Recently, over on the Social Media sphere, I’ve seen a lot of people questioning if other writers are ‘plotters’ or ‘pantsers’: a plotter being someone who heavily plans their stories and a pantser being the complete opposite, somebody who can just sit down and write without any idea where it’s going to go. Now, what am I? I know you didn’t ask me specifically, but I want to answer it anyway.
For short stories or poems I can get away without planning anything. The idea is in my head and then I freely write. For the starts of novels and plays I can do the same thing, but soon I become lost in the words and have no idea what I’m doing. This happens especially if I’ve had large breaks between writing, because the story has left my mind. Then I become a plotter.
Planning a story can be hard, it can be enjoyable, it can also sap the joy out of it sometimes, but it is nearly always useful. Even if all your plan involves is a simple idea, that’s a plan. If you only have a genre, it’s part of your plan. Usually I start a plan with a few basics, even if I don’t necessarily have much else. You start a plan with your idea, your genre, your demographic (age of reader, mainly) and then your Beginning, Middle and End. Characters are, of course, important also. But start with your main character. Plan out their beginning, middle and end. I’ll give you an example, shall I?
The first thing I write on my piece of paper is my idea. We’ll say:
‘The Gods are Playing Table Tennis’
(Yes, this is a real idea I found that I’d written down a while back).
Okay, basic idea is down. I could easily write a short story with that, without much planning. But what if I wanted it to be longer. I wanted it to go beyond the basic premise.
So, I add a genre. A genre changes the way you write the book. If I were to write it as a comedy, then I would have to be make it absurd (more so than it already is). I would have to go over the top with the drama and exaggerate everything. If I were to write it as a drama then I would have to play it completely seriously and make my reader believe that the idea of the gods playing table tennis isn’t a completely absurd idea. I write my genre underneath my idea:
‘Speculative, realistic, calm.’
Yes, these are more an idea of a genre than an actual genre. That’s fine. As long as you know how you want it to feel, how you want it to read, then that can be your genre.
Next I write the demographic. If you want it to be for your eyes only, then great. Write that. If you want it to be for children, or for teenagers, for women, for men, for the LGBTQ community, for whoever you want. This doesn’t necessarily mean that these will be the only people to read your story, it merely gives you an aim to sell it towards. It gives you clarity on what you want to emphasise in your book. In children’s fiction our main character will mostly be a child; in a fantasy for women we create strong female leads; in an LGBTQ aimed book we emphasise and normalise the relationships from that community. In each demographic we give the people reading someone they can relate to, or aspire to, and that’s why you should choose your demographic.
I’ll say my story is for ‘Myself’, because I believe I’m the only one who would want to read it. That’s fine. Your demographic can be you. Other people like you may then become your later demographic.
Now, my main character. The key to any story and the main thing that a reader will take away. You, of course, usually have many ‘principal members’ of your ‘cast’ but there will always be one above the rest. This is the person we’re following throughout. The person who’s eyes were seeing through, even when we use an omniscient narrator. I write it down.
‘Main character: Janus, god of doorways’.
Great. Now, after this I would usually do an extensive character plan (see my previous blogs on how to create characters) but for now let’s keep it simple. He’s the god of doorways, a lot of gods look down on him, he has a lot of pride in his work and is constantly trying to hide how inferior he feels by presenting himself with a large ego. He’s the underdog of the gods, but has proven to be a successful table tennis player.
There we go. A few basic points about the character that can drive the plot. And speaking of the plot, now that I’ve got my main character sorted out I would do my (often used by me) Beginning, Middle and End.
These are not set in stone. I repeat, these are not set in stone. If, after I’ve wrote my beginning I think of a different twist for the middle then it’ll be changed. If I finish the middle and decide that the ending I have written down wouldn’t make any sense any more, it will be changed. I purely do these as placeholders so that I have a direction to aim towards, even if I end up down another path entirely. Okay:
‘Beginning: Janus steps onto the table tennis field, beaming with pride. There are cheering gods on all sides and humans calling to him telling him how important he is to them. He wakes up. It’s all been a dream.
Middle: Janus infiltrates Hades realm, looking for a secret table tennis paddle forged by Hephaestus, stolen years ago by Persephone’.
End: The gods put the blame on Janus for their own misdemeanours in the game and punish him by banishing him to Earth.’
There. There’s my beginning, my middle and end. I know the path I have to take. This is the basic format for my plan. If I were to take it a step further I could break the three plot points down into individual parts and write what is going to happen in each chapter. I could develop each and every character, even minor ones, and make sure I know how they would react to Janus. I could play with tropes of the genre, develop relationships, foreshadow the end by having Janus mention how he would hate to live on Earth or have another God tell of the time they were banished to Earth. There are so many things I could do with this story, and it’s all been developed from simply writing down basic plot points.
If you’re a pantser, great. Have fun and enjoy writing. If you’re a plotter, enjoy plotting (and don’t forget to write). But if, like me, you like a mixture of both, your basics will stand you in good stead. Let your imagination run wild and flesh out your story before writing, and don’t forget: every good story will change as you write it. Don’t rigorously stick to your initial plan. If it looks like it needs to change, change it. If you don’t like a character being in a certain scene, try it with another character. Sometimes we only figure out our true plan when we’re halfway through writing. It’s annoying to go back and change everything beforehand, but it happens, and it makes your story better. Why?
Because it makes you love it even more, and your love is what truly matters with your work.
A Bientot, Les Ecrivains,
The Literary Onion