We talk a lot about writing process on this blog. (You’re welcome.) It’s always interesting to see how other authors work. In general terms, we are often broken into two groups – plotters who plan things out in advance, and pantsers who make things up as they go (writing “by the seat of the pants”).
One statement I’ve regularly heard from pantsers is that plotting would “take the fun out of writing.” Today I got wondering… Is this something people know from experience, or is it an assumption? Possibly a false one?
Let me give you an example from my current work in progress. This is a mystery novel for adults, but the process would apply to middle grade as well.
I started by developing a main character, some family members, and a mystery premise. I knew “whodunit” but not much else. At a recent small writing retreat, we sat around talking about our WIPs (works in progress) and people tossed out reactions and feedback. This gave me some great new ideas. I brainstormed additional ideas and wrote down everything on scraps of paper. (I hadn’t brought index cards, which I would normally use for this kind of thing.)
Then I shuffled the ideas around until I had a plot I thought worked well, alternating quieter investigation moments, such as interviewing people, with more dramatic action scenes, and weaving in subplots. Finally, I wrote this up as an outline.
Now that I know “everything” that happens, did I remove all chance for spontaneity and surprises in the writing?
Let’s look at my upcoming scene. First, some background: Kate is a conflict journalist who has returned to her childhood home to recover after a serious injury. Her mother is in an Alzheimer’s care unit, and the director there – an old acquaintance of Kate’s – asks Kate to quietly look into some suspicious deaths at the Home. Besides the two deaths, one woman had a mysterious illness but recovered. Here is the description of the scene I’m about to write, from my outline:
Visit woman who got sick while [the woman’s] family is there. Discuss the symptoms of her illness. A family member makes the comment that it would be better if she had died.
Does this look like there are no opportunities for creativity or surprises in the scene? Here are some of the things I don’t yet know:
- Where should the scene take place? In the patient’s room, or a common room? What is the room like? How can I describe it vividly with a few specific details?
- What is the elderly patient like? What’s her appearance? How does she behave? She’s in an Alzheimer’s care unit, so I may want to watch some videos of Alzheimer’s patients.
- What are the family members like? How many are there? What is their relationship to the patient? How do they behave?
- How does the scene play out? How does Kate asked questions without revealing that she’s investigating?
- Kate has a strained relationship with her sister, who is also present but doesn’t know about Kate’s investigation. How does the sister react to what’s happening? Can I create more conflict between the two of them?
- Kate’s father has recently learned what she’s doing and wants to help her. What can he do in this scene? What about Kate’s mother and other secondary characters?
As you can see, having an outline doesn’t mean you don’t have flexibility, creativity, or surprises. Besides the questions above, I may come up with a new twist or a way to drop in a clue that I hadn’t anticipated.
What Works for You?
I fully believe that when it comes to writing technique, there’s no one right answer for everyone. If you have a process that’s working for you, congratulations! Keep at it! If you feel there’s room for improvement, you might want to try some different things.
And if you’ve always assumed that brainstorming and outlining would ruin the creativity and fun, please don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Here are some posts on plotting and process from other Project Mayhem authors:
- Plot Maps by Lee Wardlaw (focusing on some basic questions)
- Revision Technique: Book Mapping by Caroline Starr Rose (a very detailed technique that works best for complete manuscripts)
- What to Do with a Franken-Draft by Dianne K. Salerni at Writer Unboxed (also analyzing a complete manuscript, with some color coding)
Plus a few more plotting resources:
- The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (designed for screenwriters but many authors find this 15-step questionnaire helpful)
- Janet Fox’s Diagram of Plot Points for different systems
Also, my book Advanced Plotting offers a tool for outlining and analyzing your plot, along with articles on fast starts, developing middles, plot points, cliffhangers, and more advice on making your work stronger. Get the paperback or e-book on Amazon.
Get The Plot Arc Exercise as a free Word download you can edit at my website.
Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for young people, including The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; and the Haunted series, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.
Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. The Mad Monk’s Treasure (FREE at all ebook retailers!) follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town.