3 Plotting Methods For the Pantser In You

Plotting is tricky. Especially if you’re a pantser, like me. When I started writing, I would just sit at the computer and type whatever came to my mind. Of course, this resulted in an awful, disjointed first draft that still repulses me to this day. In my defense, I was only twelve and trying to write a romance novel, when I knew nothing about romance. There is nothing wrong with this method. I’m still guilty of using it on occasion, but there are some genres that require just a bit more planning.

I’ve spent the better part of a decade trying to figure out the best way to plot when I needed to. I’ve tried a few different methods I’ll lay out for you here. I may have found the perfect method for me, but you never know which one works best for you.

After I finished writing An Unexpected Romance, my first romance novel, I turned my attention to another genre: mystery/thriller. In a few months’ time, I cranked out a novel I called Love Lost. It was the story of two cops who fall in love while undercover as husband and wife assassins for the Russian Mob. Yes, it was terrible, but again, I was only twelve. However, with that book, I did discover my love for mysteries. I had always loved reading them, but I’d never really thought about writing them.

A few books later, I began work on a trilogy. I wanted to write a story about the dynamics of a partnership when they’re affected by a kidnapping. Basically, the initial story was about a woman who is held hostage for months. When she is released, she discovers that her old partner, the man she loved, hadn’t even been looking for her. He didn’t even realize she’d been missing. So, she comes back with a huge chip on her shoulder, but she must put it aside because they have to catch a bad guy. I called it Fatal Attraction. I am still working on it today. It no longer has anything do with the original storyline I came up with; it is no longer called Fatal Attraction. Now, it is about a woman investigating her father’s murder. Her father, the director of the CIA, left her a package with the instructions to give it to a man named Jack Logan, but when she discovers that Jack Logan died a week after her father, she teams up with his son, Jack, Jr., to investigate. Amid all of this, there is a frame-up, fake deaths, and many other twists that I will not give away because I would like you guys to read it at some point. As you can see, this sort of plotline requires a little more plotting than your average romance novel.

I began investigating. I knew I needed some sort of plan; at the very least, I needed to know the layout of the case my characters were investigating. I needed to know what clues they would find, and when and where they would find them.

The first method I tried was a simple bullet list. I pulled up a document on my computer, or sometimes used a notebook, and just started listing. The section was headed by the chapter number, and the main bullet points were the major points that were going to happen in that chapter. Any sub-bullets were the clues they found, awesome lines that popped into my head, etc.

This method worked great for a while, but I would always, inevitably, give up and just start writing. I’d type up a few chapters, until I hit a roadblock, and then I would go back to my bullet list. It was an endless cycle that just wasn’t accomplishing what I needed it to. So, I went back to the drawing board.

The next one I found was on Pinterest. It is called a plot board, and it was shared by Shaunta Grimes at A Novel Idea. For her blog post, click here. Here is the gist of it. I took a trifold cardboard display board and divided it into three acts. The first flap was act one. The middle of the board was act two. The last flap was act three. Then I wrote scene ideas on post-it notes and stuck them where I wanted them. What I loved about this method is how easy it is to change when you change your mind. All you have to do is move the post-it notes! However, I never really understood how to divide my story into acts. I worked much better with chapters. This would be a great tool for screen plays or theater, though. For me, it just didn’t work.

And now, the winner. The last idea I had came from my own mind. I was frustrated because I’d been working on this trilogy for so long, and I still had no idea what I wanted to happen in the story. I knew from the other methods I used that I wanted something visual because that is how I have always learned. I also wanted something simpler than a post-it note cardboard but also something I could still easily change when my ideas changed. So, I came up with my own version of a plot board.

I bought a large whiteboard on wheels that measures, I think, six-by-eight feet. It is also double-sided, so there is plenty of room to plan a whole series. Once I bought the board, it was as simple as creating a timeline. I just drew a line across the board and use tick marks for my scenes. I have different colored markers for various parts: blue for the flashbacks, green for time changes in present day (because what murder mystery is solved in one day?), and red for any edits I make to that specific timeline after everything is said and done. What I love about this is that it sits next to my desk, and I can see it every second I am writing. I don’t have to flip through notebook pages or set up a trifold, but it is still so easy to change and rearrange. Honestly, though I have never done this, if you wanted to make it even easier you could still use post-it notes. Another advantage is how much room it gives me. I don’t just have my plot lines on this board. This is also where I brainstorm names, places, titles, etc. I also keep notes on it, so I can keep track of the smaller details (like the identity of the killer and the evidence against them).

Every one of these methods is very helpful, but it took me a long time to figure out what worked for me. That, I believe, is the trick. There must be some trial and error on your part. Use your imagination. What works for you does not have to be traditional nor does it have to make sense to someone else. It just has to make sense to you. Then again, isn’t that why we’re all writers?

Until next time, I hope this helps!


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