The PP

On October 19, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I was wondering what everyone’s plotting process is like? (For those of us that plot, of course.) I know I’m a plotter (pantsing has never worked out for me), but I haven’t quite figured out my plotting method, and I figured it might help to find out how everyone else does it and test out some different methods.

Christie V Powell wrote back, I say this a lot, but I use KM Weiland’s system, which she describes on her blog helpingwritersbecomeauthors. I write down the basic steps that I want, and then use it as an outline. Here’s the brief overview I have (hopefully, my abbreviated version makes sense).

Act 1.A: Set up characters, motivations, world rules, Stakes, potential to win

Hook- inciting question

Characteristic moment: introduce Main Character (MC)

Ends with Inciting Incident: story is set in motion

Act 1.B: Normal World

Ends with First Major Plot Point- MC commits to act

Act 2.A:

Reaction: MC scrambles to understand obstacles, gains skills and weapons

MC punished for Lie, moves closer to Want but further from Need

Ends in First Pinch Point: Reminder of BG, MC gains new clues

Act 2.B:

Ends at Midpoint: MC discovers the Truth, moves to proactive

Act 2.C:

Reactive: MC’s reactions more informed, caught between Truth and Lie.

Truth is blatantly stated.

Ends with Second Pinch Point: Reminds MC of Stakes

Act 2.D:

False Victory: MC renews attack on BG, seems to win

Ends in Third Plot Point: Low point, forces to confront the Lie, MC chooses Need over Want, death is often symbolized or used outright.

Act 3.A:

Assembles characters/props, Fulfills foreshadowing.

Ends with Trigger: Up stakes, MC demonstrates change, caught between Truth and Lie. Subplots tied off.

Act 3.B

Climax: Confrontation between MC and BG. Lie vanquished.

Climactic Moment: conflict resolved.

Resolution: Tie off loose ends, show change, give preview of new life

I’ve seen several similar systems. Save the Cat (and Save the Cat Writes a Novel) is a popular one. Story Genius by Lisa Cron is another.

A year later (today—10/4/21), I asked Christie V Powell to define BG, and she wrote this: I used “BG” to stand for “bad guy” (the antagonist).

I don’t know if this would help or just be overwhelming, but I did just write a new blog post that went into depth about my plotting method. It’ll have more information, and hopefully spell things out a little better:

I’m sure Christie V Powell’s method gives a writer security, which I’d love to have, but I’m part pantser, and we live on the edge. I hope my stories have rising action and a climax and falling action, but I don’t think about those things, or I haven’t so far.

I start with notes in which I jot down my thoughts about a possible story. Sometimes, just thinking brings me to find a knot I can’t untangle, or can’t untangle yet, so I drop the idea into a deep hole in my mind, where I hope it will simmer and untie itself (can take years). Many of my notes are questions, which I may answer or leave open.

I write lists of possibilities for what may happen. Always, I search for an ending, because I can’t start unless I have imagined the finish, which is where I part company with complete pantsers. I was a complete pantser until I got tired of getting horribly lost in book after book. So this is one strategy: We can think about how we want our story to resolve itself.

In my notes, I often write about what my story looks like if I shape it as a quest based on either what my MC wants or needs or what terrible circumstance she’s landed in. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is a great example. I had intended to write a novelization of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but there were mysteries baked into the fairy tale that I couldn’t figure out, like why the dancing princes were enchanted. From somewhere along the way of attempting to write the story, I introduced a terrible disease. Eventually—it didn’t happen instantly—I realized that a quest for its cure could be the heart of the story, which would be an original fairy tale, and I was able to write it.

Most or maybe all of my fiction can be expressed as a quest. My historical novel Dave at Night is a quest for a home. Fairest is Aza’s quest for relief from her own dislike of her looks. Ogre Enchanted, like Ella Enchanted, is a quest for spell release. Sometimes, I don’t see the quest until I finished writing. But we can be more intentional about our quest for a quest. That’s another strategy: Express our plot as a quest and see if that helps it take shape.

