Plotting Your Story: Outlining or Pantsing?

I was recently thinking about the brainstorming process and what comes after. There are two schools of thought for drafting your story once you come up with an idea: You can either plot out everything in an elaborate outline or you can go by the seat of your pants and just make it up as you go along. I can see the benefits to both—if you outline you’re more likely to follow through because you’ve already done a lot of the foundational work. But if you pants it, you’re allowing your characters to truly be themselves because as a new situation arises you have to make them react just as you would—in the blink of an eye.

I’ve tried both, and while I like the idea of letting the plot take its own course, I think that outlining is the way to go. Why is that? Because it’s a map of what should happen, with achievable goals ready for me to meet. That isn’t to say I’ve micromanaged every piece of the story before I put fingers to keys—no, a map is there to serve as guide, but there are multiple ways to reach the destination. I think of it more as a way to ensure I don’t go wandering off too far into territory that will eventually be cut.

I try to think of writing fiction as though I’m in the screenwriting business. Once I have an idea, I try to narrow down the plot to a logline or elevator pitch. For The Raven Bride, the one-sentence summary was this: 17-year-old Victoria Crowe and her sister are arrested and tried as witches during the Witch Trial era. It isn’t encompassing of the whole plot, but it would pique my interest if I were to see it in the TV Guide (remember those?) or read it online.

From there, I plot out the story in an Excel spreadsheet. I try to follow the advice of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which lays out story beats from start to finish, each one integral for a story to really work. Snyder’s website (and others, as he’s since passed away), examine Hollywood movies to show just exactly where these plot points show up. It’s interesting to see just how many movies follow this formula, and I figure if they can sell using these ideas then I would be remiss to not incorporate them into my stories.

So I knock the beats and individual scenes out in Excel and then then work on a synopsis—anywhere from a page to five pages, depending on the length of the story, which combines all the individual pieces into a cohesive narrative. From there, it’s time to write.

Novel Scenes
Scenes from my novel All Things Together


A quick note: you could just as easily write the synopsis first and then fill in the beats based on what happens. The spreadsheet really just serves to make sure your story isn’t too top- or bottom-heavy (too much setup, too quick a climax, etc.).

That’s how I lay the groundwork for my stories, what about you? Do you like to outline or do you just take an idea and run with it? Let me know below or on Twitter!

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