Outlining and Plot Structure

plotting vs. pantsing

For those new to the terms, “plotters” refers to people who staunchly follow an outline while “pantsers” refers to people who write their stories by “the seat of their pants.” 

You can check if you’re a pantser by picking up any number of plotting books (Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder is a good, divisive example). If the structure guidelines suggested feel like an exciting way to start planning a story, you’re a plotter.  If you start reading and feel your eyes gloss over, you’re likely a pantser.

Here are a few other related diagnostics.

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Plot focus vs. character focus

Plotters tend to think in terms of an exciting plot while pantsers get attached to certain characters. This will reflect in how they tell their stories. Plotters will write page-turners where pantsers will write descriptive, introspective stories about relationships.

Storytelling vs. literature

Plotters may be better at telling a good urban legend or movie premise, because plots stick with them. They see story wherever they go, in any medium. Pantsers may be more attached to written language specifically. They are better able to talk about the specific language present in their favorite books because they are more struck by the beauty of the language than the actual story being told.

Reader-driven vs. language-driven

Plotters think more in terms of how their book will affect and connect with readers, while pantsers may focus more on symbology or how beautiful their language sounds.

Trade vs. Literary

I put frowny faces next to the bottom two ideas because I debated including these. Even though it’s problematic, I thought these terms might help distinguish the differences between these two writing styles. Write in the comments if you agree or disagree.

I really want to avoid the idea that one way of thinking is more “artistic” than the other. I also know that many pantsers want their end product to be highly commercial and many plotters love spinning a lovely sentence. However, each skill set favors either “trade” or “literary” writing more than the other.

I believe that most MFA programs cater to pantsers and don’t do a lot of work helping students understand the practical aspects of planning a novel. I’m not a huge fan of didactic, diagram-filled books promising best-sellers either. I think there just aren’t many well-balanced research materials spanning the divide between literary and trade writing.

The best writers will be able to balance both approaches in their writing. However, most people naturally fit into one camp or the other. The key is to direct your research toward the camp you struggle with most. This can help you figure out which type of writing advice you should seek out. If you’re already a plotter, listening to interviews of intuition-driven writers might be more helpful than buying a book on plot. For a pantser, a few time-tested books on plot might do the trick.

I worry that those on the pantser side may avoid learning about plot altogether, thinking it beneath them. But failing to develop the skill of storytelling leads to languid stories that fail to interest the reader (or for that matter, an agent). How the reader feels matters, especially if you’re trying to sell your book.

 

AN EXAMPLE OF PANTSING GONE WRONG

I’ll use myself as an example. I wrote my first novel because I had an image in my head of three friends lying on the grass, looking at the stars together. I couldn’t shake it from my head. So I wrote character profiles and started jotting down ideas. While I did try an outline, I ignored it as I thought of new ideas. Because I had three first-person points of view, moving chapters around was far easier than it should have been. Prom was set in September and there was a carnival in the middle of January. It was a mess.

I will defend multiple points of view to my dying breath, but I just didn’t bother with the organization needed to keep it all straight. I let the characters lead me down dark alleys and steal all my plot. And even though I intimately knew my characters, I couldn’t get their personalities across to the reader because I wasn’t planning out how to distribute information. Even though I knew that Logan was deeply religious—which explained his deep-fed shame regarding his sexuality—the reader never got this information, making his actions appear non-sensical.

To be fair, I have some sentences in that story I find beautiful. I put a lot of time into it. I truly understand my characters, to the point that they are like imaginary friends I can have conversations with in my mind. Unfortunately, none of that can translate into a read-able story without a bit of help from the plotting side. Tearing those pretty sentences apart to do that would be painful, and I’m not sure it’s worth it when it would be just as easy to start over.  

I still believe in this story, but it’s so mired in writing that wasn’t designed to entice a reader, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shape it into something marketable (a term which here means, something any normal person would want to read).

It’s important to remember that outlining does not stop you from intimately getting to know your characters or writing a pretty sentence. If you’re a pantser, those skills are deeply-ingrained, and you won’t be able to shake them no matter what. Plotting allows you to give your story shape. You’ll be able to complete your story in a reasonable amount of time because you know where it’s going.

 It gives your characters paved roads to walk down instead of fields. They can certainly take an unexpected turn, but they can’t go just anywhere—there are buildings in the way. Whatever path they take, they are going to end up where you want them to. Bwah-ha-ha.

 

A PLACE TO START

I happened across this Hunger Games outline and it has served me surprisingly well. This may be because I also write young adult fiction, but I think it’s worth a try for anyone. It’s roughly based on the three-act structure but is adapted for the novel. Each act is of equal length, which works well for books that need to move along (avoiding a saggy middle). It also happens that each beat is exactly one chapter long.  I used the outline to make sure that I was hitting all the right beats, but I didn’t copy the chapter-by-chapter method that Collins uses.

A critique partner of mine pointed out that she never found herself able to outline, but still found that she more or less hit the beats most readers expected. The more she learned about plot, the more it came naturally to her as she wrote.  If you really hate outlining and can learn through osmosis, read plot books without trying to directly apply them to your story. Try to get a feel for plot beats by reading and re-reading well-plotted books.

Even if you don’t write an outline, having a basic understanding of the beats that readers expect will only help you. While you can certainly thwart reader expectations on occasion, you should understand what reader expectations are, when you are thwarting them, and what this thwarting accomplishes. When you read other books or watch movies, you should be able to recognize the “Act II twist,” the “midpoint reversal,” and the “dark night of the soul” when they happen. And they do happen, in nearly every successful commercial story.

Having an outline doesn’t mean that you have to stick exactly to what you’ve written down. But it is a reminder that you have beats to hit. If the Act II twist isn’t the monster’s reveal, then what is replacing that emotional beat in the story? Maybe the main character making an unexpected career change as monster-killer can serve as the start of Act II and meeting the monster can be the midpoint.

Outlining and plot-structure is a complicated topic that I have a lot of feelings about. Please comment below with any questions, thoughts, or strategies that have worked for you.