Some lingo I’ve picked up recently is “plotting” vs. “pantsing”. A plotter outlines plot points and character sketches from start to finish before the novel is written, while a pantser, for lack of a better phrase, “flies by the seat of their pants” and constructs the novel as it comes, changing plot ideas, etc. as the writing happens.

I’m an admitted pantser. I prefer my characters tell me what they want to say (instead of me making them speak), and often times the plot will go in unexpected directions as I’m writing everything out. But the fall-out results in a bunch of plot threads that aren’t connected, and a narrative that becomes disjointed.
When I wrote my first novel, an event led to a plot twist, which led to three more sub-plots and…you get the idea.

A former writing instructor offered the following advice: Find the 2-3 most important story threads and either discard the rest or save them for later books. My discarded plots are now acting as working outlines for the second and third books in my series (and I even know what happens at the end of each book).

So how do you know which threads are important and which aren’t? Above instructor also encouraged me to outline everything in an excel chart–with chapters across the top and the characters down the side. Something like this:

Completing the above chart for each book usually helps center me when plots start to get messy. It also gives me a place to jot down ideas for future chapters so I don’t forget important elements by the time I get around to writing them.
Storyboarding is another good method, usually done on a large poster board. This method didn’t quite work for me, as my storyboard got text-heavy and crowded, purple ink here, orange ink there–a mess. The boxes in excel were the precise restricters I needed. Still, if you’re interested in this approach, you can find out more about it here.  
In my experience, nonfiction writers tend to have the best grasp on structure. A good book to peruse is Storycraft, by Jack Hart, in which the long-time journalist uses news stories to illustrate Freytag’s dramatic structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. Janice Hardy provides a lovely variation of this that works well for YA.  Other examples of structuring are found in this post, with tips from another nonfiction author.
So the moral of all this: Pantsing is great fun, and great stories and characters emerge that way. But plotting is a necessary element to make your story readable (and sellable).
0 replies
  1. Shaunna
    Shaunna says:

    I like this post. I try to be a plotter, even though I don't always succeed. I find that plotting makes it easier to write stuff that won't end up getting cut!

    I found you via your post on my site via Janet Reid's latest contest. I've only been in Moab for about six months, but so far, I love it. And I see you're in Flagstaff; my parents moved there a couple of years ago. Great town–and it always smells so good!

  2. Joe Iriarte
    Joe Iriarte says:

    Howdy–I followed your link over from Janice Hardy's blog!

    I never completed a novel until I became a plotter. For the novel I've got making the rounds right now, I just Excel also, though my spreadsheet is set up differently. These days, I'm using Scrivener. Nice to meet you!


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