Writers often fall into two distinct categories: "plotters" and "pantsers". Plotters outline their stories before starting to write them. Pantsers prefer to dive headfirst into the writing process with little to no planning beforehand. While plotting offers structure and guidance, pantsing grants the freedom to explore uncharted territory and let the story unfold naturally. However, even pantsers can benefit from a little bit of structure.
Plotting can be a difficult element to master. Even the most seasoned writers struggle with how to get from Point A to Point B. Discover the secrets of successful plotting for pantsers—writers who love to dive into stories without a plan.
What is a plot?
A plot is a series of actions and events that make up a story. These events have a cause and effect relationship; they sequentially build on each other. In other words, the plot is the stuff that happens in the story. What counts as plot is dependent on the story's genre, stakes, and the kind of story you want to tell. For example, a romantic comedy plot might include things like meeting in an elevator, going for a coffee, having a first kiss. An epic fantasy plot might include a masquerade ball, an assassination attempt, or a bloody battle between armies.
On Wattpad, the best stories are ones in which the character actions matter to the story and every chapter advances the plot. The character's goal is what drives the plot forward, providing a direction and purpose to the story that readers can follow and invest in.
Why you should (at least somewhat) plot your stories
We hear it all the time: Outlining takes the fun and joy out of writing or you worry it will stifle your creativity. You need that rush of flying by the seat of your pants and letting the story unfold as you write. But we've also read many slice-of-life stories where nothing happens. We are here to help you write the best stories possible, and for your stories to be the best… stuff has to happen!
A great way to ensure stuff happens is to plot your stories or chapters before you start writing them. Plotting and outlining doesn't have to be a rigid and inflexible process. Believe it or not, plotting can actually enhance the fun and joy of writing by helping you stay organized and focused. Loose and flexible outlines are meant to help with discovery and creativity.
Think of plotting like a roadmap that helps keep you on track and ensures you don't get stuck in a writing slump. A loose framework can provide general direction and allow you to keep the big picture in mind. It will help you understand why you're writing what you're writing, and may spark new ideas and possibilities.
Have concrete and tangible goals
Your story needs specific, clear, and measurable objectives that a character seeks to achieve. The goal should be something that can be seen, touched, or measured, like winning a professional cooking competition or climbing Mount Everest.
Specific goals are more successful than abstract goals like "happiness" or "success" because they provide a clear direction for your character's actions. With a concrete and tangible goal, your readers can understand and follow the character's journey. They'll know what to root for and be able to track the protagonist's progress.
A character with a goal is more active, which will help keep your story moving and create conflict and tension. For example, let's say your character's concrete and tangible goal is to buy a house for their family. To get closer to achieving this goal, maybe your character gets a better paying job, saves money, or researches neighborhoods. On the other hand, things that could push them away from their goal could be unexpected expenses or losing their job. Ultimately, your plot should contain a series of events where your character gets closer to or further from their goal.
Simple and effective plotting: Beginning, Middle, and End
There are many ways to structure and plot your story such as the Hero's Journey, Save the Cat, and the Fichtean Curve. But to keep it simple (and extremely effective), one structure that can help you think about how to pre-plot your stories is one known to most writers: Beginning, Middle, and End. Every story, regardless of length or genre, should move through beginning, middle, and end phases. Following this structure helps create that satisfying narrative arc that keeps your readers engaged.
In the beginning phase, you should introduce your reader to a character on a day that is different from every other day in their life thus far. You should share the character's goal, conflicts that stop them from achieving their goal, and hint at stakes and motivations. The beginning is your opportunity to get readers invested in your story. It must be set in the present and should launch your characters into the next phase of your story. The beginning should be about 25% of your story.
The middle is the bulk of your story and should comprise at least half of the word count (50%). In the middle, your protagonist is trying their hardest to achieve their goal, relishing in victories, and battling obstacles and conflicts. Stakes and tension are high. Your character is having to try new tactics, change course, and grow as a person. All this change and growth culminates in the final phase.
In the last 25% of your story, the biggest crisis and hardest choices find your character, who is now more prepared to take on the challenge than they were in the beginning. Your readers have been waiting for this phase, so remember to make it satisfying and emotionally resonant. In the end phase, your character must eventually come face-to-face with their goal and can either lose it or achieve it.
The beginning, middle, and end phases don't have to be explicitly shown. The best stories are the ones that transition between each phase so seamlessly that a reader doesn't notice. But breaking it into these three phases in the planning stage of your story can be helpful, giving you a roadmap to follow and ensuring that your story is flowing logically.
Plotting exercise for pantsers
Let's do a quick exercise! Think about the story you're writing or an idea that's been kicking around in your head for a while, then follow the steps below.
- Give your main character a name and a goal. Remember, your goal should be a specific, clearly defined objective that the character wants to achieve over the course of your story.
- Come up with a list of at least 3 events or situations that will help your character get closer to achieving their goal (in no specific order). This could be actions, victories, allies, fortunate events, or anything that will provide a boost to your character's efforts.
- Come up with a list of at least 3 events or situations that will push your character away from their goal (in no specific order). Obstacles, set backs, conflicts, injuries, distractions, or anything that makes it more difficult to achieve the goal.
- Organize these events in a way that resembles a plot. Use beginning, middle, and end as a guide but don't be afraid to shuffle your events around. You want a balance of both successes and failures, and should consider how each event affects the one that comes before it and after it.
- You've plotted a story! Now, consider why each event is important for the character and story overall. If you understand the significance, you will be able to replay the importance to your audience through your character's thoughts, feelings, and actions.
- Start connecting each event. Think about how each event leads to the next one and how they all build on each other to create a cohesive plot.
Breaking down the process into smaller steps like creating lists of events and organizing them makes plotting so much more manageable.
For writers who love uncertainty and enjoy the journey of discovery, being a pantser is a liberating and rewarding approach to storytelling. But with an open mind and willingness to adapt, you can embrace plotting and form a loose roadmap—and this can be rewarding, too. Consider the Beginning, Middle, End approach and think of it as a rough guide, not a rigid map. Use it to steer you and identify areas where your story may be lagging. Maybe you'll be surprised and embrace a plotter mindset in your future stories!