Moving Forward: When to Let Go of Plotting

Everybody has their own style of writing. We talk a lot about plotters and pantsers, but-just like anything in the world–these are pretty black-and-white divisions. I admit I’m more of a plotter than most writers I know–I love the feeling of creating the puzzle pieces before I get started with decorating them. I love to see the points connecting, building the structure around which I’ll layer and weave.

Even I, though, know there’s a time to let go of the plotting and write. I’m coming up on it now–I can see that by next week, I’ll be putting scenes on paper. I have a feeling, despite the varied way we come at these things, that the feelings that push us into writing are pretty similar.

Here’s how I know it’s time:

  • I have plotted, at some level, to the end of the story. (For you pantsers, this might mean you now know the opening scene, the ending, and a few big scenes in between, right?)
  • I have some sense, stronger than in the previous draft, of who my characters are, what they want, and what they’ll do to get that.
  • I find myself, as I plot scenes, throwing in sentences, even paragraphs, into the outlines and bulleted lists. Words are starting to come, whether or not I’m asking them to.
  • I start to see images in my mind of places and people. I get snapshots of moments–a lot like what happens when you freeze a Netflix download to get up for another cookie.
  • I go back to scenes I’ve plotted and throw in reminders that will help me weave in some of the less major plot threads–don’t forget to have Grandma tell them about X, make sure Y shows up in this scene to do SOMETHING.
  • My brain (and fingers) get a strong itch to open a new file (or in this case, Scrivener text item) and head it…Scene 01.

If you’re a plotter, when do you know that you’re “ready” to stop the plotting and start the writing? If you’re a pantser, what do you need, absolutely, to know before you write?

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10 thoughts on “Moving Forward: When to Let Go of Plotting

  1. Great article, Becky! The truth is, I’m starting to suspect that I’m a plotter-pantser. I’ve plotted out quite a few novels, but I never get started because something is always missing. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. Or something just doesn’t make sense.

    The problem, I think, is that I need to pull the magic from my subconscious rather than my conscious mind, and I can’t do that without pantsing. But, as you know, pantsing on its own can lead to a whole lot of good scenes that lead to nowhere. However, isn’t it amazing what you find yourself typing when you just wing it? Plot twists and characterizations that you could never have planned in advance. “Huh? Where did THIS come from?”

    I can’t help but wonder if the answer for plotter-pantsers is to draw out a diagram, then try individual scenes on for size, in turn, which will inevitably lead to diagram alterations. Hopefully, at some point, the book will make sense and you can go back and start from the beginning. But we’d have to get over the notion of “wasted” words and “wasted” time, which is particularly difficult for me, and one of the reasons why I haven’t actually tried this thusfar.

    Oh, I’ve rambled shamelessly. I’m so glad you’ve found a system that works for you,
    Becky. 🙂

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    • beckylevine says:

      I love shameless rambling about writing! 🙂

      As frustrated as I was with the looseness of my first draft, it paid off & gave me a couple of big realizations about what I needed to do. Which probably means I should loosen up some on this draft, and I am pushing myself to–yes–leave things untied up to give myself room for that creativity and those moments.

      It’s always a mix, I think.

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  2. I wrote eight books before discovering that I was an organic writer, a term I like to think is somewhat more explanatory than pantser, though really it just sounds less vulgar. I have no idea how I wrote those books, though I know it involved a great many drafts, the end ones often being very different from the first ones.

    What I’ve done with the last two books I’ve been working on is spend time on character development before getting started, so that plot can come out of character. Also, if I know how I’m going to get started writing the next day, I am really happy.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I do like the sound of organic, but I have to say-my plotting feels organic when I’m doing it, while writing without plot feels–to use my husband’s description–like rolling on square wheels. 🙂

      Spending the time on character development also works for me–what I’ve been doing as I get ready for this second draft. But for me it has to tie in very much with what they’re doing at that moment–as I plot, so it’s all sort of entwined.

      It’s just good when we all find what works for us, isn’t it? At least till the next time!

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  3. As a pantser, all I need is a question that I’m curious enough about to answer to get me started. I also often begin with a title — it may get changed in the end, but a title is like the “on” switch for me. After I get going, I’ll scribble down notes for future scenes or write out of order if necessary. Have I thoroughly frightened you?

    Best of luck with the writing next week!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Wow on the title coming first. I’ve been working for a year+ with the title of, basically, MC’s Story. Which might have worked in the seventies, but probably not today.

      The scribbling down notes for future scenes is a lot like what I do as I go along, AFTER the plotting. I have tried many times to write out of order, and I pretty much just end up screaming. You haven’t frightened me–just amazed me–it blows me away sometimes how different everyone’s process is and still so effective! 🙂

      Thanks & good luck to you with your writing!

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  4. I’d say, like Heather, I’m sort of combination of the two. I can’t start writing until I know who my protagonist is, a little about him, and what he wants. I also need to know what happens at the end (though this often switches around). If I don’t, my story goes nowhere.
    If there is a specific group of people who do things differently, I also need to know all the “rules” for their actions, and how everything works.
    However, if I completely plot it out, I get bored with it and I never start writing.
    Bit of a dilemma.

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    • beckylevine says:

      It always amazes me when I hear people say that plotting gets them bored. I totally believe it & I can see, sort of objectively, how that would happen.

      For me, though, it’s exactly the opposite–when I plot, I start to see the connections I can’t see when it’s loose in my brain, and I get more and more excited about putting those connections and layers into actual scenes…eventually.

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  5. I’m a pantster. Which is leading to problems in characterization, since who the characters are at the beginning and who they will be is changing, meaning I’ll have a lot of revising to do.

    Before I start though, I need the general outline. Who’s in the story, what’s their problem, what do they need and how’re they going to get it. Kind of like a map someone draws for you on a napkin that will make no sense if you look at it a month later.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I’m not sure plotting reduces the amount of revision-I know it doesn’t for me! 🙂

      Problem, yes–that’s it! For some reason, I can’t get very close to that during a loose draft, but I can get closer as I plot. I love that napkin image–especially the idea that it makes no sense later. Which is probably why you get started writing so quickly!

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