Building a Plot

There are several different ways that an author can build a novel out of a loose collection of ideas, characters, and plot elements. After reading about the experiences of other writers, this seems to break down into two basic categories: Outliners and Pantsers.

An Outliner has to figure out the scenes or chapters that the story will follow in some minimum level of detail. The ending is known before the writing has begun. A Pantser takes the opposite approach, settling only a few aspects of the novel-in-her-head before sitting down to write by-the-seat-of-her-pants. The ending may be a complete mystery to the author, or while the conclusion may already have been visualized, the author does not know the path that the characters will take to get there.

In my own story-telling projects, I’ve always thought that I identified better as an Outliner. I need to know how it all fits together before I can begin. Who are my characters and why are they going to act the way they do? What difficulties will they face that will force them to grow or change? While there certainly may be times that a Pantser technique could work for me, given what I’ve discovered through several unfinished writing projects is that it more often will not.

As I sat down in mid-February to begin putting the details down for my current novel project, I’ve found that the process of outline creation is no easy feat. I have a character and a disturbing event. I have a setting with the different cultures, sub-cultures, and factions. The magic is roughed out and the monsters are coming to life in my head. Two main antagonists are ready to release their minions. Yet, that outline is a vague list of events and possibilities, haziest in the middle.

How does an author figure out that middle (muddle)? I’m not sure yet, but I’ve decided that I’m an alternating Outliner-Pantser-Outliner. Here’s how I hope it will go:

1) Outline until I can’t stand it anymore.

2) Write until I run out of outline.

3) Stand back and look at what I’ve done (eeek!).

4) Outline the next section.

5) Repeat from step #2.

I suspect that it will turn out messier than this. So, for other authors out there, how do you plan your plot and scenes? Leave some comments – it’s fun!

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I would like to thank the Woodbridge Science Fiction and Fantasy Meetup group for pointing me toward WordPress and spurring me to create this web site.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Terri P
    Apr 25, 2012 @ 20:42:30

    Hi Clare,

    I like outlining too. The problem with me is (or so I’ve found) that once I know the story, I lose all excitement for it. I detail so much that no longer feel the need to write it.

    Now I’m working on some character outlines. Got the hero, heroine, the other hero/sidekick/part 3 of the love triangle. I got the mentor and have some vague ideas on the worldbuilding. The villian hasn’t emerged as yet.


    This time, I am pantsing it. Hoping to keep it fresh.

    Guess we’ll see!

    And I LUUUUUUUUV the look of your blog!



  2. Clare
    May 01, 2012 @ 21:25:33

    Thank you for stopping by, Terri!

    I think each writer really has to figure out their own path. Everyone’s brain works differently, but the pantser/plotter contrast at least gives people an idea about how to start.

    Good luck with your own planning!


  3. Andres
    May 02, 2012 @ 13:30:55

    Hey Clare. I’m a Writer of the Weird member as well. Myself, I’m definitely not an outliner. I’m not quite a pantser either. I’m more of a pantser sub-species which I like to call a “Scene by Scener”.

    Lately I’ve started to see a story as a pile of scenes that I use like legos to start assembling the novel with. As more scenes become available I rearrange them as necessary. I can move scenes around or even eliminate them if I want.

    It’s good for me since if I get an idea for a scene, I don’t wait until I’ve “reach that part” to write it. I write the scene and stash it away until I need it and it also acts as a kind of goal marker.

    I do find, however; that as I move ahead with my novel I start mutating into more of an outliner.


    • Clare
      May 07, 2012 @ 16:22:31

      Thanks for stopping by, Andres. I don’t think I’ve met you yet, but perhaps I’ll run into you at one of the club’s events this summer. I don’t usually make it to the Sunday gatherings because of my work schedule.

      I’ve heard of that scene-by-scene method as well. I think that would be tough for me and I’d end up with a lot of rewriting! But whatever works for each writer. 🙂


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