Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Drafting from a Plotter's Point of View

Pantsers don't run away screaming how outlines stifle your creative freedom. Let me tell you a little secret first... I don't outline everything. EEEP! My plotter cover is blown. Well, maybe not. Here's the quick back story: a few months ago in a #Writersroad chat, I revealed my strategy for drafting a novel, and I've been asked to write a blog post on it ever since. So, here it is in all it's gooey glory.
Before I begin that first draft, before one word of the story hits the computer screen, I create an outline. It's not a play-by-play of the entire book. Instead, it includes the basic structure of what the novel might look like. Think of it like a skeleton. There's no meat, no muscle, no blood, just the bare bones. Heck, it's not even a complete skeleton. A foot there, a hand here. Nothing is holding it together...yet.
This bare bones outline includes a working title, a one sentence tag/pitch line, a brief background of the story (3-5 lines), any creatures (if it's paranormal), a plot synopsis (a paragraph or two), the reveal or climax (usually this idea hits me first), the ending or epilogue (where it may end up, emphasis on MAY), and the conflicts (including main and sub; think of common tropes). Now, this sounds complex, but when you start to fill it out, you'll see it truly is only the basic components of a story. To start adding on the meat, you need...
Say what now?
Character sketches. The plotter kicks in. Biting and clawing, she says, "Don't start that draft without knowing your characters." Don't fret, pantsers. We're not talking about an in-depth heart-to-heart, I-can-blackmail-you-with-everything-I-know relationships, but the basics help. Think about your character's physical traits: eyes, skin, height, weight, hair, etc. Then, go deeper. What's their fears, hopes, dreams, family life, enemies, friends, personality? And how do those things play into one another? My favorite thing is to hold an interview with the character and answer in that character's voice. It helps me get inside their head and know them better. Now, the trick is, I will NOT fill out this character sketch completely. I'll fill in more as I write and get to know the character better through the story's events (and that's the muscle of our skeleton, in case you were wondering). But, this rough sketch gets me started.
What a pretty sketch. I'll color you in later.
Finally, you'll need the blood. That's the chapter outline. It gets the plot pumping. Some plotters will construct a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the entire novel before beginning the first draft. That's cool for them. I don't do it. I consider what I know about the characters from my sketches, and what I know about the plot from the bare bones outline, then I write notes--about 3-5 lines--on what I think will happen in the first chapter. Then, I continue these notes for chapters two through six. After I've written anywhere from 18-30 lines of outline on the first six chapters, I start drafting.
Ah see! Tricksy, I am. I love chapter outlines because they are my road map. The help me see where the story can go. However, I am not bound to them. By sketching out my characters and six chapters at a time, I allow my story to breathe. Sometimes, I'll discover a snake in the grass or a sharp curve for the next set of chapters. Other times, I'll discover a nuance of my character's personality I didn't know before, and I'll change the chapter outlines to reflect that revelation.
The most important part of outlining for me is the ability to be flexible. I am a planner, a thinker, an organizer. I don't jump into the water without trying to deduce what might be on the bottom. But, once I do jump, I allow myself the opportunity to adapt, to kick my feet, and swim to shore, all the while knowing that what I thought was under the surface might be something entirely different.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? How do you keep the story flowing and flexible? What have you discovered through writing?

14 comments :

  1. I have always been a pantser but I recently wrote out a rough timeline for what I want to happen in my WIP. I've never done that before so we'll see if it flows any better this time.

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    1. I admire pantsers, and freely admit that being a plotter, probably makes me more neurotic. :D Good luck with the timeline!

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  2. Great secret! I go a bit further by outling the chapters with a sentence or two of 'what' happens in the chapter to move the plot. This is where sometimes I go rogue but to fix it, I will add a bit more detail to outline for the next chapters. So it looks like this (Chapter 1) Boy discovers secret passage (Chapter 2) Boy encounters monster that threatens his life

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    1. That's a great idea! Thanks for sharing it. :D

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  3. I'm a Plantster. In other words, a hot mess.

    I usuall come up with a thematic situation and one character...then I have to find a plot for that issue to be explored...these things usually have to incubate as little "notes to self" for a while.

    I'm getting better and better at outlining (sort of) the longer I keep at this writing thing, but it's never as simple as just sitting down and saying "I think I'll write a book, and it's going to be about..."

    Great post! Love your method.

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    1. LOL. Pantsers are not hot messes. They're free spirits. :D

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  4. That level of planning would drive me nuts. I start out with a line of dialogue, sometimes two, on occasion knowing who one of them is. And from there, it grows outward like a dialogue based disease. How did these people get to this point? Why? And where are they headed? Plots erupt from the word puddle and dissolve just as quickly, until a pattern evolves that devours everything that isn't the story. The rough draft that emerges might be covered in gore and resemble something from Aliens as much as a novel, but it's what I love. I can't imagine knowing where I was going ahead of time for a new story.

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    1. I'm so jealous. I swear the outlining comes from a deep-seated neurosis. One day scientists will study my brain process and cringe. ;)

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  5. I always thought I was a pantser, because I don't write a complete outline. Turns out, I share a lot of your plotting techniques, writing character sketches, writing a few lines about major plot developments, etc. Maybe I'm more of a plotter than I originally thought!

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    1. You could be a secret plotter! Or a ninja plotter! :)

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  6. I can pantse a short story easily and I wrote about forty of them last year. But I started a novel in May 2012 and realized I needed to plan it. So I pantsed about the first quarter, wrote chapter outlines that far, and outlined the rest. Im almost finished the second draft. It's not a neat clear job, but it's working. When I get an idea that must be included, I write it down so I don't forget it and incorporate it when I come to it, or have time.
    I figure writing novels, like writing short stories, will get easier with practice.

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  7. Loved your post. That is pretty much how I do my outlines/sketches. I love that it's flexible enough to change and deepen the farther into the book I go :-)

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  8. This seems really similar to the way I write. I like a loose outline, one that allows the plot to flow organically where it wants to go. Great minds words alike. ;)

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  9. I'm a pantster trying to become more of a plotter! I've been trying for awhile now. lol This year I'm definitely doing more plotting than ever before and having fun discovering how it may help me compared to what I'm doing already.
    Thanks for the great tips!

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