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From Pantser To Plotter: My Conversion, Part 1

My going from Pantser to Plotter has been a multi-step process.

There is a misconception, I think, among pantsers that to be a plotter you must become some kind of Plot Nazi with notecards and color coded charts and every single aspect of every scene figured out before you ever put pen to paper or butt in chair to write the first word of actual prose.

This is a great big gigantic myth.

Yes, those people do exist (and I find them really scary), but that doesn’t  mean you have to be like them.  There are as many methods of plotting as there are people.  There’s no magic formula, no perfect or right way to do it.  It’s really a matter of trying different things and taking away from each one whatever you will.  That’s certainly what I’ve done.  I could bore you with the list of things I have tried and rejected, but I won’t (largely because I can’t remember them all).  Instead I want to break down what I DO use into two sections: Craft and Organization.  I’ll hit Organization tomorrow.  For now I want to talk about those aspects of craft that I use in plotting.

I should start out by saying that the things I am about to talk about are not plotting, per sae.   These are tools that pantsers and plotters alike can use and will result in a much more solid story.  They do not necessarily result in an outline (though they can).  In my case it was more like a big lightbulb going off that made it easier for me to plot.  First up

GMC

By GMC I mean, of course Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.  If you are not familiar with GMC then buddy, I am about to open your eyes.  Debra Dixon has an excellent book on the subject.  Buy it.  It will be the best $20 you’ve ever spent on a writing book, I promise.  GMC deals with characters.  Every character, down to the lowly valet parking guy, has goal, motivation, and conflict.  And it is your job as author to know what they are.  Whenever you hear about a character doing something that’s out of character?  Yeah, that’s because the author didn’t know that character’s GMC and violated it.  GMC is your yardstick to hold up to every action your hero/ine makes.  It is the driving force (or should be) behind everything that your hero/ine does.

A character wants _______ (goal) because ________ (motivation), but _________ (conflict).

This is the closest thing to a golden rule I can give you.  If you know this about all of your characters (main and secondary) and keep it in mind with every scene you write–regardless of whether you plan the whole thing out or pants it, you will write a more solid book.

An example:  I want to find a new job because my boss drives me crazy, but no one moves from one research scientist to another here and the job market is otherwise DOA.

Okay that real life example is pretty boring.

How about:   A dominant wolf shifter wants to be Alpha of his pack because he feels it is his birthright as son of the pack’s founder, but another more dominant and canny wolf already holds the position.

That would be the external GMC of the villain in my current WIP.

The point is that everybody wants something. And everybody’s motivation for wanting whatever it is they want is different and unique to them.  What that motivation is will directly influence how that person responds to conflicts preventing him or her from getting whatever the thing is that they want.  This is where–and Sherri I’m talking to you, since this was a complaint of yours–your characters become individuals rather than cookie cutters.  You’ll still learn things about your characters as you go–I, for example, didn’t know until about a quarter of the way through my current WIP that my heroine’s response to stress is to snark outrageously–but this is the basis of making them individuals.

You have to know what your characters want, both internally and externally, why they want it and why they can’t have it in order to have a solid plot.  Even if you are a die hard pantser, if you take the time to figure this out (even if it gets modified later), you’ll have a better foundation.  Story is, after all, nothing without its characters.  This is the stuff you absolutely have to know when you write, pantsing or plotting.  Marjorie M. Liu talks a bit about this in her first LB&LI post today.

Dwight Swain’s MRUs and The Components of Action and Reaction Scenes

You know those rambling scenes in which nothing really seems to actually happen? The root problem with these is that they don’t move the plot along (because pantser or plotter, you do HAVE a plot in the end).  Pantsers very often have lots of these scenes.  Lord knows I’ve been guilty of it.  I can’t count the number of times my CP would read something I’d written and then ask “but what does this scene accomplish?” and I wouldn’t be able to go more than “Um…..”  Every single scene you write should move the plot along or it serves no purpose in your story and should be axed.

Enter Dwight Swain.  In his Techniques of the Selling Writer, Swain outlines the concepts of scenes and sequels.  Now don’t think of scenes the way you usually think of scenes as a writer.  A scene in Swain’s world is “A unit of conflict lived through by the character and the reader.”  And he even goes so far as to give us this nifty little formula for scene construction.  A scene is made up of a Goal, a Conflict, and a Disaster.  Now this goal is not necessarily your big overarching goal from GMC.  Think of it as a smaller unit whose function is to provide interest and move the story forward.

