You’ve got a fabulous idea for a story. A brain worm that refuses to go away until you put pen to paper and exercise the writing demon. You sweat, pull out your hair, scream, and bleed buckets as you wrangle those pesky characters and beat the plot into submission. Sound familiar?
Every writer has their own process for getting a story out. If you want to watch a flame war happen, go to any writing forum and state emphatically that plotting or pantsing is the only way to write. Add gasoline and a match, pull out the marshmallows and the lawn chairs and get ready to watch a slugfest. For those who aren’t familiar with the terms, let me break it down for you.
Plotting is the process where the writer outlines every detail, every character arc, every nuance to the story before they ever begin putting the story down on the page. There are varying degrees of this of course with some writers planning every detail and others creating a loose outline. It’s an important part of the process because the writer can see what the pitfalls are for the story and characters. They can see the direction the story is headed and plan their characters around it. The drawback to this is that there are fewer surprises for the writer and sometimes the reader. The writer knows everything that will go into the story before it even unfolds so there are few unexpected twists that show up as they write.
Pantsing is the process of writing by the seat of your pants. In other words, you get an idea, and you let the words flow and meander until you eventually get to what might be the end of your first draft. This is also an important part of the writing process because the writer gets to know the characters and story organically. They run headlong into plot twists that surprise them, and the characters take on a life of their own. The drawback to this is that there’s a lot more spit and polish that goes into getting a pantsed story up to snuff. The writer has to spend many drafts working out all of the bugs before the story is ready to release into the wild.
The majority of the writers that I know are a combination of both. They tend to start with an idea, plan out a loose sketch of where the story is going and what the characters arcs should be, and then they sit down and explore the story. To this end, if you are a pantser and want to start plotting, here are the very basics that you need before you sit down to write a story:
It can take a few drafts to figure out exactly where your story starts. You want to start your story as close to the inciting incident as possible, but figuring out exactly what that incident is can take time. The key to unlocking this is understanding what extreme event would motivate your character to set aside their comfortable norm and begin the process of change - which is what story ultimately is. That is where your story starts. What event (internal or external) is so great or life-shattering that it would force them to make a choice to move from status quo to life in flux? This is where your story starts. A good example is Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack’s norm is shattered when he chooses to trade his cow for the magic beans. While it may be important to know why Jack is trading the cow for magic beans, we as readers, don’t need to see all the tedious day-to-day details that lead up to the fateful decision. We only need to know that Jack had to trade the cow, but he chose to trade it for beans rather than money. This is where understanding your character(s) is important. I’ll discuss what you need to know for your character in a bit.
But I haven’t written my story yet? How am I supposed to know how it ends?
Having an end point helps you aim the characters toward their destination. It gives you, as the writer, a goal to shoot towards. That doesn’t mean your ending won’t change as you write the story. Endings aren’t set in stone until you hit the publish button. But if you don’t have an idea about how the story ends, then your characters will spend a lot of time turning in circles. They need an endpoint to act as their North Star.
Well, duh? You have to have characters to make a story, right? But what basics do you need to know about the character to get started?
Strengths (positive traits) - examples: determined, honest, intelligent
Weaknesses (negative traits)- examples: stubborn, naive, too trusting
Desires(what is it that they ultimately want): Character wants to be free to determine her own destiny instead of the one forced on her by society.
Moral choice (what moral dilemma will they face as they progress): Character must accept her place in society or deny it and cause a war.
Changed character (where they will be at the end): Becomes the leader needed to unite two warring countries.
Notice that the strengths and weaknesses play against each other and that the desire and moral choice oppose each other. This creates both internal and external conflict in the story. The changed character is who the character becomes by the end of the story.
I list these things for every character that has more than a walk-on role, including the villain. If I am writing and a new character enters the story and takes on a larger part than I intended, I stop and figure out the list of basics. Why? Because it allows me to create fleshed out characters and conflict. Put two characters into a scene with the same desire or goal but opposing moral choices and watch the sparks fly.
This seems self-explanatory, but I’m going to dig a little deeper here. Conflict isn’t just about two sides or characters fighting. The conflict I’m talking about is the conflict that is central to the story. Think Star Wars and the Jedi versus Sith. On the surface, it looks like it’s a conflict between good versus evil, but it’s much deeper than that. It’s about selfish desires versus selflessness. Both sides have reasons for their beliefs, and both sides have inherent weaknesses. The Sith want to rule, not just for power, but because they want everything to be structured and ordered a certain way. The only way to ensure this is to dominate and remove everyone else’s free will. The Jedi want peace and order and use their service as a means to rule. It leaves them vulnerable to the greed and selfishness of others. Both sides have a similar goal of order, but the means that they use to get it is what causes the conflict. This conflict is what drives the story and ultimately what prods the characters into action.
The premise is the foundation on which your story is built. The ‘what if’ question. This little gem will help you build every aspect of your story. This is where loglines come in handy. Boiling your story down to a succinct sentence that explains the central conflict and characters is a fantastic way to get a handle on what the story is about. This part of the story design process can be one of the most frustrating for pantsers. They often don’t have a fully realized premise until several drafts into the process. But, I’ve found that if I can knock this bad boy out at the beginning, I have an easier time getting the story to work.
By problems, I don’t mean the problems that the characters face. I mean the problems inherent in the story design. For instance, let’s say you have a character who is a former slave. They’ve spent their whole life under the whip and now have their freedom and a chance to build a life of their own. What are the problems inherent in this story? Chances are the character will be illiterate. If they can read and write, then you as the writer, need to give a solid and believable reason for it within the character’s backstory. The character will probably suffer from PTSD. They will also struggle with what it means to have choices and freedom. If slavery has been a big part of society, they will face prejudice with their new found freedom. And those are just a few examples of character problems. What about story problems? Can you show both sides of the struggle between slave and master without relying on stereotypes and caricatures? How much research will you need to do to make the setting and characters come to life? Outlining the problems ahead of time will help you design characters and story that aren’t cliche or trite.
Every writer has their own process for how to get the story onto the page. It can take some trial and error to find the process that works for you. Try new things. Talk with other writers to get an idea of what works for them. Read books on writing craft and incorporate the parts that make sense to you. Don’t give up. Keep at it until you discover whether you are a plotter, pansters, or a combination of both.