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Plotting for Pantsers by Alison Stuart and Giveaway!

Let's extend our welcome to author Alison Stuart as she talks about Plotting For Pantsers!

Plotting for Pantsers

I love doing jigsaws. There is something meditative about sorting through the pieces, finding the corners and the edge bits, then the big chunk of red roof and gradually filling in the picture until all you have left is the large expanse of blue sky.

 I think writing a book is a lot like doing a jigsaw but we can’t imagine completing a jigsaw without the aid of the picture on the box (like they used to do in my grandmother’s day). This is probably the fundamental difference between a plotter and a pantser. Pantsers are prepared to empty the pieces on to the board with only a  very fuzzy idea of what the completed picture looks like. Plotters have a high definition picture in their mind. 

 

I am not a plotter but for the record, I actively dislike the term “pantser”, preferring to describe my writing technique as “organic”.  I wish I was a plotter but I’m not.

 When I started out as a writer I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. I went to conferences, attended workshops, bought index cards, whiteboards, how to books and spent countless hours trying to conform with an ideal of plotting. It killed the story. It was as if the characters packed their bags and caught the next train out of my life.

 In 2001 I went to the RWAm conference in New Orleans and attended a workshop by Jo Beverley on “Flying into the Mist” (or “flimming” as she called it). I had permission to write without plotting and I haven’t formally plotted a novel since.

 My process is simple (and drives my engineer husband to distraction – if he wrote he would be a plotter!). I start writing with a couple of characters in mind, and (because I write historicals), at the bare minimum a historical period and a basic concept (imagine a very blurry picture on your jigsaw box)… and I start writing. I’ve no idea where the characters will lead me or even, in a “whodunit” - whodunit! It is a little bit like emptying the pieces of the jigsaw on to the table and trying to fit them together without any clear idea of what the picture is.

 But that doesn’t mean I don’t plot. That first “dirty draft” is, effectively, my plot for the book – it is probably about 30-40,000 words and in the jigsaw analogy consists largely of blue sky. It requires at least three rewrites before I consider it polished (if, in fact, any book is ever actually finished!) and the picture on the jigsaw box is crisp and clear.

 

HOWEVER, this technique may have been fine for those first few books but as my writing career has developed I have come to realise that it is extremely inefficient. I spend a lot of time taking my characters down blind alleys, falling into the inevitable “sagging middle” and blankly staring into space.

 I am a huge fan of Michael Hauge and I love his concept of the Four Act storytelling. When I analysed my own stories, I realised they conformed fairly well with his structure without me consciously being aware that I was using it, so over the Christmas break I spent some time analysing Hauge’s structure and seeing how I could adapt it to a sort of rudimentary guide for plotting a book, without killing the story.

 

So here is my “Plotting for Organic Writers” idea. Firstly understand the rudiments of the 4 (or 3 - it doesn’t really matter) act structure.

 

Act 1 (first 25% of your story) is the set up: In this Act you must establish your characters, the tone and create a foreshadowing of the action to come.

KEY ACTION POINT: In this act your character/s MUST

·Have a call to adventure; and

·At the end of this Act they have to ‘cross the first threshold’.

 

Act 2 (second 25% of the story) is where the characters will be tested, meet their allies and suffer minor reversals

KEY ACTION POINT: At the end of this Act, your character MUST

·                     Suffer the ‘midpoint reversal’ or crisis. He or she or both encounter a revelation/ a turning point a catalyst for change that is going to change their goal. There is no turning back

 

Act 3 (third 25% of the story). As a direct result of the ‘midpoint crisis’ the characters are going to be led to their Black Moment

KEY ACTION POINT

·                     Almost at the end of this Act, your characters will have to endure an ordeal/ a sacrifice or a crisis from which it appears, they will not recover. It is a death - either real or symbolic. Things cannot get any worse. It is their ‘dark moment’.

 

Act 4 (last 25% of the story) Things will get worse. The antagonist will twist the knife one last time .

KEY ACTION POINT

·                     Almost at the end of this Act there will be the catharsis and climax leading to the resolution (that should be fairly self evident).

 

Anyone familiar with this process will recognise that this is an extremely simplistic break down of the four act structure and Heroes Journey. For the non plotting organic writer, forget your GMC charts and all those other fabulous tools.

 

Let’s go back to our jigsaw analogy. I don’t know how you go about doing a jigsaw but the first thing I do is find the 4 corner pieces and then the edge pieces and gradually fill in the middle.  

 


What you need to think about are the following 4 plot points as the corner pieces of your plot jigsaw.

