Most of the writers I have met seem to write mostly by the seat of the pants, meaning letting the muse take them through a scene rather than plotting it all out first. These are the “pantsters.” But there are some who dream up the story, plot it all out, and write it up. These are the plotters.
When I’ve tried plotting it all out first, the creative crew in my brain freezes up. This may be a common problem for writers. Maybe that’s why so few writers admit to being plotters.
Personally I’ve tried total pantster writing, starting out with a pretty good idea of how the book will end and not a lot more. Problem with that is, I write a lot of stuff that really takes the plot nowhere in particular, though it may tell me something more about my characters.
Rabbit trails. More and more of them, creating a map to nowhere.
So I getting out my machete and chop away at the brush. But what to chop out? I want a strong story that a reader won’t put down. This is a very difficult way to get it.
Finally I have figured out a system that works for me.
I sit down and imagine a scene, see where the creative crew takes me. Often it’s not too exciting, sad to say. I like things nice and safe in my own life, thank you. But tame scenes don’t lead to page-turning books.
Next I ask myself what the point-of-view character in the scene has for a goal for the scene. How can I generate conflict to thwart that goal? How can I make the situation just worse and worse, with stronger conflict and more and more tension? Finally the conflict resolves (somewhat), ending the scene. So the scene is a sort of mini-story: with a goal, conflict, and resolution.
Most of the time the resolution is a setback. But not all the time. I don’t want to drag my readers through bad deal after bad deal. They’ll get tired of it.
I create a table in Microsoft Word or Excel that I fill in as I write, with a row for each scene. What’s my goal for the scene as the author? What’s the POV character’s goal? Conflict? Setback? or, if it’s a reaction scene, what’s the emotive reaction, the dilemma, and the decision? (See my post on these terms: http://www.castlegatepress.com/make-each-scene-a-little-story/) The table lets me record the stakes the character is looking at in the scene, too. They need to be high. A low-stakes story is boring.
I can make sure the scenes build on one another as I build the story this way. It cuts down on rabbit trails tremendously.
This method helps me keep on track but still let the creative crew do its work. Maybe it would work for you.
My table headings:
Act number, POV character, Author goal, Action scene: character goal-conflict-setback, Reaction scene: emotive reaction-dilemma-decision, motivation for character goal, stakes
Making a movie, the camera gives the viewer the illusion that a lot of other things are happening in the story world, and we could move the camera to the side and see something else going on. But the storyteller is actually giving us only what’s right in front of the camera while the camera is running. And scenes or parts of scenes that don’t advance the story end up on the cutting room floor, if they are shot at all. We need to think like this too.