While I write by the seat of my pants, I realize this technique doesn’t work for everyone. So, today while I was browsing possible things to learn on Skillshare, I thought of the possible things a person might teach about storytelling. From there, I remembered a conversation I had years ago with a new writer who was stuck in her story. It happened so long ago, I don’t remember the details, but I did wonder if I recommended plotting.
Below I’m going to discuss reasons why you might want to plot your book.
1. You can’t complete the story you’re writing.
At some point, you might get stuck somewhere in the story you’re writing. This is normal. It happens to every writer who’s written enough books. Often, we know how things begin, and sometimes we know how they end. But the middle part is what leaves us scratching our heads, wondering how we’re ever going to finish the story.
This is a good time to sit down and outline everything you’ve done so far. If you know the end, go ahead and put that down. After you’ve done all of that, determine if you’re happy with the progression of the story up to the part where you got stuck. Are you happy with it? Then keep it. If something feels “off”, go back through each scene and see if you can pinpoint the scene where things got less exciting for you. Usually, this is your trouble area. Most of the time, when I get stuck, it’s because I had the characters do something that seemed good at the time but ended up taking the story in a direction that sucked. Going through each scene is an excellent way to find the trouble area. Then you can change the scene and see if that puts you on the right track. Sometimes it helps to brainstorm multiple changes and outline how the rest of the story goes with each change you make. Compare the changes and pick the one that gets you excited.
But let’s say you are very happy with everything in the story up to the point where you got stuck. What then? I recommend writing down a list of choices available to your characters. Think of every possible action available to them and how those actions will impact what happens next in the story. When you exhaust all of your ideas, I suggest taking a break. Take a walk. Watch a movie. Talk to a friend. Give your mind time away from the story to rest. Since the goal is to finish the book, you don’t want to take a long break. I would recommend no longer than a week. Too many books go unfinished because authors never get back to them. When you come back, look at your ideas. If you’re still stuck, pick Choice A (the option that appeals to you most) and see what happens. If it turns out you don’t like what happens in the story, go back and pick Choice B. Then Choice C. Etc.
If you are still truly stuck, talk to someone you trust (preferably someone who likes your genre) and get their opinion. This should be someone who is willing to sit down and brainstorm ideas with you. The key is to pick just one or two people. If you ask for too many people, you’ll get too many opposing viewpoints which will leave you frustrated. As much as it sucks, you might end up finishing a story that just isn’t going to be your favorite. I’ve done a little over 100 books in all, and I’m not thrilled with how every single one went. I’m 100% satisfied with most of them, but there are those that I just tuck away and never read. Thankfully, my core reading groups enjoys them. If you can’t please yourself, at least look to please your readers.
2. You’re afraid you’ll forget to add something later that you think will impact the story in a meaningful way.
This doesn’t require a plot for the entire book. I think this is more like notes you’re putting down so you remember what to add later when the right scene comes up. I do this all the time. It works very well with a panster. I have a writing journal where I’ll just mark down small things (action or dialogue) that I want to add later. When the right part comes up, I slip it in. This technique works great and doesn’t spoil the fun of discovering the story while you’re writing, so it can work with pansters and plotters.
3. You won’t be writing this story for a while, and you don’t want to forget it.
You can’t finish your current work in progress if you start writing the new shiny idea you just had. You will need to keep devoting your time to the current story. But if you’re afraid you’ll forget all of the fun and exciting stuff that makes you eager to write the next story, then you can give yourself a couple of days to plot out this next book. That way when you finish up the current one you’re writing, you haven’t forgotten all of the stuff you want to do with that next book.
This one doesn’t necessary require a thorough outline. It could be a basic statement about the book or even a book description. Maybe you’ll want to add some notes of what you’d like to see happen in the story. But if you feel let to make an outline, run with it. Go on and let it all work out on the page. Then when you’re done, put it aside and go back to the current book. I know it’s hard to get back to the other book. Whenever I hit the mid-point in about 90% of my books, I get bored and want to do something new. This is why I write three books at a time. But you have to push through the “this is no longer exciting to me” phase. I’ve found that when I stick to the story and keep writing it, I’ll get my enthusiasm back. It’s just a matter of discipline.
