Friday, August 5, 2016

A Pantster's Guide to Planning a Novel: 6 Tips to Get You Started

I've never had any luck with outlines. I've tried and tried, but I can never seem to stick to my original outline for a story. I'll get everything neatly in place, think, "Yeah, this is good," and then my brain proceeds to go completely off into uncharted territory. And the weirdest thing? The unplanned writing is always 100% better than what I had in my outline.

I wasn't sure what this was all about until I realized: I'm not a plotter. I'm a pantster: somebody who writes their story by the seat of their pants.

And, as scary as it may sound to not outline a 300-page novel, it can and does work.

So, to those of you pantsters out there who struggle with having a coherent plot for your novel, here's a guide to help you out. And to you plotters: If writing a 50-page outline works for you, then bravo. But if it stresses you out or sucks the fun out of things, they you may want to consider trying this:
1. You need an inciting incident, climax, and end. Seriously. You can try not planning your novel, but these three plot points need to be set in concrete otherwise everything will unravel. That's it. Just those three. They are the essentials. Everything else is connected to them. This way, you can have other plot points shift and change as you write the story, but still have an anchor so that your story doesn't switch from book about a boy fighting demons to a unicorn trying to find a good cup of tea. What? It happens to the best of us.

2. Get to know your characters. You develop life-like characters, set them in a story with three defined plot points (inciting incident, climax, end), and they will almost always be able to explain to you how the rest of the story should go. A pantster's best friend is a well developed character, so make sure you get this part right. I have a whiteboard with an entire section devoted to my characters: Who they are, what they each want individually, what they want collectively, what their unique traits are. When my story starts to feel crooked, it's usually because I've made a character do something outside of their personality. So I refer to this whiteboard, put my people back into character, and it almost always straightens things out.

3. Find out what you want this story to say. Why are you writing this story? Why this main character? Why this book at this point in your life? Why this villain? Why this target audience? Come up with a mission statement. Understand why it is that you are writing this story and what it is that you are trying to say with it. If you have a clear view of what you want this novel to do, it will be much easier to write. You don't need to write this goal down. You just need it up in your head, and you need to remember to use it as your north-pointing needle. 

4. Be ready to just go with it. We may be pantsters, but we generally have at least a vague idea of how we want things to unfold. So it can be a bit disturbing when our stories don't turn out that way at all. This is both the difficulty and brilliance of allowing your characters to run around and fill your story out for you. Their personalities will outstrip yours and overrule your plans. After all, it's one against four (or how ever many central characters you have). But don't worry. They generally know what's good for them, so keep a lose reign. As long as they are within the realm of your three plot points and their own personalities, it should be okay. 

5. Prepare to be are a darn good editor. The problem with pantsing? You're probably going to mess up quiet a bit. So, while it's important to just go with your characters, it's also important to follow behind them, cleaning up whatever plot holes they've ripped in your story. Toe the line between allowing improvisation and being a clean freak (er, editing freak?). Basically, you have to be Captain Levi: 
Yes, I understand that 90% of you won't know what on earth I'm talking about.
Do I care? No. Because I finally got to reference AOT in my post!
*throws confetti* *watches Levi sweep it all up*
You are going to have to be willing to write five pages, realize that they're good, but delete them all because they don't fit well. You must be 100% okay with murdering your darlings on a regular basis. Let your characters reign, but make sure your brain can and will overrule any dumb paths they take. That's not too hard, right?

6. Don't be afraid to go note-crazy. I am blessed with the ability of being able to remember plot point ideas, good lines of dialogue, and interesting character arcs for my story without having to write them down. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of being unable to remember whether or not I ate breakfast. So I keep notes. Not detailed ones, just little scribbles to help jog my memory. I utilize Pinterest, keep a notepad in my purse, a journal next to my bed (because my ideas mostly come at night. Mostly), and I invested in a magnetic whiteboard. This whiteboard is the love of my life and I highly recommend it. It will help you stay semi-organize and keep you from eating four breakfasts because you forgot about the other three. For more tips on note-taking, you may want to read this.

And that's it. The kind-of-sort-of-not-really detailed way to plan a novel if you are a pantster. All you need is three plot points and developed characters. With some active editing on your part, everything else will fall into place at some point or another. 

What do you think? If you have any tips to add, please leave them below!

Related articles:
Controlling Your Plot Bunnies: How to Write a Novel From Start to Finish Without Getting Distracted
How to Know When to Stop Editing Your Novel
What To Do When Your Story Bogs Down

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21 comments:

  1. Ahh thank you so much!! Plotted stories are really difficult for me to write (much less write well!) and yet a vast amount of the writing advice out there demands a rigid outline. definitely going to remember these :D

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    1. Yeah, I remember a long time ago searching Google for tips on planning a novel. All I came up with was outlining advice, which wasn't super helpful, so I'm happy to be able add some tips to the internet for us pantsters. =) Glad you find it helpful!