Once we see the goal, we think about the impediments (like BGs) we can put in the way for our MC, and we can also decide what can help her. I bet you (not me) can use this quest structure to set up your rising actions, climaxes, and falling actions.

We can write a one-page summary of our story as we envision it. If it were a fairy tale, we can ask ourselves, how would it go? (We don’t need to be writing fantasy to do this. We’re just going for a story shape.)

Lately, I write an actual outline, a short one, recording events I want to make happen. I just looked at my outline for Ogre Enchanted, which can be called an outline, really, only by a partial pantser. It’s full of questions that often aren’t answered. Once I started writing the book, I mostly forgot about the outline.

That’s another strategy. We can write a short outline reflecting how, at that moment, we want our story to go, but we don’t have to attach ourselves to it with leg irons. Pure outliners, I think, change course too, but they fix the outline along with the story, so they can see how the shift affects everything that’s to come. I rarely do that. Once I start writing, I follow my characters and what they do. Still, a corner of my brain is keeping an eye on the plot and remembering where I want to go.

Character is super important to me, but plot has primacy. I’m a plot driven, rather than a character-driven writer. Alas, plot is harder for me than character is, which is why I like to use ancient stories—like fairy tale, myth, or history—as frameworks I can hang my plot on. Many writers do this, including Shakespeare!

Suppose we want to write a love story, well, we have a trove of fairy tales at our disposal. Or say we want to write about poverty, we can use “Hansel and Gretel.” If we want to bring to life the end of a civilization, we can read up on the fall of Rome in history or Troy in mythology. For self-deception, there’s always “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

I’m hoping that my next novel will be a historical murder mystery about the death of a Jewish moneylender in 13th century England. I’ve just started my research, and the conditions for Jews rich or poor back then were difficult and precarious. The question that I’m asking myself is: What can I balance the sadness with—what hope? what happiness?—that will make this work as a book for kids? The question is an early step in my plotting process—as an example of how I do it.

Here are four prompts. You may have seen them coming:

  • Use “Hansel and Gretel” as the basis for a contemporary story about a mother and father with two kids to support in grinding poverty and the choices they make. Who will the gingerbread witch be? Write the story.
  • Write a love story about a selkie and a human. Decide whether or not it’s a tragedy.
  • Do a little or a lot of research as the basis of a story about the downfall of a civilization. Write the story.
  • Write a story about self-deception based on “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Another pantser here, Gail and pre-published writers. I suggested Gail’s craft books at an SCBWI workshop this week. Everyone loves your novels, but many were unaware of your writing books for children’s writers. Their loss. Love the idea of using ancient tales for plot framework. I may use Arthur as a child and the Sword in the Stone. Have to promote my latest author crush: Meghan Cox Gurdon, children’s book reviewer of WSJ. Her book is ingeniously titled THE ENCHANTED HOUR: THE MIRACULOUS POWER OF READING ALOUD IN THE AGE OF DISTRACTION!

  2. Wow this is awesome! What do you think of the Save the Cat method? I loved reading Ella Enchanted when I was younger. Thank you for all the good books 🙂

    • If I can answer, while waiting to see what Gail says…

      Save the Cat overlaps in some ways with KM Weiland’s method that got quoted above. I have a graphic here ( that compares where the points overlap and where they are different. Save the Cat pays special attention to the very beginning and very end, while KM Weiland/CVP methods have more details about the middle (the CVP method is the one with the link in Gail’s post above, and was influenced by both KM Weiland and Save the Cat).

      Save the Cat is a bit more rigid with specific plot details (where to state the theme, where to develop certain relationships, etc.). The KMW/CVP methods are a bit more loose, giving you the basic structure but letting you fill in the details. So Save the Cat is more like a real Japanese hiaku, where it has to be about nature and have a twist at the end, where the KMW/CVP methods are more like how Americans treat the haiku– a set number of syllables, but you can write about anything.

      It’s all about personal preference and what works best for you. All systems are tools, and you can pick and choose useful information from each one, depending on what you and your story need.

