For me, one of the most difficult aspects of writing is finding the story. Finding ideas is no problem: everyone has ideas. How many times have you been told that by someone that he or she has a great idea for a book? But an idea alone does not make a story. It’s the next stage that I find difficult: taking that idea and developing it into a story that is new and exciting.
If writers are to be believed about what they say of their craft, there are two very different types of writers: ‘pantsers’ and ‘plotters’. Plotters plan their way forward with detailed written outlines/synopsis, character sketches, scene lists and other devices; whereas pantsers write organically by the seat of their pants not knowing where the story is going to take them. However, I suspect the real truth is that most writers probably fall somewhere between these two extremes. Let me take a step back and explain.
Most writers that call themselves ‘pantsers’ do so because they don’t produce a written outline or synopsis of their story before they commence writing, and because they feel that such an outline would constrain their creativity. But that’s not to say that they don’t think deeply about their story lines and their characters before they start writing, that they don’t have notes, research and jottings about their story, or that they don’t have some idea of the direction where they want the story to go. I suspect that most ‘pantsers’ probably have a very good idea about what they want to cover in the next few chapters that they are writing, but have probably only a feel for what will happen beyond that point.
This is a kind of headlights planning: where the immediate chapters ahead are clear in the writers head, but beyond the writer’s plan is at best a little sketchy. Some pantsers claim that when they start writing they have no idea of how the story will end. But I suspect, if they are honest with themselves, they will have probably at least considered some of the options available for the ending. What they mean is that they have a passionate desire to remain flexible and creative throughout the writing process. They want to enjoy the same experience as their readers as the story unfolds.
However, many writers that call themselves plotters, myself included, may well map out a sketch of the story to begin with, but will not stick rigidly to it. For me, outlining/planning is a process that continues throughout the writing process and as you write new ideas and questions arise that need to be answered, and the plot evolves. There are also different degrees of plotting depending on the amount of detail the writer wants to go into. A plot outline might be a simple list of bullet points of the main story events, a collection of scene cards; or it could be a 3 or even a 50-page written synopsis of the story. Plotters come in all shapes and sizes.
Personally, I would describe myself as a plotter, but I’ve never written a formal synopsis before commencing a project. I prefer to map out the main events of the story using scene cards with one or two lines of description for each scene. For my current project, I currently have approximately 47 scene cards (22 cards for the first Act, 20 for the second Act and 5 for the third Act). This may seem a little unbalanced, but it’s because I have completed writing the first Act and I am part way through the second. As the story develops, I will continue to add more scene cards to Acts 2 and 3 as the level of detail becomes clearer.
The point I am trying to make is that plotting is a flexible process. Most of Act 1 of my current book went to plan, with only a modest degree of changes. But I am now a third way through Act 2 and I am already making major revisions to scenes: introducing new scenes, changing the timing of scenes and deleting or re-writing scenes. It is part of the process of finding out what works and what does not.
John Truby in The Anatomy of Story wrote that if you are not sure whether to write a scene or not you should write it. It’s the only way you will find out if the scene really works. He’s right. Whether you’re an ardent pantser or a plotter, finding the story is a creative process, and both plotters and pantsers need to experiment to find it.