When it comes to planning stories the two extremes of authors are the “pantsers,” who fly by the seat of their pants and make it all up as they go, and the “planners,” who write meticulously detailed outlines before putting a single word on the page. Between those, there are many possible variations. What will work best for someone depends on their personality, but also on the type of story they are working on. One size does not fit all.
Once, many years ago, I took a land navigation course. After the training came the test. I was dropped off in the chigger-infested North Carolina woods with a compass and a map with three marked locations. My mission was to find all three within a set time.
My first attempt was an abject failure; I barely found the first spot and not at all the others. The reason was simple: while I’d read the map correctly and had set out in the right direction, I’d soon veered off course because of the rough terrain. Every time I’d skirted around a ditch or a clump of shrubbery, my trajectory had changed a couple of degrees. Distance had multiplied the tiny deviation and I’d missed my mark completely.
On my second try I read the map, set my direction and then picked a landmark—like a tall tree—that sat directly in my path. I could wander around obstacles—as long as I made it to my target, I was golden. Once there, I started the process over. This approach turned out to be wildly successful—I found all locations well within the allotted time.
Now I use a similar method when writing. I haven’t always—I started out as a pantser but a third of the way through Last Stop I realized if I didn’t lay a course I’d get lost for good. After that, I got into the habit of charting a plot first.
I start out with the characters—often times their backstories drive the narrative. It’s true for not only the protagonist(s) but also the major supporting players. They should have life and purpose spreading beyond the book. Once I set the stage, I start the actual plotting. This consists of a lot of tossing ideas around, figuring out what needs to happen in what order. When I get bogged down, I go for a hike. There’s nothing like fresh air, exercise, and the lack of Internet to get you unstuck.
My final outline is a list of all the major plot points I need to hit. As I do this, I start picturing scenes, encounters between the different characters, and hearing their voices. The story starts to come alive in my head and I become cautiously optimistic about the eventual outcome.
I also do some research at this time, mostly into locations. It’s almost like pre-production for a movie. Just recently, while looking into the caves of Budapest, I came across accounts of a quirky real world incident that would fit neatly into my story. Only a tiny adjustment to the outline was necessary to accommodate.
My outlines are not terribly detailed. Much of my discovery still happens as I write, however I don’t think it’s possible to write mystery, suspense, or anything with a complex plot without some sort of outline. I make up the particulars as I go, but having that list provides me with a direction and the confidence to know that I won’t write myself off the edge of a plot-cliff.
~Under a prickly, cynical surface Lou Harper is an incorrigible romantic. Her love affair with the written word started at a tender age. There was never a time when stories weren’t romping around in her head. She is currently embroiled in a ruinous romance with adjectives. In her free time, Lou stalks deviant words and feral narratives.
Lou’s favorite animal is the hedgehog. She likes nature, books, movies, photography, and good food. She has a temper and mood swings.
Lou has misspent most of her life in parts of Europe and the US, but is now firmly settled in Los Angeles and worships the sun. However, she thinks the ocean smells funny. Lou is a loner, a misfit, and a happy drunk. ~
Via her web site: http://louharper.com/
Her blog: http://louharper.blogspot.com/