Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Hi, everyone, and welcome to today’s discussion of the craft of fiction, this time with a Thanksgiving spin:
Plantsing: How Loose Outlines Save My Turkey… and My Books!
So, if you’ve followed any of my series on Plotting, you know that I like plotting.
But here’s my secret: I didn’t use to plot my stories at all.
In fact, there was a time when I didn’t even know how to plot, or really even understand that it was a thing. I would just start with a flash of inspiration for a moment or a scene, begin writing it, and then keep going… until I ran out of ideas, at which point I’d either declare “The End” or just give up and file the story away in a dusty (metaphorically, of course) Document folder on my computer and/or an old binder I kept my writing in (this one got literal dust).
I actually studied Fiction Writing in college. In fact, I majored in it, and yet somehow I never learned how to plot beyond the basic Beginning-Middle-End.
That’s not to say I didn’t learn valuable things in my degree. I did. Absolutely, I did. I think maybe we even touched on story structure, but it definitely wasn’t emphasized, and my infantlike writer-brain just didn’t latch onto it… I was struggling to stay afloat learning all the other things like character development and “Show Don’t Tell” and how to know which details are significant. Plotting wasn’t among my strongly-developed skills when I graduated, and I didn’t even realize it should be. I felt there were unspoken rules for fiction (there aren’t, exactly, but there are expectations), but I was never quite sure if I was following them. I was never quite sure when a story was done, or if a story was “good” or how to even tell.
I was what people in the writing sphere now call a “Pantser,” though I’d never heard that term and wouldn’t for years to come. In other words, I flew by the seat of my pants through my story, making it up as I went. Was there anything wrong with that? No. But there was a downside, and it’s this: It made my rate of success with stories basically 50-50. It was always an exciting toss up. Will I finish this story or get stuck halfway through? Who knows?! Will this story be something people even want to read? Who knows?! Will this story be something I even like? Who knows?!
It was a lot of time and effort invested with very mixed results.
And then, about 3 summers ago, I discovered Story Structure… and it changed everything.
By now you’re wondering, “What does this have to do with a turkey?”
Good news — I’m about to tell you.
So, in a way, a plot is like a recipe.
Let me stop here and make one thing very clear: I do NOT mean that there is some magic recipe that you can just plug in your ideas to and end up with a best-selling book. Writing is so much more nuanced than that, and success with writing depends on diligently developing many, many skills as a writer that you build up by layers until they become second nature, and then add on some more. It is hard work but for those who love writing it’s well worth it.
What I do mean is that each individual story has an ideal form, that magic image you have in your mind and feel deep in your gut it’s capable of achieving. And hoping to reach that ideal form for your particular story without thinking it through first or planning any of it is a little like me trying to cook a turkey for the first time with no recipe and no clue what I’m doing.
With me now?
Here’s the thing. The first time I cooked a turkey, I Googled that sucker. Why? Because I had no clue what I was doing. I had no clue how to take a frozen turkey from rock-solid frozen to actually edible, much less the kind of edible that people enjoy.
Stories are the same way. Can you wing them? Sure! But if you’ve never done it well before, and you’re totally flying blind, the odds are pretty high you’re going to end up with a half-frozen, not-so-enjoyable-but-maybe-technically-edible mess of a turkey… I mean… story.
Are there people who can cook turkeys with no recipe? Of course. But I’d bet they had to learn how first. That’s all I’m saying.
So let me bring this home…
I now use a “Plantser” approach to writing, which is to say that I am somewhere in the middle of strict plotting and all-out winging it.
I still love the freedom of discovering parts of my story as I go, but having a basic outline and overall plan keeps me on track and helps me intelligently build the tension and character development into the story as I go. I can go deeper with my world and characters because I’m not struggling to figure out where I’m even going, not worrying about whether I’m lost or on the right track. I know my basic track, and then I just twirl and skip a little bit as I move down it… to keep it fun. All the best parts of my stories come to me as I write, but without that basic guide of an outline, I end up dead-ended before that free-wheeling creativity can even really stretch its wings.
So, now back to the turkey…
When I cook (in general, but also with turkeys)… I follow the recipe carefully up to a point. When I hit the point where I’m like “Yeah, I got this,” then sometimes I become a little bit of a renegade. “One teaspoon rosemary? Nah, we’re doing two.” “4 hours in the oven?… Doesn’t quite look done. Let’s do 30 minutes more.”
But here’s the point… I can do this because I know how rosemary tastes on a turkey, and I know what a turkey looks like when it’s done. When I first started cooking turkeys, I didn’t. And that was totally okay, because turkey-cooking is a learned skill and I was learning.
There is never shame in learning. Be where you are, own it, but push yourself to be better. Always. No matter who you are, or where you are in the process.
Plotting and outlining are tools. They will not make you a good writer… but they can help show you some basic expectations for what makes a strong story. They can keep you on track. When I first began outlining, I thought I had to be exact with hitting all the plot points from various 3-Act Structures… here’s the secret: you don’t have to be perfect. You can throw in paprika with your rosemary, or add 30 minutes to the cooking time… whatever your story needs. But if you don’t know how to tell if your story is on the right track… or whether it’s done… or if it’s any good… then your outline can help guide you.
Just like that Googled turkey recipe kept me from burning down my kitchen.