Here’s an example.  We’ll return to my villain because he’s on my mind.  At one point in the story he drugs the heroine and leaves her out on the mountain to be hunted by part of the pack.  His goal in this scene is to get her out of the way.  The conflict comes in the form of the hero.  He saw the cronies putting the heroine into a car and speeding away.  The disaster to the villain’s plan occurs when the hero shows up and rescues her.  It’s a set back.  Not only is she not out of the way, but someone else knows about it.  This is a setback and raises his stakes.  A disaster, in Swain’s context, is a hook.  It is the thing that keeps the reader moving forward wanting to know what happens next.

On the flipside of scene, we have sequel.  “A sequel is a unit of transition that links two scenes.”  This unit of transition serves three purposes: “a) to translate disaster into a goal; b) to telescope reality (that is, get rid of the boring stuff and focus in on the important); and c) to control the tempo (or pacing of the story)”.  The whole point of the sequel is that the hero/ine must react to whatever the disaster was in the previous scene.  To that end, sequel is made up of a Reaction, a Dilemma, and a Decision.

Let’s go back to my villain.  The hero has just showed up to save the heroine from the likes of him and his cronies.  Bad guy is obviously pissed.  His plans are being derailed.  He has the dilemma of two choices: take on the hero or run, living to fight another day.  Regarding the hero, we’re talking almost 300 pounds of super angry wolf-shifter.  Sure, there are three of the bad guys, maybe they could take him.  But what if they can’t?  That puts the villain’s carefully laid plan to make it into the Alpha seat at risk.  Obviously an undesirable end.  But our villain is a very dominant wolf.  Running away from this fight is utterly humiliating and goes against everything he is.  Also undesirable.  So he decides to pick the lesser of two evils and runs, abandoning the heroine to the hero.  It just means he has to readjust his plans to do some damage control–which becomes his new goal and leads into another scene.

I can hear you now.  This is all well and good Kait, but what the heck does it have to do with plotting?

Well, I’ll tell you.  Scenes and sequels (and their attendant parts) help you establish the POINT of each and every scene you are putting in your story.  Sure, this is something you can do scene by scene as a pantser, something you decide on the spot (and hey, pansters, notice how it is a small organized thing you can do scene by scene or act by act–as much as you’re comfortable–baby steps people).  Or it can be the very handy backbone of your outline.  This gives you another one of those measuring sticks to hold up to your scenes to say “should this stay?” (if you already wrote it) or “should this go in my outline?”  I’ll do you one better from having a generic yardstick.

I have a worksheet!

C’mon, you knew that was coming.  You can download your own copy from here if you like, but for purposes of discussion, I shall paste the details in here.  I’ve taken bits and pieces from both Dixon’s GMC and Swain’s book and put together this worksheet.  I make myself answer this worksheet for every single scene in my outline so that I know exactly what each one is supposed to accomplish.  Every scene that passes this inspection gets to stay.  If it doesn’t, then, it’s back to the drawing board.  Which is not to say that I’m perfect.  I have a tendency to fall off the plotting wagon in the DVSM (I’m totally there now), but still I have this to fall back on.

“A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle lived through by the character and reader.”

Which of the following does the scene accomplish? (pick all that apply–you need to know which part or parts you’re furthering with the scene)

____   (G) Dramatically illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal or provide an experience which changes a character’s goal.

____   (M) Provide a character with an experience that strengthens his motivation or changes his motivation.

____  (C) Bring a character into conflict with opposing forces.

  • What are the three reasons for the scene? (Okay this is where you may want to specify the details of the GMC you selected above.  It’s also a good place to make notes to yourself about plants and payoffs, information you want to reveal, that it’s where you left the murder weapon, whatever.  There’s no hard and fast rule about what has to go here, and believe me, some of my reasons get pretty flimsy once I get to number 3.  The point is, if you can’t think of three reasons for a scene, it needs work or it needs to go.)

1.

2.

3.

  • How does the scene change the character? (This can be major or minor.  But the character should always be changing throughout the story or s/he remains boring and uninteresting.  It can be a small change like “Heroine begins to question whether moving in with the hero she barely knows is a smart thing.”  Or a big one, “Hero reveals the big secret he’s been keeping the last 2o years.”  But life is change, so be sure it’s reflected in your characters.)
  • What dimension is added to the character’s personality?  (Every scene should reveal something new about the character.  Again, this can be small or big.  But this further goes toward making your characters real and not cardboard cutouts.)
  • What is at stake? (If nothing is at stake then why should the reader care?  Whatever action the character is going to take, there has to be a consequence if it goes wrong.  My heroine decides to trust the hero she barely knows because someone’s out to kill her and he saved her.  She could be walking into a trap for all she knows, so her life is at stake.  That’s extreme, but you get the idea.)
  • Is it immediate/urgent? (Again, this is a why should the reader care question.  The scene should be urgent–require immediate action right now not next week.  In my WIP, the law shows up to execute the heroine.  Once they find out it’s an option, the hero and crew immediately go bust up in a pack meeting so hero can declare his intention to vie for Alpha.  That’s urgent and RIGHT NOW.  Sometimes this one is a stretch and hard to answer why it’s urgent.  Occasionally it’s not, but try to find a reason why it is.)

