Some writers work best with a thorough outline that details everything from the opening scene to the last. Others work better with nothing but a blank page and fingers prepped to type away with whatever comes to mind.
Some don’t do well with either approach. Planning can feel overwhelming, and writing without a plan makes them feel lost somewhere down the line.
I confess. I’m totally a plantser. Detailed outlines make me nervous, and going totally by the seat of my pants doesn’t usually fare well for me either. If you’re like me when I was first starting out and not sure how to approach the story because because you’re caught between planning and pantsing, no worries! We can also approach our manuscript in a fairly methodical manner that doesn’t suffocate, yet allows room for leeway and sudden bursts of inspiration. We don’t have to feel at a loss for how to approach the story!
Write a very basic outline
Imagine you’re an painter. They might start out with a basic sketch, just so they know where they’re going. Then they put more defining lines down, the shapes look more detailed now. And then they start painting and putting on the finishing touches.
I’d say planners are like the ones that go through the entire process, and pantsers would just start right away with the paint. For the people in between, we can go in with the most basic of sketches, just so we have an idea, and then let go with the paint.
Outlining all the way has never worked for me, but I’ve found the perfect in between. Rather than planning all the way to the end, I plan for the most important factors. As I mentioned in my story arc post, I break up my stories into three or four parts. And for each part, I imagine the characters to have reached a certain development in the story.
|Part 1||Part 2||Part 3|
|This is where the story kicks off. Figure out where your story starts, more or less, and what’s the instigating element that creates the plot. You can have a rough idea here or a detailed one. You decide!|| At this point, the beginning elements taper off, you’re not introducing new elements as much and you’re dealing with the situations you’ve already created.|
Just try to imagine what this would look like. Again, don’t get too specific, you want room to improvise as well, but at least get a general idea.
|This is where it all gets wrapped up nicely like a pretty bow. What would bring this story to an end? The resolution of a situation? A discovery? The end of an adventure?|
Or, do it my way… (more on that in the next step)
You can do this process in your head, on paper, in a spreadsheet, whatever tickles your fancy. The main thing is to have a basic plan in mind, and the purpose of this is mainly to remember the elements that made you want to start the story in the first place. Sometimes with revisions, changes, even as you’re writing it and you begin to fall into a rut, it’s always good to go back to what made you want to write this story, what made you fall in love with it. Try to capture mainly those elements in your “outline” so that you can always have those elements to fall back on.
Let the ending stay vague
This is purely a Celeste Harte method, so don’t think all writers are weirdos like me. But sometimes… I plan for all of the important plot points except the ending.
Here’s why I actually find this to be an important part of my writing process.
I find that when I plan the ending, I’m likely to place elements in the story so that there’s a solution to the problem. But that can feel very obvious for the reader that a problem is being presented with a nice handy solution lurking near by for the ending. It gets predictable, at least for me (there are master planners out there that are not at all guilty of this, so don’t get me wrong, this really is just me!).
However, in life, we’re often presented problems where the solution isn’t at all easy to come by, if at all. I find that my stories feel much more natural when the ending is somewhat improvised, because my characters have to come up with a solution based on what they have, not what I intentionally gave them.
Just like us, right? We make do with what we have, and it’s not necessarily planned, but it’s what works.
So don’t be afraid to wing it! After all, this is just the first draft, so if you don’t like it, you can always change it later. But maybe try letting the ending be totally ambiguous. Let your story craft itself, it may surprise you where it’ll lead you.
Make a reference sheet
This is really a life saver for writers of any kind, pantser, planner, or something in between; make a reference sheet. someplace where you store all of the important city names, characters, school names, buildings, work places, not to mention character professions, degrees, all those little things that you’ll eventually have to scour your own document to remember. You can do it on paper, but I recommend keeping these notes very organized so you can easily search them later while you’re writing. Or you can do it on a spreadsheet so you can search certain terms and be able to find everything.
I try to come up with as many names as I can before I start, just because I know how much naming things (sci-fi/fantasy writers especially) can interrupt my writing process. But I always find something I forgot to name, or just something that comes up that needs a name.
Whenever this happens, do yourself a favor. Write it in the spreadsheet. Because it will come up later. And you will be searching all kinds of obscure words just to remember what you named the darn thing.
Keep a notebook for random inspiration spurts
I love using physical notebooks for the ideas that pop up to better the story, but yours can be digital. As long as your beginning outline was loose enough, you can add anything in as it comes up. All of the flexibility is my favorite thing about plantsing. It allows me to use the rawness of the inspiration as it comes without worrying about it fitting into an outline that I’d have to change in order to make my new ideas work.
So keep a good notebook! Tiny notebooks are good for carrying around everywhere for that inspiration lightning, but the kinds that can fit in a bag are great for jotting down a scene or two. And the big ones may remind you of school, but you’ll be able to fit all of the information necessary to create an entire database of information on all that little stuff that inevitably comes up. Not to mention research notes!
Write out of order
I know this one makes a lot of people nervous, but before you run away screaming, just hear me out.
Come on, I know you know what it’s like. You’re in the shower, a random scene comes to mind, you don’t want to forget it because it is PERFECTION. The only problem? It’s for a scene maybe seven chapters from where you’re writing. Yeah, maybe you can jot down the idea now to write it later, but the scene is in your head and it’s FRESH. The inspiration is there! So why not… skip ahead a little?
The hardest part is starting the dirty. The beginning of the skip-ahead-scene. But don’t worry about the beginning so much. It’s the part that’s likely going to change the most when you actually incorporate it into the story. For now, just make a beginning that’s acceptable enough to start with and get to the scene that you’ve been holding in. Write it! Try to get it all down, but if you can’t do it all in one sitting, that’s fine too. Just get as much as you can.
Figure out where the scene will end. Does a character walk away mad? Did they resolve something? I don’t know, you decide. But create a satisfying ending that makes you feel like you got the whole scene out of your system.
This is also a method I use to get out of writer’s block. Sometimes the scenes aren’t coming for the section of the story I’m writing, so I write another, easier part. Then I graft the story together when I start writing in order again. It’s not as scary as it seems!
And the best part? When you get to that part of the story you wrote ahead of time, all you have to do is copy and paste. An ENTIRE SCENE already done. Hundreds, if not over a thousand words to rack up to your word count at no extra cost (well, you had to write it, but it’ll feel like you’re getting it for free).
You might have to work on that beginning part I told you would most likely to change, just so that the pieces flow well together. You don’t want it to feel like a patched up scene, you want to make it seem like it just came together that way.
Then you’re done!
Anyway, those are my tips for being a plantser with a plan. This is how I’ve worked my way into my niche, and I quite like it for me. I feel for all you in-betweeners still finding your way! Hang in there, it gets better 🙂