How Much Plotting is Enough?

Yes, I am a dedicated pantser.  I went to a workshop last year where the presenter, a successful author, showed us how to construct a full story arc with crisis one, two, and three; twist one and two; refusing and ultimately accepting the call; wallowing in the depths of despair when everything seems to go wrong; and when we had finished — LO AND BEHOLD — our book was practically written.  All we had to do was to just add words.

story-arc-1I confess that my reaction was one of total horror.  I’m going to HomeAloneScreamFacespend months writing a book and all I get to do every one of those days is to just add words?

My very favorite thing to do as a writer is to put my characters in situations and see how they react.  And I don’t get to do any of that?  The very idea makes my skin crawl.

But you can’t just sit down with a blank page and start writing.  Maybe some people can.  Columnists, for example.  But I certainly can’t.

So how much plot is enough?

First of all, I have to know my characters.  I put off the whole plot thing by spending the first few days creating character bios.  Ever the geek, I start each bio with tab in an Excel spreadsheet.  Dates when they were born (including their birthday, even if it never has any relevance), graduated from high school, got married, etc.  Then I write several pages of bio material.  What did their parents do for a living?  What were their interests in high school?  Most of that never sees the light of day in the novel, but when I’m done, I know them inside and out.  Oh, they can and do still surprise me.  But at least their lives don’t start on page 1.

Then, once that’s finished, it’s on to that troublesome plot.

At the very least, I have to decide what the ultimate crisis in the novel is.  Even if there are no road maps, there has to be a beacon out there somewhere.

Sometimes, that’s enough.  It was in Bradley Schuster and the Holy Grail.  Of course, if that’s all you know in the beginning, you set yourself up for a lot of rewriting.

I dislike rewriting almost as much as I dislike plotting.  So there has to be a happy medium.  On the verge of starting Novel #5, I’m still working to find out what that is.

One thing I absolutely can’t decide up front, however: how does the hero react to (or get out of) the crisis.  And yes, sometimes I get to Chapter 54 and wonder just how I’m going to get out of the corner I’ve written myself into.

But just think how much fun that can be.


16 thoughts on “How Much Plotting is Enough?

  1. I’ve read this post three times. Need to think about it some more. But for now . . .

    I play with my imaginary friends a lot. Maybe too much. But I do know how their Christmas 2013 and New Years 2014 will go, the bad news they will receive in February and again in March, how she reacts and how he reacts to her reaction, and how the whole thing is resolved. But even knowing this, I had no idea that in Chapter 13, she would behave as she did. Nor did I know that in Chapter 16 she would cry. Plot is clear (for better or worse–I’m having a crisis of confidence at the moment), but the characters can and do still surprise me.

  2. I plot. A lot. As time’s gone by, I’ve learned to get into my characters’ heads more so that the story holds true to who they are. I also stray from my plot because when I plotted a character’s reaction, to a situation, I was actually plotting mine. Then when I wrote it, the character took over. 🙂

  3. I’m a panster first, but the more I write the more I’m discovering that having a plot might make things a heck of a lot easier. My first book I was a panster all the way and loved every minute of the discovery process. Now as I learn and grow, i’m searching for that perfect balance between the two.

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