The year I became a "Plotter"

So I used to be one of those horrible, horrible people who likes to read movie spoilers, and who reads the ending of a book first. Terrible, I know. Shun!

Thankfully, I've mended my ways. But there was a method to my madness, and it's one that I've started applying to my process of writing a novel. After all, I noticed, as I was reading novel/film spoilers, that often, knowing the ending actually made me pay closer attention to the plot! It was like working backwards, because I could piece together how exactly the writer paced us readers/viewers to get to a satisfying conclusion. To do that, a lot of the times, requires careful planning and organization.

For most of my adult writing life, I've been 80% pantser and 20% outliner. This year, that's flipped, and now that I've tasted the dark side, I don't think I'll be going back.

But let me explain first. As a pantser, I would write with a concept in mind -- I might not know the ending...hell, I might not even know whether my main character was going to survive to Chapter 23, but I knew the gist of what the book was going to be about, and that was enough to keep me going. It made writing exciting! Because, you know, unlike most of the movies I saw and books I read, I had no idea what was going to happen!

Well, that was kinda the problem for me. I didn't know what was going to happen. So evil subplots would take over, and I'd spend pages and pages describing the fauna and flora in some enchanted forest or have my MCs tweedling their thumbs and talking to each other about the weather as I figured out what was supposed to happen next (thank you, dear agent and critique partners, for striking these pages out).

Now if you're a hardcore die-hard pantser, I am not advocating that you switch, but I do think there's some wisdom to organizing a story from start to finish before starting to write it. If anything, it will save lots of time!

My method is simple. I write a synopsis of my story in about 3-5 sentences. For example:

Little Red Riding Hood went into the forest to see her grandmother and met a wolf. The wolf beat her to her grandmothers house and ate her grandmother. When Red arrived, the wolf ate her too but then a woodcutter killed the wolf and saved Red and her grandmother.

After I have this simple synopsis, I go into more details. I usually do a chapter by chapter outline where I write a few sentences about what happens in each chapter.

For instance:

c1) Red's mother bakes a pie and asks Red to take it to Grandma. She tells Red to be careful going through the forest and not to talk to strangers.

C2) Red walks through the forest and is distracted by all the animals and greenery. She comes across a wolf who is very pleasant to her.

And so on, until I reach the end.

Of course, my outline is not the be-all-and-end-all for my plot. If one of my characters, as I'm writing, starts veering off course I go with it and adjust the outline. The good thing about having one in the first place is so I can see the narrative arc and keep better track on pacing, so I don't have five chapters about Red smelling the roses, for example! There's also the issue of all the action building to a climax. When I was pantsing, my climax would come at random points of the story (say, the halfway point, or the very, very end.). That left my readers pretty dissatisfied. Like, say, Lizzy -- why would you have 200 extra pages of aftermath? Or what? The butler did it, and you're gonna end with the detective finding out? What about the payoff?

I'll probably save the climatic point of one's novel for another blog post, but I highly believe in the golden ratio and the Hero's Journey, both of which suggest the most exciting part of a story should happen ~around 3/4 of the way through. Plotting all this out sounds rather mathematical, but it really does work! At the very least, it gives structure. And no one should ever underestimate the importance of good structure in a plot.

What do you all think? Are you plotters or pantsers?

Some resources I love:

Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

Save the Cat! (a screenwriting book, but super helpful for writers too) by Blake Snyder

Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfield

Beat Sheet Calculator (type in your page count, and it'll calculate roughly where each story "beat" should occur)

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