Plotline Prep for Planners & Pantsers

September 23, 2015 by Erin E. M. Hatton


Autumn has always felt like the true beginning of a new year for me, after years of back-to-school programming. So it follows that fall is a perfect time to start something new in my writing, especially with Nanowrimo coming up again in just over a month.


Now, you might be what they call a “Pantser” and enjoy seeing where your story takes you as you go. But even if you are the pantsiest pantser in the world, you still want to have some idea where your story is going. And if you’re a die-hard plotter, then you’ll really like these steps to creating a new plot.

Step One: Get a Problem

You need a problem for your story, and not just any problem—a story-worthy problem. This has to have the power to last through your entire book, so make it a good one. A great formula for defining your problem is: Wants, Because, But, So. Character WANTS “A”, BECAUSE “B”, BUT “C”, SO “D”. For example, in Across the Deep William McKillican WANTS to follow God’s call to ministry BECAUSE he believes it is God’s best plan for his life, BUT he can’t continue to minister in Scotland because his congregation has emigrated, SO he emigrates with them. The “But” and “So” may change through the story as new obstacles arise and are overcome, but the “Want” will never truly be resolved until the end.

Step Two: Build a Framework

Break up your story into broad, general “acts”, like a play. Three acts is the norm (think Shakespeare) but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. Consider that the tension of your story will rise through the first act from the onset of your problem onward. Through the second act (and maybe beyond) the tension will rise even further. Then, in the final act, the tension will reach a boiling point where the problem then comes to a head, is resolved, and the story ends. Whether you’re working on a physical surface like a bulletin board or filing drawer, or a computer program such as Scrivener, think of these as file folders or boxes that will hold a lot of smaller details within.

Step Three: Flesh it Out

Start with the skeleton of your acts and add some details. These don’t have to be fine details. This is where you’ll break your book up into chapters or subfolders. Decide roughly what you want to happen in each chapter, and remember to keep the tension increasing as you go.

Step Four: Add Some Detail

Now you’re putting some post-it notes or index cards into those subfolders. These are like the scenes in a movie, and you may find it helpful to arrange it like a storyboard. Keep in mind actions that advance the story and don’t detract from it, and always remember to show character development in action rather than narrating it, if you can. (Show, don’t tell.)

Step Five: Bring it to Life

Now that you’ve got a plot, you’re all set to start writing! You can write any point in the story—you don’t have to start at the beginning and write straight through to the end. And give yourself permission to change things that just aren’t working or could work better. Happy writing!

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About this Contributor

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Erin E.M. Hatton is the author of Otherworld and Across the Deep, winner of the 2014 Free Publishing Contest for Fiction. She has also authored several short stories and novellas. She graduated from Redeemer University College and lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband Kevin and four children.
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