When plotting kills you and your story: confessions from the other side.
This week I am filling in an outline chart for a retreat with a group of agents and editors. And I am hating every single moment of it. I hate boxing things up. I hate having to answer each question for each scene/chapter. I hate that it feels like killing the flow of creativity.
On the other hand, I actually love plotting. I love building new worlds, digging into characters and their arcs, figuring out what happens when.
But I know quite a few writers who hate plotting. Worse, they feel guilty about hating it.
I know plotters who struggle with making their characters grow or giving their story emotional resonance but know exactly what happens to their characters when. I know pantsers who have a very clear idea of the emotional arc their character(s) go through – but the story itself meanders in places or has too many subplots. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, no matter what approach we use.
There are tons of fabulous plotting books out there. But they don’t work for everyone because most books on plotting are written for people whose minds work in ways that LIKE plotting.
Plotters are people who use a part of their brain that structures things, analyses them. They get a rush from figuring things out. They like thinking about what their character arcs are, they like knowing where they are going, they like lining things up before they write so the scenes build on each other and come together for the climax.
However, pantsers (writers who don’t plot) see something else entirely when they think about their stories. It could be character emotions, or a holistic overview, or a mass of swirling colors. Whatever they see is what they have to work with. Personally, I have a bit of both going on when I work on stories. But plotting books tend to focus on structuring things, on putting things in boxes, on labeling things, on filling in a chart with things.
But some things just don’t fit in boxes.
So if you start to shake because you’re told to make an outline or fill in a chart, please don’t think there is something wrong with you as a writer. There isn’t.
Instead, it’s time to question the approach most people have when they think of plotting for non-plotters (aka pantsers).
All of the plotting books I’ve read are for people who can plot outside in. They are for people who can do a big-picture overview (three act structure etc.) and then bring it down to the character level after. They can map plot points, fill in character questionnaires, use spread sheets and timeline software. But none of those tools will help writers who discover story the other way around (from the inside out) and prefer to start with a character at a certain point and watch where they go.
Which brings me to the heart of this post. Instead of trying to plot a story when their mind doesn’t approach it that way, pantsers should focus on discovering their story.
When you discover a story, you have an idea, a vision of a character’s emotions, or a feeling you’d like to explore. Instead of thinking about the three act structure and what happens when, pantsers follow a character’s emotional development as he or she moves through events. Pantsers discover their characters, their world, and by the end of the first draft, their plot.
There are many ways of being a pantser. Some pantsers focus on discovering the emotional inner journey of a character, some prefer to discover how events will unfold as they get there, but the common thread is a desire to allow themselves the creative freedom to discover the story as it unfolds.
So how can you help yourself discover your story as you write?
One of the things that helps me is to try to feel the character’s inner journey. To see where they end up emotionally. I find if I know where characters are headed, emotionally, I know what kind of situations will push them to face (or let go of) the problem/issue/emotion they are dealing with. I often let the external situation either echo (to reinforce) or challenge (to create an obstacle) their inner situation. In other words, I guide my characters toward situations that will keep the story moving forward by developing their inner journey.
For example, if I know a character goes from being unsure to sure, I think about what might encourage them to make that transition. Once I know that, I can figure out the situation(s) that would give an emotional payback, and build from there.
Or, if you don’t know where the emotional arc is headed, you can see how the character reacts to different situations and play with those situations until you feel an emotional arc that works for that character.
Either way, thinking about the emotional development of the character as you go can help keep the story moving forward and bring it to a satisfying resolution.
And what about after the story is written? How can a pantser revise then?
When I pantsed my first story, I re-read it and cut everything that didn’t fit (or just didn’t move forward) the emotional development of the character. Although making a chart can help point out areas that lack tension or are superfluous in a manuscript, I hate doing them. Instead, I’ll read the manuscript as a PDF doc on my kindle. The parts that lag or are confusing jump right out. After, I go back to my computer and revise/cut/write a new scene. And build back up from there.
I know many writers who love the rush of the first draft. It’s exciting, it’s new, you’re discovering your story, your characters, your world. And it’s true. It is exciting. But I have come to feel that revising is where you stroke your story into being alive. Revising is where you can take the time to deepen your characters, their reactions, their emotions. You tweak an emotion in one scene, and it impacts how the character enters the next scene – potentially changing how that scene goes. Since you now know how the main character feels, you also know how they can or can’t react. It’s all one big, amazing, 4D puzzle.
It’s a story. And it’s yours, no matter how you got there. So trust yourself and how your mind works. If you like plotting, by all means plot. If you need to have complete freedom to explore a character, go explore.
Or maybe, like me, you’ll find a balance between the two that works for you.
Either way, happy writing and happy revising!