Planner or Pantser, a Writer’s Guide to Plotting

This week I have decided to delve into the complex world of writer types and plotting.

So What kind of writer are you?

Like many things, there are two extremes when it comes to writers. On the one hand, you have Planners, and on the other, you have Discovery Writers (also known as ‘Pantsers’, but my publisher hates that term with the passion of a thousand suns, so I will stick with Discovery Writer).

Planners are the outliners, they like to know the details beforehand, all of the scenes mapped out and the plotting is done before they even begin writing. You do have different levels of Planner, some going into far more intricate detail in their planning than others, but the basic principle applies. 
Writing like this lets you see how your story will play out all the way through from the get-go and write accordingly, but it can make it more difficult if a change is made somewhere in the story because it can disrupt what has already been outlined and it can leave a Planner quite stuck. 

A Discovery Writer, at the most extreme end of the scale, will not plan a single thing. Their writing is often described as organic, their imagination running wild and the words just spilling onto the page as the stories come to mind in their raw forms. BUT, a Discovery Writer’s biggest downfall is writer’s block. 

Unlike a Planner, who has their outlines and brainstorming to fall back on, when a Discovery Writer hits the inevitable demon of writer’s block, it is a struggle to shift because there IS no structure to fall back on.

These are the two extremes, and most writers fall somewhere in-between. Maybe, you have the most basic of outlines, but you let the rest flow however your imagination takes it, or maybe you plan diligently but still allow yourself to digress occasionally when the mood strikes. Either way, it is important to find what works for you and often, the only way to find this is through trial and error.

I found that I was a Discovery Writer when I kept planning my books. I was so diligent, I had character bio’s, magic system diagrams, maps, details on the religions and the different races, right down to the clothes they wear and the food they eat. I even had character sketches. I had timelines too, but I found that as hard as I tried to stick to those details, I would think of something else, something better as I was writing. I would make the change, but inevitably that change meant that a lot of what had already been written had to be rewritten for the sake of continuity, so I never really finished anything I was writing. 
It was only when I stopped planning and started writing with the vague images in my head that the stories started flowing more freely and I actually managed to finish my stories.

This leads me to the next part of this week’s blog. Plotting.

What is plotting? Well essentially, plotting is the construction of the order of events, scheme or main story of a literary work. There are many, many methods that can be used when it comes to plotting, so I am going to highlight some of the more common methods.  

Let’s begin with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet

Blake Snyder was an American screenwriter, consultant, author and educator who wrote a trilogy; Save the Cat on screenwriting and story structures. It has since become a very popular and detailed description of the monomyth, the hero’s journey.

Primarily used for screenwriting, it can and has been successfully adapted to the plotting of novels. It is split into fifteen ‘beats’.

First, there is the Opening Image. This is a visual that sets the struggle & tone of the story. A quick look at the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.

This is followed by the Set-up. This beat is used to develop the “before” snapshot further. It demonstrates the main character’s environment as it is, and what is missing in their life.

The Theme Stated (This will generally organically present itself during the Set-up) expresses what your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.

Now we have the all important Catalyst. The pivotal moment where life as it is changed. The one event that has set of the cascade of events towards change.

Like all people, there is doubt when something significant in the routine is changed and the character will have the internal Debate, or multiple debates, and it is the last chance for the character to back out. 

Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two). Now the main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the safe world that the character has always known to journey into the unknown. 

All good stories have multiple themes and subplots intertwined. Now we bring in the B Story – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the small speck of truth and the conversation usually occurs between the main character and a love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.

The Promise of the Premise. Your character is exploring the new world that they have been introduced to in their journey, the premise of the story has been built and the readers are drawn in by the promise of the fulfillment of this premise.

Midpoint. This beat will change depending on the story. It will either be a moment when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. Your main character will either get everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). 

The villians close in. Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.

We reach the point where All is Lost. The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks impossible to achieve. This is where something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.

Dark Night of the Soul. The main character hits rock bottom. They are hopeless and have the Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.

Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three). Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.

Finale – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – that little bit of truth you set up in the B Story beat that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!

We have reached the Final Image. This is the mirror image to the opening image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

You can find some very helpful beat sheets online that can help with the plotting of your novel and splitting it into the above. It is not foolproof, but it is an invaluable guide to keep a good pace throughout your novel.

Next, we have Freytag’s Pyramid.

This is more applicable to children’s books than full-length novels. 

It reveals the exposition (the character, setting, background details, etc, necessary for the context of your novel) upfront. It is followed by a long rising action to a climax in the middle of the story and a long falling action with a quick, short resolution.

It is ideal for children’s books because the longer falling action will assist young readers to learn and understand the effects of conflict in a character. The same plot structure in a novel aimed at older audiences can lead to a rather dull read, the climax being followed by a long falling action can lose the interest of a reader before the resolution is even reached.

For all of you young adult and adult books, there is a plot structure called the Fichtean Curve. 

This is one of the most popular plot structures simply because it is one of the most successful. It begins with a rising action at the onset. The exposition is dispersed through the first part of the story rather than being revealed all at once.

It is characterized by multiple small rising and falling actions as many small crisis incidents occur. At approximately two-thirds of the way through, the climactic conflict is reached and the remainder of the story is left for a falling action used to tie off loose ends and a new equilibrium is established for the characters.

This plot structure has the potential to grip readers and hold them. The multiple rises and falls stave off boredom and prevent the readers from being lulled into a comfortable and languid state. You constantly keep them on the edge of their seat.

The last plot structure I will discuss is the In Media Res.

An often misunderstood plot structure, In Media Res begins in the middle of the story and is best used for action-heavy novels like thrillers, horrors or mysteries.

This does not mean that the opening chapter is one filled with action, it specifically means beginning in the middle of the story, typically the second or third crisis and occasionally in between the action.

Exposition is scattered throughout and there is still an upward trajectory, however, the beginning of the story is seen through conversation or flashbacks. A few more crises are included before the climax which is again followed by the falling action and resolution.

If this is done well, you can grip a reader from the very beginning and make them more likely to keep reading. An intrigue is a great tool when using In Media Res.

 There are overlaps and none of these plot structures or plotting tools are set in stone. There will always be exceptions to the rule. These are just guides to help you keep a structure and monitor pacing. 

Happy Writing!

2 thoughts on “Planner or Pantser, a Writer’s Guide to Plotting

  1. I am really enjoying the theme/design of your web site. Do you ever run into any internet browsser compatibklity issues?

    A number of my blog readers have complained about my site not
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    Do you have any advice to help fix this problem?

    Like

    1. Thank you very much 🙂 So far I have not had any issues.

      From what I understand, Internet Explorer runs their own set of rules that aren’t as updated as other web browsers, so isnt compatible with some programming. It could be the layout of the website too.

      Like

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