 

So for an 80,000 word story, find a piece of paper/ whiteboard/ Index card or set it up in your Scrivener template) and answer these questions:

1. What will be my characters “call to action” and what will take my characters over that first threshold. (20,000 words)

2. What will be the midpoint reversal/crisis (at roughly 30,000 words)

3. What will be the dark moment/ordeal/crisis (at roughly 60,000 words)

4. What will be the resurrection/catharsis/climax (at roughly 75,000 words)

 

I am only just starting to use this method myself for my next story and all I done is jotted a few ideas and notes against each point. What that it does for me is break the story into manageable chunks… rather than me looking at a blank page and thinking “I have to fill that with 80k words”. Now I have the corners of my story laid out and all I need to do is draw the lines in between them on the first draft (that sounds easy doesn’t it) and then fill in the middle on the subsequent rewrite.

 

One thing I have learned over the years is that there is no “one size fits all” and I am not saying this idea works for everyone.  Every author’s approach to writing a story is as individual as the author him or herself.  If you are an organic writer then the best advice I can give you is to read up on the 3 /4 Act structure. At least by understanding the basic tried and true structure of how a story hangs together, you will have a clearer view of how the pieces of your story should slot into place.

 

 

 

I would love to hear ideas from other writers about how, as organic writers, they manage (rather than plot) their stories.

 

If you are interested in reading more on the 3 /4 Act structure here are some easy references:

M. Hauge: http://www.storymastery.com/




 

Alison Stuart is the author of 6 historical romances. Her latest book LORD SOMERTON’S HEIR, is a regency romantic suspense and is available from all good ebook retailers such as Amazon.

 

 
 
Alison loves doing jigsaws but suffers from helpful felines who love batting the pieces on to the floor and under the sofa!
 

 

 

 
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46 comments:

  1. That's an interesting way to view plotters and pantsers. I really like the visual of it, although I must admit, I have to see the picture on the box. LOL!

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    1. The analogy gets a bit fuzzy there because I have to admit I like the picture too but I do have some of my grandmother's jigsaws without pictures and they are a real challenge!

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  2. Exactly! I love that term "first dirty draft". I find I have to write the story to plot it. In the beginning I used to think I was a pantser, but I realized a while ago that I really do plot. It's just usually about 50,000 words.

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    1. Hi Donna... I agree! That has been my conclusion too. That first draft is the plot. Once I had realised that, it stopped me agonising over the first draft - it was never going to be submissable but it was just the start.

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  3. I am not a plotter, either. But the whole thing runs through my head so much I usually have a pretty clear picture of the whole story as I write. :)

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    1. Hi Rachel... I think there must be something in there about visual people vs aural people. Just a different way of plotting? But I bet if you tried to write those thoughts down before you start the book, the book would never get written!

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  4. This is great! I've always wished I were a plotter, but it just never works for me! "Organic" writer definitely sounds much better, and suits what I'm doing. I'll definitely have to keep these four acts in mind!

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    1. Glad it was helpful Meradeth. If nothing else you have permission to be what you are. Jo Beverley has no idea what she did for me during that workshop!

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  5. Thanks Alison. I love your take on the 4 Act Structure. I try to be a plotter, but it's hard. I do follow the Heroes Journey though.

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    1. Hi Denise - I've tried to simplify it as I think it can be unnecessarily complicated. If you read the gurus they use terms like "the hero in essence"... huh - what does that mean? I am a huge fan girl of Michael Hauge though - I've seen his lecture twice.

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  6. I just read my first Regency a couple of months ago, and I am a fan of the genre!

    While reading this post, what really resonated with me was how you looked at a first draft as your plot. So simple, yet bordering on profound. :-)

    Best wishes for great success with your new release! :-)

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Teresa. I am a late convert to the regency genre (and my first love will always be the English Civil War).

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  7. I'm a plotter and always have been, but I loved this article! This could help many writers, especially those new to the craft. :)

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    1. I so envy you, Chrys but then half the fun of writing for me is the unexpected twists and turns my story takes. I like to be surprised!

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  8. Thanks, Alison, I like the term "organic" rather than "pantser." LOL...so much classier! Having written some screenplays, I'm familiar with Michael Hauge's work and I like the way you've worked out how to use it to write Regency fiction. I'll have to try this out on my next story.

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    1. I hate the word "pantser" with a passion! It might be worth looking at your other books - it could surprise you to find that they instinctively conform to the Hauge structure.

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  9. It's nice to know that there's a plot form for everyone. I'm a plotter, but mine are malleable and always changing. I know lots of pantsers who say if they knew the ending beforehand, they'd be too bored to write the book. I'm glad you've found the form that makes you happy. :)

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    1. That is me, Lexa... easily bored! But as you so rightly point out, every writer is different and I think it is easy to scare newbie writers by forcing them into thinking that there is only one way to write your book. Personally I am of the "Just right the D@#$ book school." :-)

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  10. I should add that as an organic writer, I found I do this instinctively. It must come from reading a lot of good books. But planning this way will certainly add the process, thanks!

