Writing Basics: Part Three--Plotting for Non-plotters

by Victoria Bylin




Are you a pantser or a plotter?  If you’ve ever joined an online writers’ group, you’ve probably thought about that question.  Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants.  They don’t outline.  They just write and see where they end up.  Plotters take time to plan the story. They make outlines and charts and know where the story’s going before they type “Chapter One.”  Those are the edges of the spectrum.  Some of us fall in the middle.  What do you do when you need to write to find the story, but you’re prone to hitting dead-ends?  Here’s what works for me.


            1.  Start by writing.  Let the ideas flow.  No editing allowed.  Tell yourself that this is a draft and it’s not perfect and that’s okay.  The goal here isn’t to tell a perfect story.   It’s to discover the story.  The trick is to put your characters in motion.  Making coffee doesn’t count.  Neither does chatting in the living room or driving in a car unless someone’s being chased down a mountain road by a villain.  To get things rolling, drop your characters into a crisis and see what they do. 


            2.  At some point, you’ll hit a road block.  The signs can be subtle.  Sometimes I feel frustrated. Other times I’m bored with the story.  If the writer is yawning, so is the reader.  Whenever I’m stuck, I ask myself one question:  How can I make the situation worse?   

            Are your hero and heroine lost in the desert with one canteen of water?  Have someone spill it.  Who gets the last swallow? 

            Is your heroine out of a job?  Repossess her car and make her rent past due.  Better yet, throw her possessions on to the street. 

             The goal here is to add tension with every event in the story. 


            3.  When I have a grasp of my characters and story line, usually after the first chapter, I spend time actually plotting. I start by trying to summarize the book in a few sentences.  What does the heroine want so profoundly that she’s willing to die for it?  What does the hero want?  How are they stopping each other from achieving those goals?  Later, these notes turn into a query letter.   

            From here, I make a list of turning points.  What has to happen for the characters to achieve their goals?  Do their goals change?  If so, how and why?   When I run out of ideas, I go back to telling the story.  That’s where I fill in details and explore the characters.  Themes appear.  I see reappearing imagery. If I get stuck, I go back to “What’s the worst thing that can happen to this person?”   The "events" list gets revised on the fly.  


            4.  By mixing “pantsing” and plotting, you’ll eventually have a manuscript.  It might be a mess.  My first drafts are terrible.  But the ideas are there!  The characters are alive!  Things happen!  At this point, I rewrite until the story is as tight as I can make it.  Are the characters behaving logically?  Does every action have a reaction?  I’m an editor at heart, so I love this stage. 


            I once read that “Fiction is the marriage of logic and emotion.”   For me, the emotion reveals itself when I write without constraints. The logic comes later.  It may not be the most efficient way to create a story, but it’s definitely an adventure.

Victoria Bylin has written four historical romances for Harlequin.  Her latest, Midnight Marriage, earned a five blue-ribbon rating from Romance Junkies.  To learn more about Victoria, visit her web site.


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