If you can fill this worksheet in entirely for your scene, for every scene, you will have that solid foundation you want.  There are a series of follow up questions for trouble shooting either before or after you write, but they’re out of the scope of this discussion (as it’s already turned into a tome).  They’re on the downloadable version.

Now that I have bored you to tears with this rambling post that’s about 5x longer than the norm, I want to leave you with the words of wisdom that you can take from this what you will.  If you’re only comfortable plotting a scene or two in advance, that’s totally fine.  You have to find what works for you.  I tried Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method of plotting.  Beyond Step 5 or 6, it doesn’t work for me.  But I like his concept of starting with a one line summary (which is MUCH easier to do BEFORE you’ve written the whole book than it is after you have the full story).  So I use it.  Also makes a handy elevator pitch.  “A reluctant wolf-shifter must embrace the wolf nature that he hates in order to save the life of his human mate.”

In any event, tomorrow I’ll be discussing some of the tools of organization I like to use.  In the meantime, there’s also a nice post about outlining (or not) over at Deadline Dames.

Drop me a comment before the next post goes up (about 8 AM tomorrow) for a chance to win a gently used copy of Rachel Gibson’s Sex, Lies, and Online Dating.

Winner of yesterday’s copy of Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat is…Valerie!

Send me an email at kaitnolanwriter@gmail.com with your mailing addy, and I’ll be sure to get that out at the end of the week when I do my big post office run.

11 thoughts on “From Pantser To Plotter: My Conversion, Part 1

  1. Wow. Thanks Kait. I took notes. I think one of things you learn as a writer is that there is always more to learn. I’m going to try some of your methods and see what works for me.

    Thanks.

    Shawna

  2. Wow. This has to be one of the most helpful blog posts I’ve found in a long time. Like Shawna I took notes. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard of GMC or Scene/Sequel, but for once it actually clicked. I was sitting here going, “How would I put this in terms of something I know/have read/have written?” and I could suddenly see it. Your worksheet looks awesome too!

    Thank you!

    1. Ha, I have to say I am pretty pleased with my little worksheet. One thing that was a big eye opener to me (and maybe I should mention this in a later post) is that plotting is not synonymous with outlining. I do NOT wind up with a very clear
      I. X happens
      A. B happens
      B. G happens with character 3
      1. xyz
      2. abc

      I don’t have a formal outline like that at all. Often I’ll literally start with a bulleted list of stuff I know that happens. In fact, that is largely what my earliest plotting was. Just a list. Which I, personally, find a lot less threatening, scary, or limiting. I think there’s also a misconception that once you outline that’s it. You can’t change anything. Screw that! I change my outlines a lot as I learn more about the characters! It’s just a matter of following those new plot threads or ideas through the rest of your plot to see how they’ll play out. But I’ll stop and save some of this for Friday…

  3. May I echo Valerie – Thank you for something applicable!!! Instead of the worn out suggestions we’ve all read over and over, something to actually do, a place to start. I am forever grateful, and truly enjoying this series. Actually, I’m a new reader this week, and thrilled to have found you.

  4. Bravo, Kettle! This was a great post and even though it was long, it was totally worth reading the whole thing (even for me and I’ve been through this whole learning process with you). Can’t wait to see what you have for tomorrow.

    Pot.

  5. Thanks for this very helpful post. I’ve printed out the worksheet to refer to when I start my next round of revisions; layering in multiple purposes to scenes is one of my challenges, and this’ll help me keep in mind the different ways I can punch up each scene.

  6. Thanks for this post. The techniques are very helpful and I’ll be sure to apply the worksheet to the scenes in my WIP.

    PS: Please exclude me from the prize drawing this time around, because I already have that book.

  7. Excellent workshop and worksheet, Kait. I really like the before and after aspect of your worksheet; it pulls double duty as preparation for writing as well as an aid when editing.

    I also laughed out loud at this: “…that to be a plotter you must become some kind of Plot Nazi with notecards and color coded charts and every single aspect of every scene figured out before you ever put pen to paper or butt in chair to write the first word of actual prose.”

    I don’t use notecards or color coded charts. I swear!

  8. This is great information. One of my favorite methods of plotting is to write out scenes on index cards. It’s amazing how much information you can convey in that concise format. This way, it’s not so overwhelming when I sit down to write, unlike when I outline in a notebook.
    Margay

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