Thursday, May 10, 2012

To Plot or Not -- Tips for Either Approach

Most fiction writers have heard about the plotter vs. pantser debate, or, in other words, have declared themselves either outliners or not-outliners. I'm reading Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, and while I wasn't surprised that he touched on this subject, I was very interested in the specific suggestions he gives for both types, whom he calls NOPs and OPs (not-outline people, and outline people). Many writers agree that either way is a fine way to work if it works for you, but while there's some awareness that operating somewhere in between is possible, I think there's less being said about what the respective processes might actually look like in action, especially for the NOPs. So here, paraphrased and annotated, are Bell's tips on how to approach writing a novel if you don't outline, and if you do.

If you are a NOP, pantser, or non-outliner (like me, mostly):
  • Set a word quota per writing session, and do more if it's going well. You discover your plot as you go along, so let the words come. Hitting your quota, at least, helps you keep up the momentum you need to keep you in the story and make what you're writing hang together. The pantser, more than the plotter, suffers if s/he takes too much time away from the story or allows production to otherwise sputter.
  • Begin each writing session by rereading what you wrote during the one before. Yes! I always do this. Some say you shouldn't, that it's just procrastination, but I find it primes me for today's writing like nothing else. This also serves as a checkup for the pantser to keep from getting really wildly off the track.
  • Once a week, record your plot progress. What are the major scenes? Are they in a logical order? Is the main character working on solving his outer conflict? Does he or she have an emotional arc going on as well? If you do this, you can't fool yourself as to whether you really have a story.
If you're an OP, plotter, or outliner, there are many ways to work:
  • Record scenes on index cards. The advantage is that you can shuffle them easily.
  • Outline as you go. Actually, I do this, and if it means I have to give up my pantser identity, I guess so be it. I make notes in the margins about what comes next, using comment boxes. Usually, I have enough to carry me a chapter or so ahead of where I presently am. Bell refers to this as the headlight method, after E. L. Doctorow who said one could plot the way one drives at night, seeing only as far ahead as the headlights allow.
  • Write a narrative outline, like a long synopsis, instead of a roman numeral thing.
  • Write a letter to yourself about the project, constantly asking yourself WHY as you make discoveries about it
  • Go all out: Write summaries of your three acts, then one-line descriptions of each chapter, then full summaries of each chapter.
 For me, the pantser advice is especially affirming, as is the as-you-go outlining method, which to me is still pantsing with some discipline added. :) Can you find yourself here somewhere, even in two or more categories, maybe? Do you use something he doesn't mention?


Ruth Schiffmann said...

Nice breakdown. I'm a non-outliner. But, like you, I've added a little more structure to my process than I once had.

Mirka Breen said...

Can’t imagine tackling a longer story without outlining first. You are obviously of this brave sort.
Those who outline already have a semblance of structure to the way they work. I know I do. But I found it interesting to read how the NoP types give structure to the way they travel.

Barbara Watson said...

Hearing about writers' processes is always so interesting! I'm an outliner but find my outline shifts and moves and changes quite a bit in the actual process of writing. Sometimes, depending on the project, I only outline a few chapters ahead of where I'm writing too. I do like a plan, but a flexible one.

Vijaya said...

Great tips, Marcia. I'm definitely an outliner, but it's nice to just let the characters lead me around sometimes ... they're usually right.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

Forgot to tell you when I stopped by earlier that I gave you an award on my blog today. (If you're interested.)

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Plot and Structure is a great book! I revisit it often. As for me, I outline in detail as I'm working out the story. This doesn't mean the plot and characters won't change. In fact, they always do, but I don't feel confident that I have a solid story until I figure out it's structure.

Marcia said...

Ruth -- That's just how I'd describe it: I'm a non-outliner who is gravitating toward more structure than before. "Outliner" or "not outliner" is a simplistic divide, as there are so many people somewhere in between.

Mirka -- Brave? Okay, I'll take it. :) I suppose some type of planning might have helped me finish one or two of those novels I started when I was a teen.

Barbara -- I do think a writer's outline has to stay fluid. I enjoy that we are creative not just in our stories themselves, but in the way we create them.

Vijaya -- Yes, the characters are usually right. And when my writing seems to get stuck, I've found that I've either just taken a wrong turn or I'm about to.

Ruth -- Cool! I'll pop over momentarily.

