Outlining for Pantsers – or How to be Organized When You’re Not.

You may have heard the old “plotters vs. pantsers” thing. Plotters outline. They have detailed notes on chapters and characters before they ever start to write. They have notes on their bulletin boards and when they’re done with a novel, it’s done. They don’t take random road trips; they take their car to the shop for an oil change and new tires first, and not only do they have AAA maps, they’ve also got a GPS and fully charged cell phones, and an itinerary planned down to the hour.

Pantsers, on the other hand, say screw that! Let’s take this road, it looks interesting. Hope there’s a gas station soon, because we’re sitting on a quarter of a tank, but hey! If not, we should have cell service. Wait. Where’d the signal go? Oh well! Keep going! They have a character, or even a scene, in mind, and they just write until they either finish the novel or the novel finishes them.

Guess which I am? 🙂

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been involved in edits and rewrites to a manuscript. It’s changed considerably in the past months, and I’m having trouble keeping up with it all! My friends think I’m so organized. I haven’t got the heart to tell them it’s all a ruse, a clever illusion so complete that even Penn and Teller would be fooled.

There’s a saying among writers:  “You can either plot it before you start, or after you finish.” Pantsers often end up with a novel that’s a bit of a hot mess – the characters are often fantastic, and a lot of the scenes are engaging and surprising because pantsers have this ability to let the characters do whatever the hell they want to do. But they may not flow well, and some scenes may be extraneous. Some plot ideas are just dead ends. So when they finish that first draft, they have to put the work back into it to turn that hot mess into something coherent and cohesive. Been there, done that. Want my spare T-shirt? 🙂

Last year at the Rose State Writers’ Conference, I attended a workshop on “Outlining Your Novel.” I took those notes out this morning to see if there was anything in there that I could use for my current predicament.

  • The presenter argued that you should outline ahead of time, even if you don’t follow it. This is because when you start, you should at least have an idea of where you think you’re going. And if you get stuck, or start to go down one of those scary roads, you’ve got that outline there to maybe bring you back.
  • For her own novels, she makes a list of 10 key scenes she wants to see in the story, scenes that she’s really looking forward to writing. Three or four of them are what she terms “money shots” – scenes she really wants to get on paper, scenes she’s dying to write. The others are going to be good too, but not quite as gripping. These are jotted down in no particular order.
  • As we all know from reading and writing, stories often fall apart in the middle. She suggested looking at the three-act storyline (which I admit, I’ve never truly understood and still don’t). For me, the best way to do it is to think about it this way:  what does your character want? What are they going to do to get it? And what can do you do to stop them from getting it?
  • Every scene should lead to the next one. Your character has a setback? Let her rebound in the next scene. Your character’s in trouble? Leave that chapter on a cliffhanger and continue that scene to the next instead. Keep the reader reading! Likewise, each ‘act’ must build towards something. (Truthfully, I think this is where pantsers sometimes have an advantage:  we just follow the characters, so when they get in trouble, we follow them to see how they get out of it.)

HOWEVER. This presenter admitted that outlines change. You may start out knowing precisely where you want this novel to go – let’s say you’ve got a heroine who is fighting against her evil older sister, a queen. But then you get into the novel more. You start to figure out who these characters are. You realize that the queen’s not evil at all – she’s just frightened and misunderstood. And that love interest you created for the heroine? He’s not as nice as you thought he was. Voila! You’ve just written Frozen. Congratulations. As you spend time with  your characters and get to know them, they’ll start to do things you didn’t imagine. And when they do that, your story takes on a life of its own. That’s one of the reasons why outlines can be tricky – if you get too attached to them, refuse to follow that interesting dirt road your characters insist on going down, you could stall out.

Another way to keep stories moving – and another good reason for outlines – is that there’s never just one plot. There’s your Main Plot, the Big Picture if you will. Take Harry Potter #1, for example. The Big Picture is Harry finding out who he really is, and preparing to go against Voldemort. But how many smaller plotlines are there? His friendships with Ron and Hermione. The Quidditch team. His rivalry with Draco Malfoy. The classes he’s taking. Do they all tie into the Big Picture? Yes. They all help to create that Big Picture, don’t they? But the smaller plots can get lost. Outlining can help you plug them in.

Outlines needn’t be great big things with Roman numerals and huge chapter synopses. Where’s the fun in that? But let’s say you’re like me, and you’re a pantser who’s rewriting a novel. Where can that take you?

What I’m doing is creating a to-do list for the novel (which I discussed earlier this month). I know what scenes need to stay and which are going to have to go; I know what scenes I need to write. My job now is to figure out where they go, and then tie them together. I can’t worry about tying them together at the moment; we’ll get to the flow and confluence of the scenes later. Since I’m adding a character, I have to weave in his story line to the original manuscript. And along the way, figure out where scenes go for maximum buildup to the end.

