I feel you. I really do. Once upon a time, I despised plotting. I was a die-hard seat-of-your-pants writer. If a story idea came to mind, I immediately set to work and began drafting. I wrote a middle-grade fantasy rip-off of Narnia this way. However, as I grew and matured as a writer, I began to realize that SOP writing (“seat-of-the-pants”, or “pantsing” as it’s affectionately known) just simply didn’t work for me. Ninety percent of the story ideas I started drafting barely scratched a thousand words. Over time, I grew tired of feeling like I never could finish what I started, of staring at blank drafts with no idea how to move forward, of feeling like I’d never publish a book and be the bestselling author I’d always dreams of becoming. Pantsing almost killed my dream, because it didn’t give me the tools I needed to keep going when I hit a wall.
If you’re like I was, then this article is for you.
Now, I’m sure you’ve heard of plotting. You probably follow several big-name bookstagram influencers like CG Drews who boast their twenty-page, twenty-thousand word outlines for their stories. And you probably sit there with a wide-eyed look on your face, wondering how, exactly, you’re supposed to write a twenty-thousand word outline when you can’t even draft twenty thousand words to begin with… Well, I’m here to help you with that. Well, not with drafting a twenty-thousand word outline; rather, with breaking off the stigma and the stress surrounding plotting in general.
Do you hate plotting, or are you afraid of it?
For me, it was maybe a mix of both. I hated plotting, because whenever I had a new idea, all I wanted to do was just dive right in. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to meet my characters. And drafting an outline or some semblance of a plan seemed like a detour away from what I, as a writer, really care about. I was afraid of it, because I’d gotten into such a rut with my writing that I honestly didn’t believe in the stories I wanted to write. Actually, I didn’t believe in myself and my ability to write them. Simply put, I was insecure in my skill, my motivation, and my sense of discipline.
Now, this change didn’t happen all at once. Before I was a full-blown plotter, I was somewhere in the middle. It started with my second novel, Every Bright and Broken Thing. I had finally published my debut, Love and the Sea and Everything in Between. There was this sense of release and breakthrough as I let go of a story that I’d been holding onto for nearly four years. At long last, I realized that I really was cut out for this. That writing and editing and publishing a story was something I really wanted to take seriously. Not only that, but my mind was on fire with inspiration for story after story after story. I wanted to write. I was excited about writing. For the first time in my life, it didn’t feel like some unattainable pipe dream; it was real.
So, in November of 2018, I dove back into NaNoWriMo and began drafting a new story about an indie rock star high schooler struggling with trauma and grief. But something was missing. About halfway through the first draft, I realized that what the story really needed was the dual perspective of my Main Character’s brother, Ezra. But I’d already written so much. What was I to do?
So I sat down at my computer, stared at the screen and decided to break down the chapters one by one to help orient myself as I want back to draft Ezra’s POV (point-of-view) chapters. This was the first time I’d ever done any sort of note taking for a manuscript that wasn’t within the narrative itself. To be fair, they were just one-line synopses of each chapter. Nothing huge.
But I was hooked.
What I learned about plotting…
All of my preconceived ideas about what plotting looked and felt like were wrong. This whole time, I’d thought it was just getting in the way of the story, but I began to realize with each new story idea – from Every Bright and Broken Thing to Sons of Slaughter to We the Wild Things to Mammoth – that there was this aspect of plotting that actually allowed me to live inside the story before ever setting my nose to the grindstone. That’s what I really wanted, after all. To just dive in. Get to know my world and my characters and the themes and the aesthetic. With each no story idea and each new plotting technique employed and each new draft written, I fell in love with the process of plotting.
Don’t get me wrong, plotting is just the beginning of the whole affair. But if you change your perspective, you might realize there’s something just as rewarding about plotting as there is about drafting or marketing or publishing.
Plotting your novel before you start writing is like a literary meet cute. By that I mean that it’s almost like this slow, gradual, organic, getting-to-know-you phase between you and your novel. Everything is chemistry. Everything is electric. You’re excited. You’re in love with the concept in your head, and now you’re getting to explore it without the gritty work of drafting. You’ve dropped your story concept like a stack of school books, and now you’ve bumped heads with the full on story. You’re staring into each others’ eyes, and all of the sudden you find yourself daydreaming about your characters everywhere you go. You find yourself staring out the window absentmindedly, because mentally you’re living in your story world. Dramatic? Sure. Then again, so is writing!
Plotting your novel before you begin drafting helps you to develop your story’s themes, perspective, and voice. That last point especially – your story’s voice – is important. If you go into a story without a sense of voice, those opening chapters will be rough. It’s almost like your story suffers from an identity crisis.
Plotting empowers you! Think of it like a treasure map. Without the map, all your left with is the disappointing knowledge that there’s a treasure out there that you’ll never be able to obtain, because you don’t know where it is or how to get there. Like most treasure maps, plotting doesn’t tell the full story. It doesn’t show you all the pitfalls and snares and trials along the way, but it does keep you on track! Plotting empowers you to finish what you started!
Make plotting fun! If you’re a tactile writer, use a bulletin board, or a binder portfolio, or a white board, or index cards to sort through everything. If you’re like me, create a file specifically for the plotting of your novel.
For myself, I compile what I call a “Portfolio” for each new project. My portfolios contain: 1) Rough Synopsis, 2) Character Profiles, 3) Rough Outline (both part-by-part and chapter-by-chapter depending on the story; this is not an exhaustive outline as it doesn’t reflect every twist and turn, but I do list the plot-relevant things that occur in each chapter), 4) Word Guides (this is a compiled list of words that speak to the aesthetic of the story), 5) Inspirational Material (books, movies, shows that speak to the tone and themes of my project; if I’m in a rut, I’ll turn to these favorites to shift myself back into gear!), 6) Setting Profile, and 7) Theme Map (these are the themes I aim to tackle throughout the story.)
If we approach it with the right mindset, plotting can be just as fun and just as rewarding as drafting, or any other stage of the process! The key is figuring out what works for you and your story, and knowing that each story may require a different approach, and that you may have to approach it in a different way in any given season. Plotting could be just the thing you need to take your literary lifestyle to the next level and begin writing stories with a sense of voice, a sense of direction, and a sense of clarity.