Writers often sort themselves into three Hogwarts Houses: pantser, plotter, and plantser.
Definition: someone who flies by the seat of their pants.
Pantsers are pure Hufflepuff energy. Drafting is an act of constant discovery, of never knowing what’s around the corner, of flinging yourself off the edge of a cliff and knowing that you’re going to float among the stars. They believe in their muse and are utterly, unabashedly loyal to her. Blank pages spark joy, and plotting feels like a constraint: if you know what happens in the story, then what’s the point of even writing it? It’s trodden ground. Boring. Better to go bravely into the unknown.
Definition: someone who designs their stories before writing them.
Plotters are pure Ravenclaw energy. Drafting is an act of execution, of working diligently to master and fulfill their ideas, of carefully laying down a flagstone path through a tightly manicured garden. They love to clean out the cobwebs in every nook and cranny so that their ideas are as clean and as promising as a blank page. Plotting isn’t a constraint, it’s an opportunity to understand, to explore, to fall in love. They are cartographers before they are writers.
Definition: someone who is the bastard offspring of pantsers and plotters.
Plantsers are Ravenpuffs… or Huffleclaws. Drafting is an act of curation, of letting dandelions sprout in the lawn, of tossing your shoes, stepping off your carefully laid path, and wandering barefoot through the wilds. They delight in the unexpected ways story magic thrives, even if it completely reinvents their vision. A compass is always close by, but getting lost is half the fun.
I think most writers start off as pantsers in the same way that most wine drinkers start with Moscato. It’s more palatable, less intimidating, and just flat out fun. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t highly distinguished Moscatos out there, but I think a lot of writers do drift into the drier sides of things (i.e. plotting). Whether or not they stop at Sauv Blanc or head all the way over to Merlot depends on the person. And if you’re like me, you’ve tried the whole spectrum, found your favorites, but are more than willing to shake things up if the situation calls for it.
Home base for me is plantsing.
After I’ve been inspired by a spark, I sit down and try to develop my projects in the stage that I’m calling “early plotting.” Here, I try to figure out the basics: who my cast of characters are, what (roughly) happens to them, and what themes I want to tackle. (And as we’ll see in a sec, the former and the latter are usually how I figure out the midling). More often than not, there’s a fair amount of room for intuition: I need a general direction to head in, a vague understanding of where we’ll end up, and the faith that I’ll be able to make good decisions along the way.
Think of it like hiking. There’s a path for you to follow, but a rainstorm might have washed out the way left so you decide to go right, a tree might have fallen up on the hill so you have to decide whether to go over it or around, and you might think you’re going to turn back at three miles but you actually think you’ve got the drive to do five. There’s still an element of discovery, but you didn’t just wander out into the woods with flipflops and a redbull.
The most famous plantsing quote, in my personal opinion—the one that best describes what it feels like—is from E.L. Doctorow:
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”E.L. Doctorow
Generally, you know where you’re starting and where you’ll end; you roughly know the kind of road will get you there. But that doesn’t mean you can see everything with crystal clarity as you’re going.
All novel-writing takes a little bit of faith and trust in yourself, but pantser and plantsers need to have a little extra. They have to believe that they are capable of getting from Point A to Point B, even if there are detours along the way.
For a plantser like me, the Early Plotting stage is all about figuring out enough that you can start driving. The rest we’ll figure out as we go.
Okay, we’ve got a spark of an idea, we’ve collected our inspirations and let our mind hang out in the Daniel Craig meme for a while. Now we need to think critically.
In other words, we have our observations. Now it’s time to analyze and synthesize.
I’m going to keep defining these suckers until the cows come home since they’re like the one thing I hope you get out of this blog, so bare with me again.
Analysis is the what.
Analysis is the stage where you break apart your observations in order to explore what effect they have. What exactly do you have there, in your observations? What elements are present? What meaning is there? What connections do the observations have between one another? What patterns do they collectively produce? What effect do they have on the text at large and the readers who consume it? What power do they have?
(A lot of those questions are redundant, but again, defining till the cows come home. And you’re also going to notice there’s a bit lof logical overlap with Synthesis—they’re very closely knit, and I tend to do them both at the same time.)
Synthesis is the why.
Synthesis is the stage where you reason out why the answers to the “what” questions in Analysis matter. Why are these observations present (as opposed to other ones)? Why are these elements present? Why are these meanings there? Why does it matter that there are connections or patterns between these observations / meanings? Why are these effects powerful in relation to the text at large and the readers who consume it?
