Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Plot as You Go List

As a writer I plan out almost every detail of a story in advance; it's part of my natural process to thoroughly map out everything writing-wise so that I know where I'm going. What I most like about pre-planning a story is that it gives me the mental room to handle the few things I don't think through in advance, like dialogue, or what I should do at times when things don't go according to plan on the page.

I have tried pantsing as a writer -- once -- and while I did write and finish a fairly decent short story that way, I had to fight anxiety entire time. Knowing what the story will be before I write a single word of it doesn't diminish or ruining the writing experience for me; it makes me more relaxed and focused.

This year with my 1000 cards project I've been coloring outside the lines by courting creative spontaneity. A few months into the project I stopped trying to plan so much and instead allowed my materials inspire me as I work (which usually involves heaping a bunch of stuff on my work table, sorting through them and letting the idea gradually come together as I paint, sew, ink or whatever.) As a pantser artist I can't claim 100% success, but as I've progressed I started getting more of a feel for spontaneous design. Every mistake and failure teaches me something. What does work also helps, because once I'm finished I can analyze what went right and apply that to the next effort.

I've always imagined that pantser writers do in their heads as they write what I do in advance of writing with my outlines and novel notebooks, but the art project has taught me differently. Pantsers probably have a lot of loose, nebulous story ideas that they keep in a pile on their mental work table in no particular order or arrangement. When they're ready to write, they select from that pile whatever appeals to or inspires them to continue the story. The plotting then has to happen spontaneously, as the actual writing is hitting the page. It does create a kind of magical quality when it works, but it must be frustrating as hell when it doesn't.

A lot of what I'm going to post in the next couple of weeks before NaNoWriMo will be for the plotters and advance planners; that's the method I know best and it does work for me. But I think I can help the pantsers a little this year, too. I'm going to try, anyway.

One thing I've been doing with the art project is keeping a running list/index of what types of cards I've been making. I wanted to make a variety of cards while not depending too heavily on any one technique. The same can be done with a story if you keep a running list of scenes or chapters you've already written to help you decide where you want to take the plot from there.  This should also not ruin the creative experience for you because the list only details what you've already written, not what you're going to write.

For this plot as you go list you want to cover just the basics: one line with the most important events, where they take place, and from whose POV you've written, like so:

11/1 -- Scene One, Half-Angel Marcia accidentally acquires a mystic diamond, goes to Halloween party. Locations: Marcia's home, Halloween party. POV: Marcia

11/2 -- Scene Two, Half-Demon John meets Marcia at Halloween party; they have passionate encounter while locked in closet. Location: Halloween party. POV: John

11/3 -- Scene Three, Demon thief tries unsuccessfully to steal diamond, John protects Marcia, Marcia's house explodes. Locations: Halloween party, John's car, Marcia's house. POV: Marcia

11/4 -- Scene Four: John places Marcia in protective custody, they discover their parents are immortal enemies, demon thief casts spell over police department.  Locations:  John's car, safe house, police station. POV: John/Demon Thief.

You can also tag certain scenes with keyword markers (I usually put them in brackets) so you can track the story details you've already addressed:

11/2 -- Scene Two, Half-Demon John meets Marcia at Halloween party; they have passionate encounter while locked in closet. Location: Halloween party. POV: John. [first love scene.]

11/4 -- Scene Four: John places Marcia in protective custody, they discover their parents are immortal enemies, demon thief casts spell over police department. Locations:  John's car, safe house, police station. POV: John/Demon Thief.  [First appearance of demon thief.]

If you keep this list updated, and glance at it before you start your new writing session, you can use it like a cheat sheet to tell you where you left off with the action, whose POV you wrote from last, where you are in reference to your settings, etc.  That could help you eliminate a lot of back-tracking and avoid the temptation of re-reading and fiddling and possibly becoming trapped in a rewriting loop.

One final plus to keeping a plot as you go list -- when you're finished your story you'll have all the details of the story in order as they occur.  This can be very helpful, not only to review for editing purposes, but also for reference when putting together a novel synopsis for submission.

Related Links:

PBW's Ten Point Plot Template  -- my one-page minimalist plotting worksheet.

Planning, Scheming, and Plotting by Stephannie Beman -- Stephannie talks about her method of sketching out a nice, brief checklist to loosely organize her stories in advance of the writing.

Moody Writing's Plotting in Your Pants -- Mooderino explains how thinking out a scene first can help with pantsing your way through t

Photo credit: David Hugheshe writing.


  1. I confess, I'm a total Pantser. I've tried outlining, and beyond noting key scenes that MUST go in, and at what stage, like mile markers in the book, i don't break it down into chapters or detail.

    I do rehearse/run through scenes in my head. I've tried outlining and its just not me. I can see the benefits for others though.

    The only trick I seem to do is to just leave off exactly where I need to run back and KEEP writing.

    ( I confess though my head is run by an air traffic controller on 6 shots of espresso. Mostly, everything gets where its gotta.)

  2. It's a little bit of both for me. Sometimes I pluck it out of the air. the idea bakes in the back of my head until I'm ready for it. Then while I'm writing it, the story blocks it out for me, usually while I'm trying to sleep.

    Other stories are easier to plot out.

  3. I'm trying your 'plan ahead' style this time around with NaNo, and in some respects it's been really good. I'm doing Hiveword for fleshing out the six important characters, and during the process I've gotten some great scene details. (I found Hive through one of your posts. It's very cool).

    I'll always be a pantser at heart though. There's just something exhilirating and deeply satisfying about free form writing, not knowing what's going to happen next...just like reading a book.

  4. I'm a planner most of the time and plan things in detail, but sometimes I like to pants novels for fun. I totally get the anxiety thing. In fact, writing book series freaks me out a little because I don't necessarily plan every single book in detail before I start writing the first one and I get terrified that I'll run out of ideas or regret something I wrote because it conflicts with something I wanted to write later.

  5. If I'm writing a short story, I can usually picture the main scenes and plot all in my head before I start, so once I'm ready, I just take off running. If I'm writing something longer, I've noticed that if I don't at least have a rough outline of scenes all the way to the end, then I'll fizzle out. My outlines are very fluid, however, changing as the new developments turn up. It's amazing how those created characters of ours can continue to surprise us!


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