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