Why the fuck bother?
What and Why are questions you have to ask of your story ideas.
What are you inspired by, and why are you inspired by it?
What meaning could your story have, and why is it worth writing?
It’s helpful if you reframe your creative mind into a more critical one for a moment. In literary scholarship, everything on the page is fair game. Every word and every story element’s presence impacts the pages around it and the readers consuming it, so we can and will explore it further, regardless if it was a complete and total accident that even ended up on the page to begin with.
So even though I’ve told you intent is total bullshit (we can’t usually prove an author put something there intentionally, let alone for X, Y, or Z reasons), I want you to pretend you’re a mother fucking literary genius. You are the almighty, the sky daddy, the next Shakespeare. And you are going to put everything on that page for a reason.
We know you won’t. Writing is loosely controlled chaos even for the best plotters. But that’s not the point.
The point right now is to treat your inspiration and your early writing ideas as intentional canon and explore what the fuck they’re doing. What reasons are there for their existence? What meaning does it carry?
In other words, pretend your early sparks are already on the page. Then use our literary method to figure out what work they’re doing on that page.
What this will look like in practice depends on what kinds of observations you’re working with, but the endgame will almost inevitably lead us back to one thing, and one thing only: theme.
Characters go on a journey. Why? Cuz themes.
Magic system is rooted in a certain sort of real life history. Why? Cuz themes.
Things blow up in space. Why? Cuz themes.
Theme is Queen.
But we’ll get there. For now, let’s do the work.
Up next are a series of questions to get you thinking. How you practically want to do that work is completely and totally up to you, but here are some suggestions:
- Meditate on them while doing mindless work, driving, hiking, etc. and dump all your thoughts into your notes doc.
- Use a bullet journal, a planner, or a scrivener doc to formally ask and answer.
- Annotate your sparks: print out pictures or use pinterest to group things together an take notes on what you have, make word clouds, circle / star / or otherwise mark up what you have “on the page” in your sparks.
In the Spark stage of thinking about a story idea, the why can be as simple as “I like it.” But as you’re trying to put the scaffolding down for your first draft, I need you to dig deep. Ask yourself “why” or “so what” until your brain fucking hurts, okay? Be that tiktok sound: “It’ll never be enough. No. Never enough. It’ll never never be enough.” Keep digging into the why. Keep synthesizing. That will lead you to plot ideas.
And furthermore, What and Why are always in conversation with one another. So go back and forth. Let them ping off each other and help you potentially shift or create new whats to then go with new whys.
If your spark is Character.
First step: What is your Character.
Backstory / trauma
Second step: Why is your Character.
Why those physical traits?
Why those personality traits?
Why those traumas?
Why those misbeliefs?
Why does it have to be this character? Why do we want to follow their growth? Why are their choices powerful? Why does it matter who they are?
Example: THE STARS SEE ALL
For the winter Whitehill story, my spark was a strong, independent woman who took no shit and flaunted the gender politics of her day. In order to figure out what the heck to do with her, I had to think about why it was valuable writing a Whitehill story with her as the protagonist. I already had Moon under my belt, so I could at least use that as a starting point: there, I explored some of the archetypes and themes of motherhood at the intersection with witchcraft. So I thought to myself, what parts of the divine feminine–or just femininity at large–could this character speak to at the intersection of witchcraft? And then it came to me: the femme fatale. Strong women have been demonized and persecuted as witches in the Western Imaginary, and I had a strong woman on my hands. So I used my handy dandy friend juxtaposition (more on that in a bit) to pit my MC against an actual femme fatale that was luring men to their deaths. That intersected with my setting spark (winter) to craft a Snow Queen retelling in my particular universe. Huzzah! I have a plot!
If your spark is World.
First step: What is your World.
Setting, Place (location, geography, flora, fauna, architecture)
Setting, Time (year, season, how long the story takes, historical and cultural moment)
Setting, People (costuming, politics [public transcripts and hidden transcripts, aka norms and countercultures or institutional powers and rebellions], prejudices, religions, ways of living).
Magic (appearance, impact, mechanics, limitations, consequences)
Second step: Why is your World.
Why that place?
Why that time?
Why those people?
Why that magic?
Why does it have to be those elements? Why does your story have to be told in that world? Why does it matter what that world is?
