In preparation for my next book, I’ve been plotting, which lead me to thinking about how I plot. This will be my sixth book, though the seventh one I’ve plotted, and I’ve had mainly the same process throughout.
Though I’m big on outlining, I don’t outline by chapter or scene, but by major event/turning point. “They discover X problem; they try to solve it using ABC method; this backfires, complicating the problem and forcing them to do Y. This leads to Z, which propels them towards the climax, where the following happens…”
Usually, the climax is plotted out in more detail than the rest. I need to know I can resolve something in a satisfactory way before I start writing. I’m okay with semi-pantsing parts of the middle, but only as long as I know where everything will lead. That also helps me set things up properly, establish bits of world-building that turn out to be essential, etc.
I do try to avoid pantsing too much–at least beforehand. When I have those events, I try to think of how I can fill them in. A big part of this process is asking myself questions: Where would this event take place? Who would be present? Exactly *how* do they discover this bit of information? Does someone tell them or can they put the pieces together themselves? The latter is preferable; which pieces would they need and how could they go about getting it, given their current situation? Roughly how would this unfold if I think of it in scenes?
What I rarely do, though, is plot out the character development in that same way. I’ll have a rough idea of how my characters develop, how they feel about each other and how that changes (kissing! It changes into kissing!), and what their main internal conflicts are, but I don’t figure out how that translates into scenes. I try to keep it in mind when I plot out stuff, making sure they wouldn’t do anything that’s painfully out of character, but that’s it. The rest of the characterization only gets sorted out properly as I write.
In my outline, major turning point A may lead into dramatic show-down B, but while writing turning point A I might realize that my character needs to respond to this in some way. They need to have a breakdown or confront their rival or take a drastic action I hadn’t anticipated. I don’t plot by scene or chapter because I want to allow myself that freedom. So while I follow the outline, I pants in-between those planned bits.
A lot of other pantsing comes in as I write, too. I’ll realize that I need to introduce another character to make a certain scene work, but that character would interfere with future scenes. Or my characters know more than they should, so I need to change the outline to reflect that. I’ll realize I need to set up a certain event better, which requires a whole new scene or plotline. Or that the character who shows up early in the book and then disappears for the rest of it needs a pay-off of some sort.
That, or I’ll discover giant plot-holes, or rework my ending, or realize I should delete a character, or…
Whenever something like that comes up, I’ll take a step away from the manuscript, grab my outline, and hash it out until it works. This may take an hour, this may take a week. It also takes many panicky Tweets, but the exact number varies. Then something clicks, I figure it out, and return to the writing part of the program.
It’s sort of comfortable to have this process hashed out. I know what to expect. That doesn’t make it all puppies and rainbows–I have a million breakdowns while actually writing–but I know to expect that, too.
In a way I’m looking forward to it: it means I’m making progress.