Pants Off: The Plotter’s Approach to Writing a Novel

Let’s begin today with a bit of backstory: I wrote my first manuscript not so long ago. It was never intended to be a lonely standalone; rather, it fits into a larger and more ambitious project spanning three books with the possibility of two spinoff backstories for supporting characters who I grew to love (though I didn’t think they’d serve much beyond the primary arc at first.) I built a big world, with a complicated magical system, and two millennia worth of story that is only hinted at, but that I needed to understand the context of the events that had brought Character A and Character B to a particular place in the current world that you and I know and live in. I needed to know a bunch of stuff about the supporting characters, so I built timelines and scribbled backstories, and pinpointed the intersections where things got screwed up because they made poor choices or someone went and messed things up for everybody else. It’s a rich fabric. I have tomes of research on the settings and various chunks of history, and I use a combination of Scrivener, Scapple, Aeon Timeline, and… a lot of hair-pulling and nail biting. Only an ounce of this stuff actually gets used in the actual story.

I finished in a hundred and forty thousand words, writing roughly one thousand words per day after work, with the exception of one ten thousand word push towards the end that came out in a fury.

The beginning took three tries — three false starts until I found my footing and had a better understanding of the characters I was dealing with and what their motivations were. It took half the draft to understand what the antagonist wanted, and I looked at how far I’d gotten, and concluded that revision would be necessary but I was going to push forward anyways to Get the Damned Thing Done.

I had a vague idea of what I wanted to accomplish, where the characters needed to end up, and what had to happen for things to fall into place. I sort of wrote an outline? Mostly I just winged it. This approach is oft referred to as “pantsing”, which refers to “writing by the seat of your pants.”

I don’t actually wear pants when writing. Usually there’s a blanket and some shorts involved, I guess? Sometimes. Sometimes I wear a onesie, but I digress.

Perhaps, in hindsight, contemplating the amount of structural revision I’ll need to do to get this to a place where I can hand it off, I should have approached things differently.

So, on the cusp of beginning the second book in the series, picking up where the first left off, I am attempting something a bit more tactical with my planning:

I have introduced the dreaded spreadsheet into my plotting process.

You may reap the benefits of this particular type of torture.

Pants Off: The Plotter’s Approach to Writing a Novel

We understand that stories function in want/denial patterns:

Character A wants something, but Character A can’t have it. At its most basic level this drives the conflict. What does Character A do when C can’t get what she wants? It creates a problem that needs to be surmounted. Action. Reaction. Repeat.

The best analogy for this I’ve heard so far follows as such: You run your cast up a tree and throw a bunch of rocks at them for the duration of the story, and eventually you let them down — expect for that one guy who drops dead and falls out of the tree entirely. Or maybe all of them, if you’re talking about Game of Thrones.

Mass slaughter. Boom. Rocks fall, everyone dies. Winter is coming.

Since the trilogy follows the journey of a heroine on a quest (albeit a dark one), I use a loose structure that follows the Hero’s Journey popularized by Joseph Campbell. Even if you now nothing about story structure and you’ve never heard of Joseph Campbell or the monomyth, you’ve seen this before, I promise you (unless you live in a void where there is no internet or television.)

Cases for Monomyth:

Star Wars

Star Wars

Fight Club

Fight Club

Harry Potter

Harry Potter

There are a few arguments against using the monomyth, but I’ve used it and broken it in places with success. I kill characters almost indiscriminately and without following any particular horror tropes (or outright abusing all of them), and my magical system sustains it, so. Why not? The Hero’s Journey is a guide not a rule book. If it servers the purpose of getting a character to the end — good. I can work with that.

I’ve “borrowed” the following summary from The Writer’s Journey:

The Hero’s Journey Outline

The Hero’s Journey is a pattern of narrative identified by the American scholar Joseph Campbell that appears in drama, storytelling, myth, religious ritual, and psychological development.  It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization.

Its stages are:

  1. THE ORDINARY WORLD:  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
  2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE:  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
  3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL:  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
  4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR:  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
  5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD:  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
  6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES:  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
  7. APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
  8. THE ORDEAL:  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
  9. THE REWARD: The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
  10. THE ROAD BACK:  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
  11. THE RESURRECTION:  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
  12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR:  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

I could map this to Star Wars or Harry Potter, but this guy already did it and since I’m striving to avoid redundancy, here you go:

Star Wars Hero's Journey

This is a great overview to start with, but as you can see, each chunk represents a major marker in the action that doesn’t break down action/consequences. Since I’m working with a protagonist, a supporting, two subsidiary characters, a major antagonist, and three lesser characters who all fall under the prevailing shadow belonging to the Big Bad, who, for all intents and purposes could be Lord Sauron — a legend, a myth, and a catalyst for the plot, there’s a lot of interlocking pieces that this structure doesn’t cover. Oh, and P.S. there are kernels for books two and three — mere blips that need to shine brightly for a second and disappear in the reader’s imagination until I can bring them back later for that “Oh yeah!” moment.

This is trilogy hell.

The end result of these interactions looks something like this, where “x” represents the chunk of plot where each piece fits together:

Wake the Dead - Character Interactions

I’m not inserting the actual data for obvious reasons, but inasmuch as the structure is concerned, it helps to lay things out and see where things fall out of balance. If it seems like a character isn’t getting enough screen time for their subplot to resolve (or too much for that matter) go back and adjust. The important thing to remember is that when they climb down from the tree, they emerge changed in some way. What a character wants at the onset is rarely what they’re offered at the end, whether the story concludes in their favour or not.

End Remarks

Planning is good. I’ve learned that I can line up all three books alongside each other and reproduce the same structure to greater or lesser degree. Writing the thing is rarely the issue — a first draft takes time and the commitment to show up and get it done, but having a structure, a guideline, a map in place for revision? Priceless, because the revision is where the real work is, and there’s nothing like slogging through a hundred and forty thousand words, trying to sort out the logistics of a missing action marker and then having to follow up by hacking into ten chapters to make it fit seamlessly.

It’s not that much easier working to a plan, but at least it keeps things organized when ensuring that you’ve said everything that needs to be said.

Sidenote: The next novel I write — that little standalone novel about the Devil? It’s going to be cake compared to this beast of a trilogy.

Ambition, man, what would I do if I wasn’t actively trying to make myself insane with the details.



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