Example: PROJECT COSMIC
One of my new plot bunnies started with a magic and a setting spark: I had dance magic and an urban space that had a lot of history and texture to it + nature encroaching on that space + a couple of pinterest images of clothes and buildings with astronomy vibes. In order to figure out what the main framework of this idea could be, I analyzed and synthesized the dance magic. What is dance? Bodies moving through space and time, an art, an expression of emotion, a matching of the body with music and rhythm, an expression of muscle and bone and kinetic energy, a result of electrical pathways in the human body at the behest of the brain. How could dance be a form of magic? Perhaps the body is an expression not only of kinetic energy but the energy of the universe–a bridge between space and time, a mirror not of music but of the echoes of the past? And then I got to thinking about the astronomy images–wouldn’t a group of people crafting magic by moving their bodies through space and time be interested in other bodies moving through space and time? Planets and stars, the universe expanding ever outward from the first combustion of pure energy–the big bang. Ahhh, we might be onto something here…
If your spark is Plot.
I’m going to go on record and say that this is going to be the weakest out of all the others, since I generally don’t start with plot sparks—and I think there’s too much pressure to have a plot right away as opposed to letting other elements lead you to your plot. But I will TRY, fam, for you.
First step: What is your Plot?
Second step: Why is your Plot?
Why that situation?
Why that conflict?
Why those stakes?
Why does this plot matter? Why will it impact readers? Why write it in this way?
Example: BLACK INK
I had to dig deep for this one because like I said, I don’t usually have plot sparks–I have setting or character vibe ones. BUT, in eighth grade, I wrote a horror novel called Black Ink that came to me as I was personifying my journal in the way that I was writing to it. I thought to myself, what if the journal did, in fact, talk back? Why would it? What would it say? What kind of conflict could I create out of that situation, and how could I raise the stakes of it? That led me down the path of a haunted journal that was poisoning the minds of its users, a la Ginny Weasley. We’ll leave it at that. All our early books are trash.
If your spark is Genre / Trope.
First step: What is your Genre / Trope?
Genre / Trope Expectations
Genre / Trope Subversions
Intersections (with character, plot, themes, settings, etc).
Second step: Why is your Genre / Trope?
Why these expectations?
Why these subversions?
Why these intersections?
Why does this specific genre / trope speak to you? Why does this specific genre / trope matter readers?
Example: THE MOON TELLS NO LIES
Moon was an interesting kind of project because it’s basically a pull-three-genres-out-of-a-hat: witchy horror romance. Or perhaps dark fantasy, horror, romance. And one of the first things I knew I wanted was to write a forbidden romance & tragic backstory. Why? Idk, I wanted to. But the intersections therein helped me develop some of its plot and themes. Why would my witchy MC not be able to love? Why would she be so unbelievably terrified to open herself up to someone? Is it perhaps because children in her family line are cursed? Is it because she’s traumatized by the expression on that curse–having had to live and survive through it? There’s an interesting intersection in romance and horror. The fears of motherhood are ancient. You are opening yourself up to new life, yes, but also to unimaginable pain: death of a child, death of a parent, body horror, grief that sends shock waves through generations. There was room to play there and develop a backstory that could impact the main plot.
Literary Devices to Help You Think
Take a look this list of literary devices to help you critically think about what you have and why you have it. These can both help you analyze the meaning of your sparks but also synthesize why they deserve to be on the page—how exactly they relate to one another, and how the events of the book (plot) can further propel the meaning you’re exploring.
If an entire list of literary devices seems daunting or overwhelming, I’ll leave you with my absolute favorite (in part because it’s such an umbrella term):
Juxtaposition, broadly speaking, is putting two (or more) things next to one another in order to compare or contrast. It’s letting things ping off each other and make meaning as a result. And it’s your best fucking friend.
Housed under juxtaposition are a few other terms.
Foils: things / characters that are opposite one another.
Helpful for contrasting, for illuminating differences, and for showing two sides of the same coin.
Parallels: things / characters are similar to one another.
Helpful for comparing, for drawing meaning through repetition, for drawing attention to other variables that impact outcome (e.g. same personality, different situation leads to a different kind of character who makes different kinds of choices)
Tension: a balance / emotional interest maintained between opposing forces or elements; a controlled dynamic or dynamic quality.