Cynthia -- What I'm trying now is my "a little bit ahead of where I am" form of outlining plus establishing the first and second plot points and midpoint beforehand. So far, it's working well. But I hesitate to outline more than that, because I always get my best ideas while I'm actually writing.

Faith E. Hough said...

I'm an OP. I write a detailed narrative synopsis before I begin, and then I break that down into acts and scenes. But I am pretty flexible about it. I've never completely stuck to the outline, because new, exciting (and better) ideas always present themselves as I go along.
Great tips, though! I'm going to have to check out that book!

Andrea Mack said...

I usually make an outline. I find that I need something to keep me on track.

Sara Hill said...

I don't know which I am yet. :( Every time I think I've got a good process going, something happens to interrupt it. I'm finding it's sort of cyclical and I don't like it. I'm spending more time floundering (and foundering) than writing. Thanks so much for this post. I emailed it to myself so that I can use it to try and get something going again.

Kelly Hashway said...

I plot. A lot! But I only use that plotting if I get into a situation where the words aren't flowing. Usually, once I do all the planning, the story is clearly in my mind and I can let the characters take me away. I'll stray from my planning all the time, and I like it that way because it means my characters are fully in charge, as they should be. But I have to go through that planning to get to know them and the story.

Marcia said...

Faith -- Wow, that is impressive. I do some advance planning, but I guess I just have to feel my way through a draft before I have that clear a picture of it.

Andrea -- I'm finding that outliners are more numerous than I knew.

Sara -- In the post I reference JS Bell's book, but I've since read STORY ENGINEERING by Larry Brooks. His section on story structure is worth the whole book. You might like it!

Kelly -- I do extensive character sketches before I start. I too really believe they have to lead the way.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Good ideas here! You've inspired me to read Plot & Structure. I'm usually more of a plotter, but right now I'm stymied at the planning stages of a WIP. If I start writing and keep track of my scenes, maybe things will fall into place.

MaDonna Maurer said...

I'm a plotter. I have a simple outline and fill in the details as I begin to write. Sometimes the outline shifts...

Stina said...

I couldn't write a book without outlining first. I use Save the Cat to help me with mine, but I saw Michael Hauge present this weekend and his plotting advice was brilliant. Fortunately it parallels that of STC. I figure out my novel based on their structure, then I figure out the outline.

Emily R. King said...

Great pointers! I'm a plotter, so I especially agree with your advice to record plot progress. It really helps to keep tabs on where your story is headed.

I'm a new follower!

Michael G-G said...

Over here for the first time because Andrea Mack said you were the bee's knees. Judging from what I've read on your blog, she's right.

Nice to meet you!

Marcia said...

Ruth -- Maybe you'd like STORY ENGINEERING, too. I'm really loving it.

MaDonna -- I'm with you on filling in as I go. My "outline" is little more than a framework, though.

Stina -- I've heard a lot about STC and haven't seen it yet! I'll really have to pick up a copy.

Emily -- Thanks for coming! I'm amazed at how many plotters there are.

Michael -- Andrea is a sweetie. :) Nice to meet you, too, and thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Greetings Marcia! Glad to have found you via RAOK. Thinking I'm going to love your blog! Love the suggestion of writing a letter to yourself about your book--have never tried that one, but will. All best!

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I read at the beginning of each writing session, too! ... Unless it's very fresh in my mind, then I don't. This is great advice. I haven't used #3 for NOPs yet, but I can see how that would save me a lot of headache down the road in my drafts!

Karla Gomez said...

this was helpful! I always try to start with a very basic/vague outline, but end up steering away from it, LOL. But the tips you offer here are helpful, and things I want to implement.

Miriam Forster said...

Hi! Andrea said to stop by and tell you you're awesome, so I'm stopping by. *waves* This is a great tip post!

Anonymous said...

I'm a plotter and write a chapter by chapter outline on a spreadsheet. I have to finesse this some more, because I still get stuck as I'm writing. Sometimes I don't know how to connect point A to point B.

Marcia said...

Deb -- Welcome and thanks for coming! I agree that's a great tip as well.

Amy -- I know, so often "they" say not to reread -- so you don't get caught up in tinkering, I'm sure -- but I really think it helps with flow.

Karla -- Thanks. :) I'd call my plot outline pretty vague and basic, too, although I do plan things like characters and setting beforehand.

Miriam -- Thanks! So glad you came! :)

Medeia -- Wow, that is meticulous. :) I agree that connecting A to B can be a stumper at times. I'm kind of in that place now.

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