NaNoWriMo Prep: (Pantser Friendly) Plotting and Outlining

And now for my favorite thing to talk about… plot! But don’t worry. I am not a pure “plotter” in the sense that, as many times as I’ve tried, I never managed to have my stories fully outlined before I start writing. I’m really more of a “plantser,” if I’m being honest with myself. So this will be a “pantser” friendly post, I promise.

As a reminder, the schedule for NaNoWriMo prep is as follows:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 12-18) — Click Here to Read This Post
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 19-25) — Click Here to Read This Post
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (September 26 – October 2) <— You Are Here
  4. Build a Strong World (October 3-7)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 10-16)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 18-24)

Now on to plotting…

I hinted at this in my previous post on character, but in case you missed it: I love plot. It’s possibly my favorite aspect of a story. That’s right. I said it. As a reader, and as a writer, I appreciate plot more than character. I mean, characters are fun, but if a story doesn’t have a plot, or if that plot is full of holes, I’m out.

Part of me blames my mom for this. She has been a Days of Our Lives fan since before I was born. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch the spicy parts, but she let me watch the rest. And when it was over she would point out all the bits of foreshadowing and talk about what she expected was going to happen in the next episodes. She was rarely wrong. Maybe that means Days (and other soaps like it) are really predictable? Or maybe my mom is just really good? Or maybe it’s a little bit of both? Regardless, it got me thinking and talking about plot at a really young age.

Another early influence for my love of plot came from all the mysteries I read (and had read to me) as a kid. My dad was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. When it was his turn to read aloud, we usually got a mystery from one of his two big volumes of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. I also read a lot of John Bellairs (author of The House With A Clock in its Walls) mysteries. And what is a mystery without a solid plot? Right?

Most genre novels (except romance) rely heavily on plot. This is probably why I write (and read) mostly genre fiction. But I wasn’t just born knowing how to write a solid plot. Reading and discussing plots gave me good instincts, but I learned how to put that to work in a novel by studying craft books like Save the Cat Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat. Then I use beat sheets to help me “outline” scenes and to keep me on track when I’m writing.

A beat sheet is a spreadsheet that takes a desired story structure and a target total wordcount and does all the math for you to figure out how many words (plus or minus) you should have in each “beat” of the story in order for your pacing to feel right. Pacing is the gut feel part of plot. In my experience, if the pacing of a book feels off, then there is probably a plot problem.

When I first started getting serious about writing novels, I found this beat sheet from author Jami Gold. I put it into Google Sheets and used that for many years, creating a copy for every new novel I started writing. Then, after I read Save the Cat Writes a Novel and Romancing the Beat, I took that beat sheet and morphed it into a new version that I used for setting up my Scrivener template (more on that when we get to the “Organizing Your Life” blog post).

I use this template to sketch out a rough idea of what goes where. I take all the story idea brainstorming I did and start slotting it into scenes. If you’re not a Scrivener fan, you can do this in a notebook or on notecards or by making a bullet point list in a word doc. Whatever works for you. As you can see in my beat sheet template, I usually divide my project into twenty “scenes” (or chapters) to start. If my target word count is 70k words (a typical length for my lean first drafts), then I expect each of those scenes will average about 3500 words.

When I’m done transferring my brainstorming into my Scrivener template, I usually find that I still have a lot of gaps (blank scenes between two things that I know I want to happen in the story). I mostly ignore those and assume that I’ll figure it out after I’ve started writing, unless there are a lot of gaps at the very beginning of the story (in act one, for example).

I also sometimes end up with ideas from my brainstorming that I know I want to happen but that I’m not sure where to put based on the story structure. All of those ideas end up on a “scene ideas” list to slot in later. That list is one of the first places I revisit when I get stuck after I start writing.

Before I start writing, I try to make sure I know the following at a minimum:

  • Where the story starts — The set up and the intro to the main characters for sure, but also the “meet cute,” if I have one, and the inciting incident. Ideally, I want most of act one figured out, even if the “Debate” beat is still a little fuzzy.
  • Where the story ends — What is the ideal end state for my characters and my plot? Did they defeat the villain / solve the mystery? Did everyone survive? Is there a happily ever after or a happy for now ending? I may not know exactly what those “Finale” and “Final Image” beats look like, but I have a general idea of what needs to happen there.
  • The key things that definitely need to happen in order to get from point A (the beginning) to point B (the desired end state) — This could be a bullet list organized by act, or by beat (ex: the main character needs to learn how to use their magic, so I need a training montage, and that probably goes somewhere in the “Fun and Games” beat)

Mostly, I’m using logic at this point in the plotting stage. If this has to happen, then what needs to happen before that? And for a long time, that was it. I’d get my logic figured out and get to writing. Then I read Story Genius, and now I also try to make scene cards for each scene instead of just making a list. This way I can make sure that my plot isn’t running away without my characters. I also find they’re really helpful for getting me unstuck. But, I usually don’t fill those in until after I start writing.

The thing is, as much as I love organizing my plot points, pretty much all of this can also be done after you write. I have totally taken a story that wasn’t working and retroactively applied Story Genius scene cards to it in order to figure out why and make changes. You end up cutting more scenes (and having to write new ones) that way, but you can still have a solid plot and be a discovery writer. This is the way I do it (most of the time) because the idea of writing stuff I don’t need makes me itchy, but I also know that I do not have the patience to complete a full outline before I started drafting.

Let me know in the comments if you’re a plotter, pantser, or plantser, and/or if the beat sheets I shared help you with your NaNo prep. Since today is the last day of September, my September reading wrap-up and October reading journal set-up are coming soon. Maybe this weekend. Then, next week we talk about another favorite of mine, world-building! Until then, happy Preptober!