//plotting isn’t evil (just misunderstood)

I have a friend. Her name is Abby. She is fifteen, Canadian, and strings words together with the skill of Hemingway or Salinger. Sometimes I envy the way she’s able to gather a handful of adjectives like stardust and fling them into an evocative cosmos, and I told her so the other day. [Seriously, she was telling me how she missed the North while she was away and she said, “The ragged pines, the clear air, the nights of black ink and silver stars, the weathered mining veterans in plaid flannel and kodiak boots.” In a FACEBOOK MESSAGE.] Yet when I pestered her to write more, she told me her problem. “I CANNOT PLOT TO SAVE MY LIFE,” she said.

I began to type and give her advice, but quickly realized that it was going to be an extremely long message. I asked if it was okay if I did a blog post instead, and she was all for the idea. This may seem odd to you, if you recall my post on writing strengths + weaknesses. Plotting isn’t a strength of mine, or at least not a natural one – like character creation, or sarcasm. But it is a skill I’ve learned over many years of writing, and the least I can do is tell you what works for me.

  • PLOT THE END FIRST

Well, maybe not first. It’s always good to have your characters in place; but once you have them solidified, plot the end of your novel. You want to know where it will end up, or at least have an idea of it. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there, as the Cheshire Cat would say.

  • PLOT THE BEGINNING.

You need a starting point. You can’t just say “Well, hey, I have two characters already, why not start with them making toast in the morning?” because if you try it that way, your novel will never get finished. I know this from personal experience, and the personal experience of multiple people I know.

  • YOU DON’T NEED TO PLOT THE MIDDLE.

You will reach the middle eventually, and then you can decide. Attempting to plot the middle before you’re finished with the beginning is nearly impossible as well as distracting. When you reach a spot that feels like the middle, mark it as the middle. [Also, it doesn’t need to be exactly in the middle of the novel. Just middle-ish.]

  • A LITTLE PANTSING IS A GOOD THING.

I write by the seat of my pants most of the time. I’ll have my vague outline, my beginning and ending, and I’ll know what subjects I want to cover and some events I want to happen – but I like to wing it. My writing flows more naturally. Also, if you take the time to plot out every tiny detail that happens between point B and point C, you’ll waste a lot of time when you could actually be writing in the novel instead of meticulously agonizing over who says what.

  • YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS NEED GOALS.

All the characters should have goals, in fact; even if you never mention them to the reader. It helps keep minor characters from being flat and two-dimensional. But it’s especially important for the main characters to have goals, even if they don’t realize it. For instance, in my WIP Acceso [currently on its fourth draft], Leila’s goal is to win a scholarship to Juilliard. Hyde doesn’t have a goal, but it’s his lack of aim that makes for half the story. He discovers something he wants, and he has to work for it. Both characters end up goal-oriented. In The Lord of the Rings, the goal for Frodo is ‘chuck the ring into Mount Doom.’ For Captain Jack, his ultimate prize is The Black Pearl, and the undoing of the curse. In reality, every story is about someone with a goal. You can’t just toss a handful of characters in a blender and hope their interaction magically springs into a plot somehow.

  • DON’T BE AFRAID TO GATHER INSPIRATION FROM OUTSIDE SOURCES.

I had a friend message me a few weeks ago and ask if I would take a look at her character bio. I said sure I would. She asked me to tell her if it sounded too much like Dustfinger. [While anything to do with Dustfinger is a bonus, in my personal opinion, I saw her concern.] Her character could wield fire, had scars, and she saw him as Paul Bettany – but her description of him, the way he used these things, the way he got the scars, were all different. If I had picked up this novel and read about his character, my brain wouldn’t have jumped to Dustfinger. Her character was inspired by Dustfinger, not a copy of him. When I’m worried I might be too close to copying another character, I create a list. I write down five of their similar characteristics, and then I change two.

  • A PLOT IS A FLUID THING.

When I start stressing over the plot not going the way I want it to go, or the characters behaving like hooligans, I have to remind myself – a plot is not solid. A plot is running water, flowing down the same path, but always changing. It doesn’t matter what draft you’re on – as long as it’s unpublished, you can change it. You can change it however you like. Why? It’s your writing, they are your characters, the plot belongs to you. If you don’t like something, fix it. If you aren’t sure, sleep on it. Give it time. It’s not a solid, it’s a liquid. It doesn’t have to be as stressful as you think it is.

What about you? Do you have any plotting tips? Do you have a pattern, or do you wing it? Let me [and Abby] know!

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33 thoughts on “//plotting isn’t evil (just misunderstood)

  1. I tend to have a mix of plotting and pantsing as well. In fact, you’ve basically described my writing process in this post, though lately I’ve been leaning more heavily toward plotting than pantsing because when I find the writing time I want to know what it is I’m going to put down. I’ve found that this has good days (when everything I write fits in perfectly) and bad days (when I ask myself how on Earth I’m going to fit this all into a 100k-word novel).

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  2. Love, love, love this! Do you ever start having a couple ideas for an ending and just sort of continue anyway and decide how it goes later?

