I Converted From ‘Pantsing’ To Plotting
I May Never Go Back.
As a writer who considers creative writing a form of self-expression and art, I constantly make the argument that there is no right way to write. It is basically my whole ethos as a writer. And I often argue that most writers who struggle with their art, are simply in their own way. That they need to release whatever controlling thoughts are bouncing around in their head, and allow themselves to just write. Organic, unfiltered, pure, raw creative energy bursting forth from the pen or keyboard.
That was how I wrote my very first manuscripts. I didn’t think. I just wrote. For months at a time.
The result? An occasionally misguided and meandering, if well-intentioned, story.
I am a recent convert from ‘pantsing’ style writing to ‘plotter’ style writing. There is an absolutely tremendous benefit to having a roadmap for yourself to follow before you jump into a manuscript. But! Plotting does not necessarily have to be a set of shackles! Think of it more like the bumpers on a bowling lane. It keeps your story out of the gutter, and more likely to hit dead center.
First, let’s talk about what plotting accomplishes, and how to use it. We’ll start with plot structure.
In the best paced stories, the plot should be broken into three distinct acts, and the second act should be twice as long as the first and third acts combined. I know, this seems wild, but it actually works out really well. Recently I referenced Skylar Dates’ ‘Whatever Happened to Elisma Ohio’ novella, and it is a great illustration of this point. Skylar shared with me that the first act of the novella was just over 7,000 words, the second act was 28,000 and change, and the final act about 6,500. And its pacing is excellent.
Another novella with truly excellent pacing is ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ by Philip K. Dick. ‘Androids’ demonstrates the usefulness of this structure supremely well. In a very fast-paced opening act, the reader is introduced to the world, the characters, and the conflict in a tightly wound burst. Then the majority of the story is spent on the actual storytelling and action before things are brought to a gratifyingly swift conclusion.
Consider the story you’re reading right now (you are reading right now, aren’t you?) and think of it as a 120 minute movie. If 30 minutes in, plot threads were still being developed and the action of the film being set up, it would start to drag, wouldn’t it? You would be waiting for the real story to begin, and wondering how everything else was going to be neatly wrapped up by the end. Want a good film example? Watch ‘Alien’. Time how quickly the opening set piece unfolds and then concludes, and the movie moves into its main action.
These guidelines are not hard and fast by any means, but they are quite useful at keeping a story moving in a compelling manner.
Now that we recognize how a story should be structured, and why this impacts the pace so significantly, let's get into what each act should optimally do. Also! This structure is not limited to creative writing! It can be leveraged in professional writing to excellent effect, with some tweaks.
Act 1 of your story is the introductory phase. This should seem pretty obvious. You want to, as quickly as possible, establish the tone of your story, get your protagonist on the page, and introduce as many of your supporting characters as your story allows. Again, this is not a mandate. If you have someone who shows up as a surprise or adds additional conflict, they can be saved for later. However, in your opening act, you should be giving your reader as much as you can right out of the gates. The end of the act should include an inciting incident that kicks off the story, and introduces the primary conflict, begging your main character to make a choice regarding how their world, or life, is about to change.
Act 2 is where you are going to spend the majority of your story. This is where the real ‘action’ of the manuscript will take place. The first half of Act 2 (which should be about twice as long as Act 1), is going to include rising tension or conflict that create stakes for the main character to overcome. You are also going to start showing how your main character reacts to these stakes, and what their motivations are. And while you are going to start to show character growth, remember that your characters’ initial reactions to the plot should reference back to how they were introduced in Act 1. Their actions and motivations should gradually change with the growing conflict of the plot. Evolution occurs over the course of the story, otherwise it seems unbelievable. Act 2 should conclude with some sort of minor triumph on the part of your cast, or else a reversal or ‘twist’ that raises the stakes further and heightens the conflict.
The second half of Act 2 is where things really start to get wild, from a storytelling standpoint. Your characters have made it through the reversal or twist, so what now?
Exactly! What now?! What’s the fallout from the twist? How have the characters’ motivations changed, and what new action do they now need to take to react to these new events? This is where conflict continues to pile up and load down the protagonists. It’s important to remember that while this sounds rather dire, your version of conflict may be much more lighthearted, or not nearly as ‘epic’ as I am making it sound here. Just know that that as the second half of Act 2 moves along, you need to continue to build the stakes, or address the central conflict.
A useful tool to bring out late in Act 2 is a disaster: somehow all of your characters’ well-laid plans to address the conflict are shattered. This sets up an opportunity for fresh new ideas to seep in, and can be an ideal time to grow your protagonist. Force them to evolve to adapt to this disaster.
Finally we arrive in Act 3. Resolution. At this point, you need to start tying up loose ends, and executing on your protagonist’s plan to address and overcome the central conflict. Act 3 is where the actual climax occurs, and your protagonist will either overcome the challenge before them, or fail. This actually is a narrative choice you can execute on if it fits your story- the hero doesn’t have to win.
It is important, though, to address a few more things after the climax. You’ll want a bit of falling action where you examine how your characters have changed, and close out any remaining plot threads still dangling. Inasmuch as you would like to, of course. It’s great to set up the next story if you are planning a series, but definitely try to give your audience as much closure as you can to make the current story feel as complete as possible.
It can feel like a lot to keep track of your plotting efforts, especially when you already are trying to keep track of a story in your head! (By the way, that’s one of the advantages of plotting- less to keep track of in your head). So where do you write down all these acts and characters and places and whatnot?
There are a couple of great places to go to help with all of this. EverNote’s online service has a number of templates for novel plotting and story repositories to keep track of your characters and world-building efforts. These templates really helped me make the transition to plotting, and I highly recommend them.
I have also just been introduced to the Scrivener app and some of its incredible features- including split windows that help you quickly recall characters or topics mentioned pages before. Scrivener seems like the ultimate writer’s organization tool, and if you become a power user of it, I imagine it would be an immensely capable resource. Definitely check this out, I am starting to lean into it more and more.
A really interesting, creative idea shared with me earlier this week was to utilize Excel for plotting! The writer in question, Richard Lindberg, uses individual cells to create a timeline for his story: kind of like a storyboard for a movie, but with the events of his book plotted cell by cell. I thought it was a really compelling idea, and I want to give it a shot myself.
A final note on all of this. Plotting is a useful tool for writing, certainly, and can create a really streamlined, coherent story. It is not strictly necessary. At all. If you find your organic, adventuring style of writing works better for you, then do that thing. Do whatever you find helps you to write most often and most consistently. That’s the best way to get your story out: just write it.
If you are interested in my work and the humorous fantasy saga mentioned in this article, you can find my novels at www.krogthebattleprince.com