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This post originally appeared on Medium in October 2020.
I’ve always been a Pantser.
(You know, a Pantser. Someone who writes by the seat of my pants. This is commonly said in opposition to a Plotter who, well … plots.)
Which is weird, because I like planning other things. I like to know what’s happening in a day and at what time. I like to know what we’re having for dinner this week. And I like having daily routines.
But I’ve always been someone who jumped into projects without any planning. Sure, I had a general idea in my mind, but writing an outline or sketching out the plot points? Not for me. I felt like doing so would stifle my creativity. I felt like I needed the idea, the topic, the characters to shape themselves on the page.
Two things happened this year that have changed my perspective, First, I decided to write a second book and second, I enrolled in a book coaching certification program, and let me tell you…I may be a convert to planning.
If you are already a plotter, then this will serve as a little validation.
And if you are a pantser like me, let me assure you that this is not a hard sell. I just want to share with you how this whole planning thing has made a huge difference in my current project…and in how I will approach my own writing and my clients’ books from now on.
When I wrote my first book, Unspoken, I dove in the exact same way I always did. The first scene I wrote, which was actually the climactic scene of the book, I wrote without any idea who these characters were or how they got there. Then I tried to build my story around it, and, not surprisingly, I got lost in the weeds. I had well over a hundred pages written when I realized that they were disjointed and that I didn’t know how to smooth them out. The only thing I could think of to do was to draw the good old narrative arc, the bell curve that starts with the exposition, then moves upward as the events unfold, until it hits a peak and begins to slope back down toward the resolution of the story. I plotted on this map arc the events that I’d already written, and then decided what was going to go in between.
This year, I started writing a new book, also contemporary middle grade fiction. I decided from the get-go that I was going to take a different approach, to see if I could hit all of the marks without getting lost in the weeds first. I bought a book about plotting a story following the three-act structure, and I followed the author’s structure to the letter. Even though I wasn’t completely sold on the structure itself, I wanted to see what it felt like to map out a story before ever putting words on the page. One poster board and thirty-two Post-Its later, I had a map of the events of the story.
But to be honest, it felt really cold. Sure, the story was compelling to me, but looking at this map of the basic events of the story seemed so dry, like the real story wasn’t there. I didn’t know what was missing, but I knew something was. Regardless, I figured I would just start writing and see how it went because, remember, my goal was to experience what it was like to plan first.
Well, it was what I expected. It wasn’t fun. It felt formulaic and boring, just like writing from outlines had felt when I was forced to do it in middle and high school. While the planning had been fun, I felt like the fun had been taken out of the drafting.
Now before you say, wait, I thought this was about the benefits of planning? Hang in there with me. Let me tell you about the second thing that happened this year.
This summer I signed up for Author Accelerator’s book coaching certification program. Basically I’m continuing what I’ve been doing as a coach, but their program has deepened my understanding of how to help writers create the book project they’ve always wanted to write in a way that is meaningful and powerful. And one of the tools within the program is what founder Jennie Nash calls the Inside Outline.
The Inside Outline is, in fact, an outline of the entire book, capturing an overview of each important scene or section of the events of the story. This is essentially what I’d already done, right? Except for one thing…the Inside Outline also requires the writer to dig into the point of each scene. Why is the character making these choices? What is the emotion, desire, or need that is driving the character’s decisions? What is it about this scene that drives it into the next one? Basically, the inside outline requires the writer to deeply understand not only the events but the WHY behind them.
And I realized that this was what was missing from the outline I’d created for my new book. It was that deep-level why, that understanding of the reasons behind the events.
And now that I’ve added that layer to my poster board, I’m much more engaged and drawn in to my own story, and I can’t wait for each writing session. Because at the end of the day, the emotion of a story is why we read it. Sure, the events may be exciting, or thrilling, or adventurous, but without the emotion they are a dry retelling of this happened, then this happened, then this happened. Readers are human beings with emotions. Understanding and communicating the emotions behind our events is what we have to offer them.
So, as promised, I want to offer you three reasons why planning your story can be beneficial.
Reason #1: You are less likely to get lost in the weeds. Sure, at the beginning you’ll feel like you have a good idea of where the story is going to go. But once you’ve been working on it for a few weeks or months, it’s likely that the story will get a little convoluted. Having a plan to refer back to gives you landmarks toward which you can point as you write.
Reason #2: You begin with the end in mind. Plotting out the events of the story lead you through the beginning, middle and end, which means you know where you are going the whole time. Think of it as the difference between saying “let’s go for a drive and see where we end up” vs. “let’s take the back roads towards our hometown and try to arrive there by dinnertime.” The first one is great for a journaling session, but when you are trying to write something you hope to eventually finish, the second is just a little more efficient.
Reason #3: You can map out the emotional arc of the story as well as the events. Knowing why the events are happening is essential to capturing the emotions of the reader, to conveying to them the point you are trying to make about these characters, these events, human nature and the world at large.
Now, in case I still have some stubborn pantsers reading (and believe me, I know what you are thinking) I want to offer this final thought: a plan that you create in advance can and should be thought of as a living document. Of course it might change once you get underway. It might change because as you’re drafting you realize that you want to go a different direction. It might change because you work with a book coach or editor who encourages a different path. It might change for many different reasons. So don’t think that once you’ve created a plan it is set in stone. Think of it as written in pencil. If you need to change it, you can.
But if you get lost, it can be a place to return to.