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    1. That was what astounded me when I started looking at this Maggi... even my very first book (By the Sword) instinctively conforms to the 4 Act structure/Hero's journey and I wrote it totally in isolation from other writers/ groups/ critique partners etc. I just sat down and wrote it. A subconscious absorbing of good books as you say!

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  11. Interesting post, Alison. When I finish this book, I'll see how it conforms. Tweeted.

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  12. Thanks Ella! You will probably find, like me (and Maggi A.) that you are subconsciously writing to that structure. My finding is that understanding that structure is a great help to organic writers like us but the KISS rule applies!

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  13. I can't plot until I've written at least a few chapters. I have to get to know my characters. From there, I find I sometimes have to plot in sections...going a little bit ahead to think things through, then seeing what happens next before planning a little more. It's a crazy mix of pantsing and plotting that most people probably don't do!

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    1. Nothing crazy about it, Stephanie! It works for you and that is the important thing... and isn't that the best bit? The brainstorming ahead?

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  14. Great article Alison. I always wondered what I was because I have never started a story not knowing where it's sort of going. I know my characters, how they meet, what happens at the end and usually the 'black moment' - filling in the rest is a total mystery. I love your jigsaw metaphor - that explains it exactly.

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    1. It sounds like we are on a similar wave lenth, Andre At least writing romance we know how it ends! The fun is in the journey we send our characters on.

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    2. Hi Alison,

      Thanks for sharing. I'm going to study this article some more.....

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  15. Nice blog post. I am so the opposite of pantster, and try to apply these guidelines to my books. I attended a one-day Michael Hauge seminar, possibly the same one you did, and it opened up so many new possibilities. Thank you for the reminder.

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    1. You see there is a part of me that really envies you, Maureen! My husband, if he wrote, would have every last detail plotted and is hopeless for brainstorming. He just looks at me with a quizzical stare "What do you mean you don't know who committed the murder...?"

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  16. For some books, I plot a lot. And I mean a lot. Others, I only need a general idea and a finishing point and I'm good to go. The project kind of tells me what I need before hand. ;)

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    1. I am finding since I turned to crime, that I do need to be more systematic about my plotting but there are good crime writers, like Kerry Greenwood, who would describe themselves as pantsers. I think it all comes back to that first draft. Plotters call it the first draft, pantsers call it the plot.

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  17. That's a pretty good breakdown of how the plot flow should go.

    I'm a plotter myself. It always amazes me how pantsers do it without some sort of guide as to where they're going. I'd never get to the end if I did that.

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    1. Thanks, Sherry. I have tried to make it as understandable as I can (no "hero in essence"!). My husband (see my comment to Maureen above) would agree with you!

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  18. I think that's a great, loose, yet effective skeleton. I'm a plotter (I just can't help it), but I wonder if the 'organic' approach might help us plotters not plan QUITE so much?

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  19. I think overplotting is a huge danger. I have seen writers produce huge folders with every detail of their book planned out in minute detail along with illustrations, plans etc. I am not sure if the book, if it ever got written, benefits from such minute planning. There has to be some element of free flow about it, but then... I am an organic writer to whom such minutae is an anathema :-)

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  20. Allison brings harmony to the creative process.

    I love almost all historicals. Life just seems sweeter and less hurried in retrospect.

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    1. I'm not sure about sweeter and less hurried in my historicals, Elizabeth! I prefer battlefields to drawing rooms... :-)

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  21. I love this cover every time I see it! I agree that writing is like a jigsaw puzzle. I feel the same thrill when the pieces fall into place. Sounds like Alison's system is evolving. :) Wishing her the best of luck!

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    1. Thanks, Jess. It can be hit or miss with covers and this one was a hit :-)

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  22. Great post. I alternate between pantsing and plotting, depending on the project. There's more of an adrenaline rush when I write organically, but I suffer more frustration. Not as exciting to plot, but I'm able to work better with a deadline.

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    1. Sadly I have had to concede I am where you are, Milo... but oh, that adrenalin rush!

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  23. This is great. I have something like these acts on a template that I use. I like to have things charted out before I start drafting.

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    1. Scrivener is great for setting up templates, which is what I have done with this idea to help me define my corners!

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  24. I've tried several different approaches, but I find what works best for me is having an outline of key scenes, including the beginning, the end, and 6 to 8 plotpoints or turning points. I have to KNOW the characters before I begin, but once I do, the 8 to 10 point guide and my character's guidance will pull me through. First drafts are meant to be rough, right? ;)

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  25. I love your historicals, Alison. They're magical.

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