How To Plot When You’re A Pantser

If you’re a Pantser writer, you…well, you make it up as you go along. Which is great, but what happens when you aren’t sure what happens next? Or you write a bunch of scenes and then they don’t fit in anything?

NaNo’s coined the term Plantser for someone who plans and plots, and I’ve previously gone into the difference between Pantsers and Plotters – but how does a mixture of both even work?

Well, try it in stages from the top!

Tagline

Ok. Start with your tagline. A one-sentence summary of what your book is about: Boy meets girl. Hobbit takes the ring to Mordor. Good vs evil.  You can always do several of these if you want, highlighting different aspects.

If you’re not sure, then that’s ok; you can leave a question mark and come back to it.

Blurb

Then expand your tagline – do a couple of sentences. If someone asked you what your book was about, what would you tell them?

This one is a bit more important: what sort of story do you want to write? Do you want romance? Adventure? Friendship? Dark emotions and betrayal? What’s your world like? Put those together, and you can end up with something like “protagonist goes on an adventure and meets an anti-hero, with romantic elements”…ok, not the most catchy thing, but it’ll give you some idea of what you want for the overall story. Again, this can change, so don’t worry.

Basic plot

Hobbit found by wizard, meets group, gets ring, goes to Mordor, puts ring in fire. Of course, you can then weave your second plotline in; hero raises armies, fights evil, defeats evil, becomes king. But as a very basic summary, what actually happens?

You can do this for character plots as well as action; what does your character discover? How do the events affect them? What do they learn? Protagonist meets friend, discovers secret, falls out with friend, realises they’re wrong, makes up with friend – that’s as much a plot as battles.

If you’re the kind of Pantser who starts from one scene or one element, this is the point that you expand from there. If that scene is at the end, how did they get there? What needed to have happened before for all those events to take place? If it’s at the start, try extrapolating outwards. Who’s annoyed? Who’s pleased? What will a romantic alliance do for the kingdom? (Cliche, I know, but you get the idea).

Expanded plot

For each of the points you’ve made for your plot, expand again. You can either do this under the plot points, or at this stage, divide it into rough chapters. Try to do five points for each section/chapter; what are the main actions in this part? How does the hero reach Mordor – who does he meet, who does he fight? Or in the case of your character plots, what does your protagonist learn? What actions happen as a result of that?

Expand Again

And then you keep expanding. Sooner or later, you’ll start writing – a section, a paragraph, a sentence. Write a scrap of dialogue for a section as a reminder; put a note about scenery; mention someone really cool who’s going to appear here and then turn up somewhere important later. This expansion is where you put the details in, and you’ll find that you start writing…and because you’ve got that overarching plot structure, it doesn’t matter if you only write bits.

I’m all for skipping scenes, by the way – as long as you leave “hero fights nasty thing and gets wounded” then you can move straight onto “hero gets nursed back to health by attractive love interest”, and fill in the fight later.

Going Off The Rails

This is a difficult one. I sometimes find that the bitty scenes I write go in a different direction to the one I wanted them to (being a Pantser is FUN!) because the protagonists have just screamed at each other and now aren’t talking, when I needed them to be at least civil for the Next Big Fight Scene.

So, you’ve got a couple of options.

  1. Move that scene. Is there another fight earlier or later? Or another point where actually, some tension would work? Can you shift the [insert monster here] to another section of plot, and replace it with something else?
  2. Rewrite – and save the scene! I have files and files of odd bits of writing; plot that didn’t work, dialogue I’ve rewritten, scenes I can’t use. Sometimes, you do have to look at what you’ve written, and admit it’s lovely but it doesn’t work…and rewrite.
  3. Go with it! Can you have that Big Fight Scene with them hating each other? Can you fit in an apology beforehand when it’s clear the world is bigger than them? Or do you want to redo the end plot structure completely and leave them hating each other?

The amazing thing about plotting as a Pantser is that it’s flexible. Move things, delete things, shift things, rewrite things. You’ve got the framework, sure, but even that can move.

Mix It All Up

Of course, you can do all of this the other way round. Start with each chapter; what happens in the chapter? Summarise it to the main bullet points, and from there, reduce it down, and then down again. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see what your main plot thread is – and then see what your book is about.

And the expanded plotline is also very useful for your synopsis – what’s happening when? Writing a synopsis is a whole ‘nother thing, but at least you have a place to start – so remember to save your plotline structure before you start writing!

 

So, there you go – basically, the plot outline is a tool to help you have a loose framework for your scenes. If they go off the rails, no problem. And if you’re not sure what’s going to happen, have no idea of plot or outcomes, and don’t know what sort of story you want…well, revert to pure Pantser, and just write!

Author: kate

Kate Coe is an editor, book reviewer and writer of fiction & fantasy. She writes the sparkpunk GreenSky series and blogs at writingandcoe.co.uk. When she's not working, she fills her spare time in between writing with web design, gaming, geeky cross-stitch and DIY (which may or may not involve destroying things). She also reads far fewer books that she would like to, but possibly more than she really has time for.