This one’s kind of hard to describe, so let me take a detour to help. To help develop choral tension in my small honors ensemble choir, we were given stretchy tights that we all criss-crossed amongst each other. When we sang, we pulled on those tights to stretch them between us and the other people. Tension is those tights: it’s the stretching, pushing, pulling between two elements/people. If the other person wasn’t there, though, if they let go, the tight would fall limp and be uninteresting. Juxtaposing things creates tension: that push and pull, that balance.
Synecdoche: a part of something represents the whole.
This usually refers to figures of speech, such as “the captain commands one hundred sails” (a sail is only a small part of a ship, so using the part to represent the whole). But I like to think of synecdoche on larger scales too. Something is a microcosm of something else. A small thing actually means a big thing. There’s a relationship between the small thing and the bigger thing it’s a part of: using a small battle or a small scene to represent the larger war / plot, for instance.
Pitting two things against one another can help develop plot, character, and theme. So juxtapose like your life depends on it!
Setting up Scrivener
All the work I do above—all the questions I ask myself, all the critical engagement I do with my Spark—ends up in my “dump it all” notes doc that we talked about in the Spark post. All the major plot points that arise out of the brainstorming find their way there. But eventually I have to do something with it.
With every project, I have a Manuscript Scrivener Doc and a Notes Scrivener Doc. The latter is, in a lot of ways, my Book Bible. I’ve never actually actively turned it into one after a draft’s completed, but it at the very least is the thing I rely on to sort out my thoughts, outline, and store inspiration. It is always up on the right side of my screen when I’m drafting, and I hop around in it whenever I need to make a quick decision on the fly.
Plantser’s gotta plants.
First thing I do as I’m transitioning from the Spark stage to the Early Plotting stage is dump my iphone notes doc into Scrivener. I make a Plot folder, in which I add two new folders: Major Arcs and Outlines.
The Major Arcs folder has two documents: first notes, and notes in chronological order. The former is that chaotic mess of iphone notes. The latter is where I sort through everything and try to create some kind of chronological order out of the chaos. The chronological text is the big picture, the story from A to B to C. I don’t hold myself to any kind of standard with it. Sometimes I don’t have B totally figured out yet, or I know C will change—and I definitely don’t use beat sheets or anything. My flavor of plantsing only requires a wood and rope footbridge across the ravine, not a cement and steel suspension one. It’s okay if it sways.
The Outlines folder is where I do the chapter-by-chapter road map. I tend to outline in batches of 10, though sometimes it can be as little as 2 or 3. I’ve got a general idea of where I’m going, but if I outline any further out than that, everything just gets messy–I’ll be changing 30 outlines like every other day because I’ve gotten to know my story better while drafting. Usually this method of batch outlining carries me through to about the second act turn, and then I transition to index cards to figure out Act 3. Idk why, but the order of Act 3 always needs shuffling, so it’s just easier to do that on the floor—looking like a madwoman—instead of dicking around in Scrivener.
The second stage of setting up the Notes Doc is inspiration, though I’ve definitely done this step first. It’s the prettiest and most fun, after all.
I use the Novel Format’s character and place sheets as my headers and then dump my favorite pinterest images in, making sure to group them and label them so I can find what I’m looking for mid-draft. I really should use the actual templates to, you know, actually turn this thing into a book bible for sequels and all that, but I haven’t reached that level of plotter yet.
Once you have your inspiration and your first batch of chapter-by-chapter outlines in place, it’s time to start driving. You’ve got a rough idea of where you’re going and what it will look like, and you know if something comes up—a detour, car trouble, a particularly foggy section of road—you’ll be able to handle it.
The relationship that writers have with plotting is personal. Some people desperately need it in order to know where they’re heading, some people feel utterly stifled by the prospect of it, and a lot of us are caught somewhere in the middle—figuring out enough to get by. How much is enough is also personal. Some people need a little, some people need a lot.
No one way is the only way.
Every option is valid.
The Early Plotting stage helps me make sense of my sparks and develop elements of story—character, theme, juxtaposition, tension, and ultimately plot—from those sparks. It’s going to change as I discover the nuances of my story in Draft 1. And it’s definitely going to change in Draft 2 self-edits and Draft 3 revisions with beta feedback. But that’s okay.
My projects are living organisms. They grow and adapt and change. I think at the end of the day, that’s the cardinal rule of plantsing—let the story be what it wants and needs to be. Your job is not to conquer it—it’s to nourish it, guide it, prune it back so it can focus its energies elsewhere.