So my outline is, I guess, a work in progress. I know it will help immensely once I get it done. And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Like I said – Roman numerals are not necessary! For examples of this, see the links below.

 

http://www.betternovelproject.com/blog/series-outline/ – Deconstructing J.K. Rowling’s Series Grids.

http://michelleboydwaters.com/handwritten-outlines-of-famous-authors/ – Some great images of ‘plot outlines’ by famous authors, including Joseph Heller and Sylvia Plath.

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Plotters Anonymous

“Hi, I’m Robyn, and I have a problem with plotting.”

(A chorus of “Hi, Robyn!” goes up around the room. Someone says, “So how long has this problem been going on?”)

It’s hard to say. I never used to think about plotting. I mean, who does when they first start out? You’re just excited about the characters and the setting, and sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night and write, or you get home late from work and write to unwind, and you just don’t think about the plot, because you have to get the story out. You know? And then one day you wake up and realize you’ve Got A Problem.

“Tell us about it!”

Glad you asked. I used to be a pantser. Sometimes, I pretend I still am. I used to just let the characters dictate the story to me. I’d write for hours, letting them do whatever they wanted. The coolest part? Waking up and realizing that I didn’t remember a single thing I’d just written. It was all fresh and new, and exciting. I had no idea what I’d written, but I liked it. It was good.

And then . . . I sort of stopped doing that.

“Why? What happened?”

I don’t remember when, or why. I just remember things going differently for me. I mean, I’d get flashes of scenes and dialogue, and I’d write them down, and then I started having to work different hours, and . .  . I went to college. That was it. I’m sure that’s then the problems really started. Academic writing requires thinking and planning and thesis statements and proof and research. Outlines. Drafts. Somehow . .  . somehow, that made it into my fiction. Yes. I’m sure of it. That’s when it happened. That’s when it all changed.

And now . . . I’m stuck.

(Lots of nodding heads and knowing looks.)

Yes. I have a plot problem.

This is the typical plot diagram we all know and love –Plot-Structure-Diagram-800x618 and love to hate. Looks simple enough, doesn’t it? Fill in the blanks, and make up the rest. So why isn’t it easy for me? Why can’t I use this darn thing? I see it, I want to use it – but you might as well be asking me to do a complex equation in theoretical physics. In fact, that might be easier.

(A few laughs. Someone in the back starts to hum “Soft Kitty.”)

It’s not funny! Not really. I mean, I know my characters so well, and . . . but do I? Do I really? (I look around the room, into eyes that are beginning to question my sanity.) You know, I’m not sure I do. Not all of them.

Not my antagonist.

Your protagonist can only be as great as your antagonist makes him. Isn’t that right? So what is my antagonist doing to my protagonist? While she’s working on subplots and research and all that, what is my antagonist doing behind the scenes? Holy cow. Is that it? Can it be that simple? Can it be as simple as what is my antagonist doing to get what it wants?

It’s the same question my MC always asks, too. What does this thing want? It’s an answer she does get in the end, but . . . what is the antagonist doing to get what it wants during the rest of the novel? Not a damn thing! Not really.

And that’s one of the problems with plotting, and one that I think a lot of books and articles on plotting don’t really talk about:  your antagonist drives the plot just as much as your MC and your secondary characters. It has to, doesn’t it? Your MC wants something. So does your antagonist. What they want is often either the same thing, or things that are at cross-purposes with each other. Think about Indiana Jones and Rene Belloq. They want the same thing:  the Ark of the Covenant. But they want it for totally different reasons. Or think about Harry Potter and Professor Quirrell. Quirrell wants the Sorcerer’s Stone; Harry wants to keep him from having it. (Though it’s funny that in both cases, what’s driving the antagonist is loyalty to a background character – for Belloq, the Nazis; for Quirrell, Voldemort.) Take Katniss and President Snow, then. Snow needs Katniss to do just one thing:  either win or lose the Hunger Games. But Katniss isn’t going to let him have what he needs, is she? Nope.

Your antagonist does need a good reason for doing what he’s doing, and wanting what he wants. Your antagonist needs to be believable, after all. Is it a crossroads demon that needs to collect souls? We get that. Is it a vampire that needs to drink blood and keep its secret from the world? We get it. Is your antagonist a power-hungry politician? We’ll be rooting for him to die at the end. 🙂 Either way, both of them have to drive the plot.

Your MC is only as great as your antagonist makes him. Your plot, therefore, can only be as great as they both make it.

I’ve got some work to do. 🙂

The diagram can be found at www.stanthonygardena.org.