#116: When a Pantser Becomes a Plotter

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hi Story Nurse,

(This is my third time writing to you! I love the website so much! You have helped me a lot with figuring out my writing, both when answering my qs, and when answering other people’s qs! Thank you!)

I have a pretty banal question — since graduating college and becoming a Human with a Job, my mental illness has gone from Severe to Manageable. Most of that has been my good work — I went to therapy intensely, I carefully figured out what my best and most healthy coping mechanisms were, I started avoiding obvious stressors etc. This has lead to a variety of realizations about myself — without depression and anxiety, I’m actually a tidy person! I really love baking! etc.

From other mentally ill people I have learned that this is actually pretty common, but it has caused one small snag. I used to be a pantser — I would come up with a plot question, Stephen King-style, and then write a novel based on that. But now, I can’t do that anymore! I need an outline! I need an incredibly detailed outline. But I don’t know how! Especially since sitting with characters and learning their personality through writing was an important part of my process I still seem to need… Help?!

Thank you!!!!!!!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#4: When Protagonists Don’t Protag

Dear Story Nurse,

My problem in a nutshell: I don’t know what kind of climax my story needs!

Details: I’m working on a fantasy novel, mostly secondary world with a little magic thrown in. It’s between 80k and 90k long. This is the first novel I’ve really plotted out seriously, and I can tell that it helped a lot in keeping track of the threads and in keeping the story moving when my tendency is to stop and gaze for way too long at the scenery.

A little bit about the story: There are four (thinking of cutting it down to three) POV characters whose plots intersect and come together toward the end of the story. There’s one character in particular who is sort of central to everything, and everybody else’s arc in the story is directly or indirectly pulled by her—some to help her and others to potentially harm her. Of all the characters, she probably has the most growth as a character.

So here’s a longer version of the nutshell:

I’ve reached the point just before the climax, which has all of the POV characters converging together, along with a detachment of soldiers who are in league with the antagonists. The characters who are not bad guys don’t have any such armed support on their side, although one of the POV characters has some experience in a fight.

I even have an ending in mind, which is mostly a happy one: the antagonists are defeated or at least prevented from maximum antagonizing. I just can’t figure out how the characters get from the climax set-up to the denouement! For some reason, the only options that come to mind are (1) a battle—which is not really in keeping with the rest of the novel, which is mostly women of various ages moving through the setting, doing what they do—or (2) an involved conversation, which seems a bit underwhelming.

One thing I’ve thought about is that, throughout the story, the central-most MC has been yanked this way and that by good guys and bad alike. I feel like the climax is her opportunity to assert herself somehow. All the other MCs have had to make choices throughout the story, but she’s been pretty passive.

So if you have any thoughts as to how I can think through this, what some options outside battle/conversation are, and what you’d want to see in this kind of scene, they would be most appreciated!

—chocolatetort (she/her)

Dear chocolatetort,

Thanks for writing in with such a classic concern! A lot of authors face similar problems. You are definitely not alone. And I’ve got a few different sets of suggestions for you to try on for size. Continue reading

#3: Filling the Plot Gap

Dear Story Nurse,

All my writer friends talk about plotters vs. pantsers. I seem to combine the worst of both worlds. Whenever I go to outline a large project (anything longer than a short story, even if it’s just a mid-length novelette—but most notably novels), there’s always a hole in the middle. It usually says something like “more plot here” or “book goes here.” I know what comes before it. I know what goes after it. But not only is there this hole, I almost always find that I have to write a bunch of prose and then put the file away for months before I find what goes in it.

How do I fill in the map sooner? What is my brain even doing here? This has been okay, if frustrating, when I was just writing for myself, but now that I’m facing actual deadlines it is terrifying. I can always finish things eventually, but eventually is not always soon enough! Do I just have to build “2–3 months fallow period” into every contract? If so, can I ever make anybody else understand that?

—Here There Be Dragons (they/them)

Dear Dragons,

I’m going to get a little Freudian on your choice of pseudonym. When cartographers of yore wrote “Here There Be Dragons” on a map, what they meant was “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Whatever was in that place was so terrifying and fearsome that it couldn’t even be named. That region of the map was not for exploring; it was, to quote a very obscure Monty Python sketch, for lying down and avoiding.

Continue reading