The downside is that when you do finish the current work, you might not be as excited about that shiny new idea. (I’ve been there, too.) But usually once you start the story, your enthusiasm starts to pick up for it. You just have to be consistent.
4. You want to make sure you have no loose ends when the story is done.
In this case, you’re outlining the story as you write it. You may want to add notes of different plot points you want to resolve by the end of the story. Once you resolve that particular plot point, you can put a check mark so you know you’re done with it. That leaves you free to concentrate on the other loose ends you need to wrap up. I’ve done this a couple of times in the past. Even pansters can find this one helpful.
Of course, you can always write out a full outline of the book with as many details as you want. If that helps you process the plot points better, you should do it. Some people think better when they list everything out.
5. You need to work backwards.
Sometimes you know the end of the story before you know the beginning. In this case, try plotting backwards. You can go from the end to the climax of the story then the scene that leads to the climax and the scene that comes before that.
Basically, you’re forcing your mind to consider what logical steps lead to the ending of your book. Ask yourself, “How do these characters end up in this particular situation?” As you keep working your way back, you have to constantly ask how your characters ended up where they did in each scene you develop. And on and on you go until you’re at the beginning.
You can always fill in blank spots if the answer doesn’t come to you right away. Say you know that at some point in the story, the villain revealed some particular information that makes a character do something during the climax of the story. Mark down what the villain said then look for the right place in the book where this villain gave the information. Making notes of something you need to put into an earlier scene somewhere in the book might help you get more ideas to get you to the beginning. When you’re done, go from the beginning and see if the outline makes sense. If the progression through the story flows naturally, you’re ready to write the story. If the progression is “off”, then look for how you can make the progression flow better. This is a time when you can brainstorm different ideas and play them through like I mentioned in point #1.
That’s all I can think of for reasons to plot a book.
Is there anything I missed? If you plot, what is your strategy? Are there any tips you’d like to share in case someone who wants to plot reads through the comments on this post? Feel free to share anything that’s on your mind.
For me, plotting is helping me get the thoughts in my head down. It’s giving me an idea of where the story will go, what I want to include, and means I won’t stop multiple times per writing session to figure out what happens next. Instead, I’ll have gotten all those pauses out when I was writing the outline.
Of course, outlines can change or be partly discarded. My story “Cressida,” for example, deviated from the outline in a key aspect about halfway through. It made for a stronger story and got published, though, so that time it worked.
I hear you about those pauses during writing a book. That’s the one main drawback I can see for being a panster. I go through them with almost every book, and they can last up to a week or two. That ends up slowing things down. I bet plotting helps you finish the stories faster.
When I outlined a book a few years back, it deviated about halfway into it, and I just tossed out my outline and did the panster method on the rest of it. Did you end up going with a brand new outline? If so, was it weird to wrap your mind around the new way your story was going? Did a part of you resist the changes you had to make? I actually did outline one book from start to finish in the past. It did end up deviating around the halfway point, and even now, I don’t care much for the book. I think knowing it didn’t turn out like I originally planned ruined it for me.
Not usually. Sometimes I need a new outline, but other times I’m good to go with what I already have. It varies from story to story.
As you know, I don’t plot my stories. I’m like you and want to discover things kind of how the reader does. And my characters do sometimes take me in a different direction than I thought I would go. But I do take notes to make sure I don’t forget some of the things I want to put in. They aren’t always in order. They’re more in the order that I think of them.
The discovery method is more exciting and fun, in my opinion. I’m sure it takes longer, but to me, it’s worth it. I take notes, too, and I also jot them down as I think them. To someone else, I’m sure it looks like a mess, but it makes perfect sense to me. 😀