Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Are you a plotter?

The concept of creation has always fascinated me. How a painter creates a painting, how a carver brings beauty out of a branch, how an author creates life out of a vocabulary of words. The creative process has been dissected by scientists and poets alike, yet still remains more than a mystery.

And yet, for all our differences, writers fall into two creative categories when it comes to sitting down and starting that story. You're either a pantser (as in "writing by the seat of your pants") or a plotter (as in determining the details of your story before begin to write it).

That said, within those two categories, there are hundreds of approaches. Several years ago I interviewed about a dozen authors all of whom called themselves plotters. Each of them spent considerable time hammering out plot points, determining character arcs, nailing down details. Only when they had every piece of information pre-determined, did they actually sit down and write the story. Because they knew everything about the tale so well, the actual writing took, comparatively, very little time.

Let me tell you A Tale of Two Plotters:

Author #1
 1. starts with character
 2. makes two lists:
  • things she’d like to have happen
  • things she knows will happen
3. has a general story flow in her head
4. uses a “plot partner.” Through IM, gets 90% of her plot figured out
5. writes synopsis
6. does storyboarding
  • uses posterboard and different colored sticky notes (one color for protagonist, one for antagonist, perhaps a third color for subplot)
  •  adds minor scenes; fleshes out the subplot; finds the character arc, keeps the story moving, looks for ironic twists.
7. transfers the contents of the storyboard back to the synopsis; be sure to tell HOW events happen
 She spends between 4 – 12 weeks on this process before actually writing the story!
8. writes the story

Author #2
 1. starts with character bios (in longhand)
2. determines what the character looks like, wears, etc
3. creates a  “conflict grid” for each character including information on their:
  • life goal
  • story goal
  • conflict of circumstance
  • conflict of relationship
  • conflict of personality
  • epiphany
Makes sure the character cannot achieve both the story goal and the life goal (adds conflict)

4. Makes a “plot grid” by
  • dividing the plot into chapters
  • filling in all the major plot points
  • determining character goals, motivations, turning points
  • adds a ‘notes’ line on the grid for pieces of dialogue, descriptions, settings, etc.

5. writes synopsis (more on writing these soon)
 The above takes her “weeks.” Only then does she write her story.

So you can see these two authors have very different approaches, yet both are very clear on their story's plot and characters before they write.

The advantages to plotting are obvious. Problems in the story can be located and corrected before the author gets too far into the writing. Because character arc and major (and sometimes minor) plot points are already developed, the author can spend more time on choosing the right words to create believable dialogue and beautiful imagery. And the author isn't surprised when her story takes a sudden right turn because that turn occurred during the plotting process and is now a part of the story (or the author yanked the story back onto the straight and narrow).

Plotting out a story is especially useful for mystery writers. It's very easy to write oneself into a hole if you're pantsing along and now you can't figure out how to get your hero and heroine out of the terrible fix you just put them in. Thrillers, horror stories and mysteries benefit from plotting the story first.

Have I convinced you? Good! Next week I'll tell you all the reasons pantsing a story is more fun!

Play safe, 


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