Ask most writers how they write and you’re liable to hear that they are a “plotter”—one who works out their plot before beginning to draft—or a “pantser”—one who just sits down and starts writing, seeing where the story takes them. Some may use the hybrid term “plantser,” a mix of both.
What’s interesting to me is how readily authors identify their process for creating story with how they create plot—which is only a part of the story equation: Story = plot + character arc.
Plot is the road the character travels in pursuit of a goal, a journey they are changed by in some way. To my mind it’s actually a by-product of deep understanding of your character(s): who they are, what they want, and why they do what they do. Plot is what results from those factors—not what causes them.
That said, underplotted stories can be…well, dull. They’re often static, leaving readers feeling as if we never quite leave the station. No matter how intriguing or well developed characters may be, if they don’t do something, move toward something that matters intensely to them, it’s like reading a bunch of dating profiles but never actually going on a date. Action is what moves your characters—and your stories—forward.
As I often say in most of my teaching about craft, there’s no “right” way to approach a first draft, and no set of “rules” you can follow that will lend themselves to every story, or every author. You have to find the approach that works best for you.
But making sure you consider certain key story elements along with your plotting can help keep your story focused, moving forward, and away from detours and dead ends.
Develop Your Characters
Plot is the road your characters travel, but the characters are the ones driving the vehicle. Make sure you know where they are headed—you wouldn’t take any trip without a clearly defined destination—and why they want or need to take the trip.
Those elements are also known as the goal and motivation, or what the characters want and what drives them.
Read more: “Beyond Character Goal and Motivation: The Longing and the Lack”
“Is Your Protagonist Focused on the Wrong Goal?”
All of your characters’ actions, reactions, interactions, behaviors, etc., are a result of the sum total of their life experiences, personality, situation, education, resources, and countless other factors.
That means that you can’t know what your characters will do in the course of the story—what routes they might take, how fast they’ll drive, how they’ll handle obstacles, detours, and how they’ll react if they get pulled over by the police (to stretch the journey metaphor)—until you have a deep understanding of who they are…and also who they have been, meaning their backstory.
Plotters may figure that out before they start writing and use all that understanding to create their detailed plot outlines in advance; pantsers may figure it out as they go, seeing how the story develops as they come to understand their characters better and better in the course of setting them in motion.
Regardless of how (or when) you like to develop your story’s plot, developing your story’s characters first is essential.
Read more: “The Best Character Tool You May Not Be Using”
“Working Backward to Create Fully Developed Characters”
Understand What Sets Characters in Motion
There’s a reason your character hasn’t taken this journey in pursuit of their goals before this story. There’s a reason that they do so in the course of it.
Before you can decide what journey you are sending your characters on, you have to define what pushes, forces, drives, or otherwise compels them to take it now. What has changed at the point in their lives when the reader joins them that makes this journey unavoidable?
Read more: “Starting Your Story in the Right Place to Hook Readers”
Identify the Main Mile Markers
Even if you are the ultimate pantser who abides by E. L. Doctorow’s widely renowned plot tip that writing is like driving at night—”You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way”—if you don’t have some sense of the main stops you need to make, you’re likely to wind up driving aimlessly in the dark (or running out of gas).
If you know where your characters are heading and what they want, you can identify the main attractions on their journey (the major triumphs that move them closer to their destination) and the main obstacles they might encounter (the major setbacks/challenges that hamper their forward movement).
Think of these as landmarks or mile markers for the journey that help orient the characters—and you as the author—to their progress toward their goal, and let you aim them toward those major mileposts, providing a solid scaffolding for the plot.
Read More: “How to Prepare for NaNo, Part 4: Mapping the Plot”
Set the Route
Once you know where your characters are starting from and where they’re going, and the major mileposts along the route, plotting becomes a matter of simply figuring out what steps your character might take to move herself toward that ultimate objective.
What smaller, more immediate goals are necessary to achieve that overarching goal? What happens at each step along the path—is one stretch of road (a scene) smooth sailing and the character moves forward toward the next necessary step toward the ultimate goal (the scene that then logically follows)?
Or is there a pothole in the road that gives her a flat tire (a setback scene)? And then what must she do to handle that and get back on the road to the next stretch of highway?
Whether you determine that step by step as you’re writing (pantsers), or ahead of time (plotters), simply logically following that progression—intention, action, adjustment—creates a chain of events that organically forms a cohesive, propulsive plot.
Read more: “The Secret to a Tight, Propulsive Plot: The Want, the Action, and the Shift”
If you want to explore these ideas more deeply, I’m teaching my approach to plotting your stories—“Five Foolproof Steps to an Airtight Plot”—with Jane Friedman on Weds., Oct 5, at 12pm EST: five clear steps to map out your characters’ journeys that are easily adaptable to however much outlining you do or don’t like to do in advance: whether you’re an extensive plotter or a seat-of-the-pantser (or anything in between). The course is just $25 and playback will be available to registrants if you can’t attend live.
Over to you, authors—plotter or pantser? Either way, why? What challenges do you run up against in your chosen method?
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I started out as pantser, and am now a dedicated plotter. Though I do write long outlines, I also allow myself the freedom to go in other directions if it feels right. Letting myself wander allows for that “discovery writing” that so often brings up gems in the story that might not have been found if I’d adhered to a strict outline. Since we’re talking about traveling, it’s like having a map and a destination in mind but allowing time to go off the beaten path to discover new places. The challenge of plotting is that sometimes, I just want to jump into the world with my characters and write! And I let myself do that, too.
I love this, Cate, because it’s so much what I think writing can (and should) be–a writer letting herself explore with each project, to find what works, what calls to her, what each story wants. To let yourself experiment and free yourself from rigid strictures or self-judgment. Sometimes that might mean more plotting, sometimes more pantsing. And elements of both, I think, are essential in each. Thanks for sharing your process!