Monday, January 28, 2013

Thoughts from a flexible plotter

In writing fiction, writers typically divide themselves into two camps: Plotters and pansters. Personally, I’ve always found it interesting to learn how other writers plot (or don’t plot) and put their stories together.

Here is a quick definition of the two ‘camps.’

Plotters need structure when they write. They usually use outlines or charts, chapter by chapter summaries, or at a minimum an understanding of the beginning, middle, and end before they start to write.

Panters might begin with just a single scene that intrigues them. They need to have a freedom in their writing which might mean not knowing the ending, or simply writing as they go.

Figuring out how YOU best write is key as you jump into a new project. For myself, I’ve come to realize that I am a flexible plotter. I use an outline because my plots are usually pretty complicated, but that doesn’t mean I know everything up front. There are always a lot of surprises along the way.

What do you do, though, when you don't have enough plot, or you just can't figure out which way the story needs to go? The book I’m currently writing has been particularly challenging. The majority of the story takes place over one day, which means that the timeline is very, very tight. I ended up using a couple methods to organize my plot that really made a difference.

Excel Spread Sheet

First, I used an Excel spreadsheet so I could see my chapters and how they all fit together. This is actually something I always do, but for this story, it was essential. Within the worksheet, I laid out chapter numbers, timeline, a short definition of the chapter, a running word count, POV, and any extra notes I might need.

In this story, though, the Excel spreadsheet wasn't enough. I was struggling with the timeline and for the first time, put together a large story board with index cards to sort through the chapters and scenes. I loved the fact that I could easily move the chapters around, see what worked, and then later update my Excel sheet.

Storyboard example 

There was another problem I faced during this process, though. I simply didn't have enough of a plot to write an eighty-five thousand word book. Here's a couple ideas to get those creative juices flowing that in the end, really worked.  (Especially the first idea.)

One, watch movies similar to your genre, and spend time dissecting the plot. For my current story, I watched Flightplan and took notes on every twist in the plot, then stood back and worked through how I could add my own subplots and twists and turns to my story.

Another great place to learn about the behind the scenes of writing, is the bonus information on DVDs by the writers. I love listening to writers of TV shows talk about their writing process, characterization, and why they kept or cut certain scenes. They always get me excited about writing again.

Your turn: Whether you're a plotter or a panster, what methods to you use to put your plot together and get those creative juices flowing?


Visit Lisa's website to learn more about her books and life in Africa. Watch for Stolen Identity from Love Inspired Suspense, coming June 2013, and a brand new romantic suspense series debuting from Revel this fall.


  1. Hi Lisa,

    I'm definitely a pantser although sometimes I think I'm just plain desperate! I usually start with the scene that intrigues me, then write a few other scenes that leap to mind, then I get stuck and desperate. At that stage, a story board with movable stickies, sometimes in different colours will give me a push, or at least let me think I'm being a real writer. Truth is, I'm all for anything that works -- free writing, GMC, character interviews -- I've tried them all. And isn't it wonderful that we can try them all -- or not -- as we choose!

  2. You're exactly right, Alice. Even after a decade and a half of writing, I'm still open to trying new ideas that will improve my story!

  3. Hi Lisa!
    I'm somewhere in between, too! However, my process looks much different than yours, but isn't that part of the fun? So many different ways to achieve the same goal, and writing every book is different :)

  4. It is part of the fun, Eva. And even better when we love the process whatever it might be!

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  6. I'm definitely a panster. Just start with a character and vague idea and follow along to see where it leads.

  7. Love the term 'flexible plotter', Lisa! That's what I think I am. Usually I roughly plan out all my chapters before I start but know that it will grow by a chapter or two ... or three! Often what I think will be covered in one chapter turns out to take so much more space to unfold, so it spills over into the next and into the next!

  8. I didn't know it until now that I am a plotter type of fiction writer though I think I'm a little bit of a panter also which basically make me a "flexible writer". :D

    As for me, I start with a scene, then based on that scene I try to come up with a draft outline of how the story goes. This just to make sure that I won't be lost and this will serve as a guide also. Then from the first scene, I write the story and it should connect to the second scene on the outline. And so on and so forth.

  9. Lisa, I always use an excel spreadsheet. I recently discovered index cards and found them super-helpful for synopsis writing.