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  3. I think we should have a support Group for pantsers! The head of the group should be one who is good at plotting; and we should have daily exercises to build up our plotting ability. Especially for those of us with FAR LITTLE writing exercise. There should also be a support Group for plotters who need to grasp being a better pantser. hahahhahaha… I used to be so good at a lot of things, but they all weakened with lack of use. Sad, really, but life threw other things at me that needed to take presidence first. Now, i am trying. Really trying, but my headway is ALWAYS distracted. I don’t make it very far. Once I get thrown “off my Groove”, I sometimes have a REALLY hard time finding it again. hahah… sigh.

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    1. You can find the groove! It’ll come! When I get writer’s block, I take a break. I force myself to not write /anything/ for two days to a week, and by the end, I’m champing at the bit because I /need/ to be writing.

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  4. This was really helpful. :P I’m a writer who often starts with a random idea that sounds like a book beginning, or a random chapter, and then has no idea how to plot the rest of the story.

    I have one story I’ve kinda abandoned out of lack of motivation, but that I wanna start back up on. My story on a little boy named Freckle, and his journey back from Neverland to find his brother – now that story, I made myself plot. I kinda did what you said – I figured out where I was going, and then I figured out the beginning. Since it’s a shorter/children’s book though, I also went through and wrote down the general things I needed to happen to get my character from the beginning to the end.

    Such as:

    Zip and Freckle fly to the town. It starts to rain and they get separated when Zip is blown away. It is dark without Zipp’s light, so Freckle flies towards a window with a candle in it.

    Zip meets Daisy. She helps him look for Freckle.

    Etc. ;) It helped me at least stop feeling like I was wandering about aimlessly with my characters and going, “Come on! We gotta go somewhere and do something! … Stop that! If you don’t behave, I’m going to leave you to rot like all my other charries!”

    … Plotting. Not my strongpoint, but I’m getting better. I think.

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  5. Great tips! (And Abby: WOW. You are genius. I love that description.)

    I’m a hybrid, but I lean more heavily to the plotting side most of the time. In the fantasy series I’m working on, I would be completely lost without my outlines. XD But for shorter works, like the novella I’m currently writing, I pants it more. It’s wildly fun and sometimes worrying. Right now, I have only the vaguest of endings figured out.

    Speaking of character goals… Characters with conflicting values add a lot of depth and provide plenty of ideas for where to go with unplotted middles. ^_^

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  6. wow this was so great! I am definitely a writer who “wings it”. Although, I usually always know how I want my story to end. That comes first for me, and easily. The beginning is a little tougher but usually comes together easily enough. My middle…eh, I wing it! I let me characters speak to me and see where they take me, what happens along the way, what they think will happen, what comes naturally in the middle.
    I have this rule I remind myself, and two of my good friends, (the three of us are always helping each other and going to one another with our stories–it is a tremendous blessing!) the reminder is this:
    Nothing is set in stone until your story is published, so ANYTHING is allowed to change at any point. Names of characters, plot, the color of someones eyes/hair etc.

    And I love how you put it Mirriam–nothing is solid, it is liquid. That is so true!
    And yes, even the ending is allowed to change, but it definitely helps having the end of a story ready, because that is a goal for you as a writer and a goal helps you to move forward. Writer and characters alike should have a goal. Always.

    I’m excited to hear Im not the only one who wings it. XD Hello fellow Wingers! *waves*
    Honestly at some point a few years ago I thought that was a huge no-no, until my friend Elizabeth told me she does the same thing. Then when we wrote stories together its something we both knew would happen so we play off of each others inspirations and ideas.

    Thank you for this post Mirriam!

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    1. I find a healthy mix of plotting and pantsing results in the best novel. May the force be with you. *fistbump* (also, your group of friends sounds awesome – I have several of those, and they are the /best/ thing since caramel.)

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      1. *returns the fist bump* They definitely are the best! Elizabeth S. is one of them! I know you know that fantastic human being ;-)
        Also, “pantsing”…that is such a fantastic word! oh my

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  7. I’m having a really hard time writing right now, stuff in the family is going on (which is the reason I think? ) but this is really great advice. I’ve always been a panster. But I think I’ll give some of your tips a try. Thanks! :)

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  8. This is so useful! So many times, I’ve had stories where I thought I had a plot, but later realized it was just a series of events that had no ties to each other (the frustration!)
    While I have improved on creating plots, it’s usually only for the beginning and middle. I can never decide on the ending! What can I do to fix that?

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  9. I’m usually good about plot, but thank you for the reminder about giving characters goals.
    I have a feeling I will be re-reading this post a ton, lots of wisdom here :)

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  10. I positively LOVED hearing your thoughts on plotting, Mirri!! *huggles post* The idea that the middle is not solid but flows like water… huh. I shall have to mull over this interesting new concept…

    I tend to plot. A lot. Before writing. But I have found that sometimes that can make me write FASTER, despite the time it takes to plot out before hand, because then I’m not scrabbling around trying to figure out what to write next. But sometimes sheer pantsing and letting it just flow is the best. To each their own, and it varies!

    Awesome post, thank you! I may have to implement some of this… :D If it works for the best and wisest writer I ever knew… Well. ;) (Yes that was a Sherlock reference. Notevensorry.)

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  11. I think I definitely need to try pantsing more…I’m the sort of person who tends to plot so much that I almost need to break for a couple days just so I don’t hate the sight of my desktop…
    Thank you for reminding us that plot is a friend that does not need to be feared, my dear :) I would even say that if we developed a healthy relationship with it, i.e., leading lives not dependent on it, and not NOT answering phone calls, we’d FEEL like it was a friend XD

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