that seems to come from a hidden place in the brain, but applying just enough structure beforehand can help keep you on target and provide a roadmap of where you’re headed.
If you have any questions about these methods or have used others that work, please let me know in the comments.