  3. Plotting is something that I really don’t do. When I write I typically write an outline of the sequence of events just so I know where I want the story to go, but I don’t plan every segment. I just let the story go where it needs to go (That’s why NaNoWriMo was so hard for me, how do you know what your word count should be when you’re not even sure if your idea will fit into a whole novel or is just a short story?) I am more character-driven. Being a bookworm for so many years and not always having many friends, the characters in books are like friends to me, so I try to make mine quite likable, quirky, and able to change. If a story has an intriguing plot, that’s just a bonus, but weak characters make for dry reading. I wish I could plot and outline, but whenever I try or whenever I read about outlining methods, my eyes glaze over and I can’t focus. To me a story doesn’t have an exact formula.
    Gail, I love you’re next book idea! I would definantely read it!

  4. Any advice for how to temporarily turn a pantster into a plotter? I’m going to write a novel/novella for my senior project, but the last time I tried writing a novel in a semester, I still had a third of the story left even after I reached 50,000 words. This time, I’ll try following one of these structures as a “you’re a third of the way to your word count and we haven’t come across the villain yet” type of thing (otherwise known as forcing me to quit stalling), but my real issue is that outlines just don’t work for me. As a starting point, maybe, but the further I get into the story, the farther it gets from the outline. The story is a rocket trying to fly to Mars, but the navigational thrusters (my ideas/the details I’ve already put in the story) fire randomly. A throwaway comment can send it spiraling off in a totally different direction. So you might end up somewhere else on Mars, you might end up on an asteroid, you might end up drifting aimlessly because your fuel ran out. And while you CAN yank the rocket back on course, it uses a lot of (creative) fuel, is highly inefficient, and makes it even more likely to happen again.
    All this to say, how can I make sure that the story stays on track when my creative process keeps sending it off course?

    • You can keep the outline really vague. Write down the steps to your story, then make them only slightly more specific than the structure you’re using. Example: Chapter 1–introduce Rose. Chapter 3-ish: The spaceship leaves earth. Chapter 6-ish: Rose determines to fix the thrusters. Chapter 9-ish: Rose finds a clue that the thrusters were tampered with and suspects Joe. Etc. So you give yourself milestones to hit to make sure that the pacing and your progress are on the right track, but leave those milestones vague so that you can still play with the details. You can also make the goals by wordcount instead of by chapter, if that would help.

      Here are some of the openings I’ve outlined for various works in progress. Some of them have a ton of detail, while others have hardly anything:

      Work #1 (mainly lists characters to introduce)
      Lilac is trying to hide her dreamroving from her family. King Brian and the rovers have an uneasy truce that results in a lot of benefits for both. Lilac has a mentor in Indie and a friend in Vireo, who she knows only through dreams. Allee and her betrothed, Perrin, visit.

      Work #2 (detailed)
      Show “Sal” acting as cabin boy, doing something dangerous in the sails. Then the ship comes to port, she talks to her father, changes her disguise, and heads off to her fancy finishing school. As she changes disguises, she thinks, just for a moment, about being “the person in the middle”.

      Rick is unable to get any further in his career. He is shunned by the sailors for being gentry and the gentry for being a third son. He gets news of his father’s demise and hurries to his family, but his ship and his career leave without him.

      Sal’s father has serious debts. Sal offers her small savings, but he confides that he will lose the ship. She tells him she’ll do anything she can.

      Rick visits his brother and learns of the will: once Rick is married, he will get enough money to cover any debts. Rick is frustrated and believes he is being punished for frugality.

      Work #3 (bare bones)
      Al sneaks into the castle, desperate to see Innis’s coronation. Politics of the event set up. Glimpses the Castalia cousins arriving. Meets Innis and falls into puppy love. Establish how oaths work. Introduce major players: Al, Innis, and Viola

      And then, it’s also important to allow space to Tweak things if needed. In Work #3, Viola doesn’t come up in these first few chapters. Al doesn’t enter the castle until the very end of this section. This section now includes a failed job interview, protecting the princess from a pickpocket, and an argument with his family. None of that was in the outline.

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