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  2. My one tip: Sticky notes. Write down whatever events MUST happen (inciting incident and climax and whatnot), then rearrange other ideas around them. It's good for when you have a lot of ideas but can't "see" the order they should happen.

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    1. This sounds like a brilliant idea, Jennifer! I'm a very visual person, so I think I might try this. Thank you!

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  3. I AM SUCH A PANSTER. I've been trying to be a little more responsible of late, writing outlines and the like, but I'll definitely use these tips!

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. All hail the pantsters! =) Best of luck!

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  4. This is so great! It frees me up to be able to write more when I don't force myself to plan it out. And the parts that I don't plan are almost always the best. :)

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    1. Yay! I've always enjoyed the freedom of pantsting. =) I'm glad you liked this post!

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  5. As a fellow panster, I have to say this is a VERY good list. I've loved writing since I was six, but I haven't yet succeeded in tailoring the planning process to my needs. Early on in my writing journey I convinced myself that it was necessary to organize notebooks filled to the brim with intricate details before ever beginning to write: every event of the plot, every character backstory, every minute bit of research, and even pieces of dialogue I wished to include went into these notes. But this emphasis on preliminary work ended up doing more harm than good. I felt suffocated by the amount of work involved and rarely even made it to the "fun" part... the actual writing. Straight-out pansting proved to be little better. Every attempt at bigger projects that I've made without forming at least a loose plan has ended in spectacular failure. Long story short, like you I'm finding that knowing characters and major plot points and having a mission statement is a good way to maintain the chaos while simultaneously avoiding burn-out. Gracious, but writing is a constant learning experience!!!

    Also, I have never even considered owning a white board. I'm thinking it's time to make an investment at Office Depot. ;)

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    1. Thanks for the great comment, Kelsey! I remember taking a similar approach when I first started writing, but didn't have much luck. I'm happy to hear that pantsting has worked for you! If you get a whiteboard, I think you'll really like it. It's my new favorite writing tool. =)

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  6. I've been trying to plot more and this is very helpful!! I LOVE pantsing but now with having a nine month old hanging off me I find it's gotten much harder to have time to 'fall into' the story and it's easier to be productive when I have a bit more structure as to what I'm working on.

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    1. Wow. Kudos to you for being a mother AND a writer. That takes a lot of hard work. =) I'm so happy to hear that my tips have helped you out! Thanks for commenting!

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  8. Hannah,

    I'll be sure to share this article with some younger friends of mine. I'm the sort of writer who has to plan things out copiously before I set my pen to paper, but I've met myriads who can write a decent book with only a few details in mind at the beginning.

    However, I'm convinced that overly planning produces stuffy work, while lacking any semblance of strategy at all tends to create meandering fluff.

    Your advice to have a few established plot points is well balanced, and gives pansters plenty of wriggle room, but should prevent their books from going completely off the rails. As Edgar Allen Poe said,

    "It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention."

    (Btw, awesome AoT reference XD)

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    1. I'm glad you think this post will be helpful for your friends, Brandon! There are so many different ways to write a novel, so it can be nice to have little tips like these to keep a story focused.

      I love the Edgar Allan Poe quote you left. And I love even more that you caught by AOT reference. =D Thanks for the great comment!

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  9. I think the biggest mistake a writer can make is forcing himself/herself to outline when it doesn't come naturally to him/ her. It kills creativity. It kills one' s passion for writing. It's a MISTAKE. Great article, Hannah - especially the bit about not being afraid of notes, lol 😊

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    1. Yes, a huge mistake. It sucks the fun out of both the process and the story. Spot-on comment, Ramona! Thank you!

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  10. Well, this is much better than simply writing as you go along! xD

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    1. Yeah, I think so. It gives me a sense of stability, but not so much so that I feel stifled. =D

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  11. Who knew there were so many pantsters out there? I like these tips. Number 3 is where I have most difficulty. I usually write stuff because 'there was this scene that stuck in my mind and sort of grew...' I'll try to improve on that. It'll probably help getting the stories finished.

    I love the 'clean up like Levi' and if I may add something: I think if you're writing fantasy (or Sci-Fi) you should research like Hange (^-^) and store your findings in your notes.

    I don't have a whitebord but I do have a separate document with notes, names, descriptions, outlines, revised outlines and any kind of other stuff that may be useful for most of the stories that I've started. Now to add some tip #3 magic to those and see where that takes me!

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    1. Lol! You got my Levi reference! And I love the "research like Hange." I'm going to start using that. =D

      I'm glad you found these tips helpful! It's always nice to know that we aren't the only pantsters out there.

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