Plotter + Pantser = Only Mildly Prone To Face Plants
I often do a very brief synopsis just to get to know the premise, plot, and characters, and then I go ahead and write what I used to call and outline following the basic idea of three-act structure or the hero's journey, except that it's really a discovery draft where I work out what happens in the story and follow the characters to see where and how they want the story to go. I don't restrict this to follow the synopsis, but knowing my basic structure helps me keep from getting stuck or stranding.
During the audience Q&A at YAKFEST, we were also asked about finding our way into character, and how that played into story. My answer there also fell squarely into a combination of planning and organic development while writing.
Rough Character Sketch >> Partial Draft of Book >> Deeper Worksheet >> Rest of Book
In other words, I know a little bit about my characters going in, then discover more as I write about a third of the book, then I go ahead and crystallize what I know via a character worksheet, before going on to write the rest.
Part of the reason that my process seems to have settled in this weird gray area between planning and pantsing is that my stories are commercial with a literary flavor, driven by both plot and character rather than one or the other. But then there's also the one truth that all writers need to know:
There Is No One Way To Write
There Is No Right Way To Write
No matter how many books we have written, I think all writers are looking for a secret, a key, a shortcut into process. I remember running into Libba Bray one day while I was working on the second book in my trilogy and nearly weeping into her shoulder in gratitude for a post she wrote on her blog about feeling as if she has to relearn everything with every book.
The path into every book is a little different. The path for every writer is different.
If you're struggling to find your way into story, worksheets can be amazingly helpful. But if you hate worksheets, then do only as much of them as you feel comfortable doing, or do something as minimal as jotting down the steps to the Save The Cat beatsheet to use as a rough guideline, not as a be-all-end-all.
- Opening Image Showing Protagonist's Starting Point and Mood/Tone
- Theme Statement Hinting or Stating Point of the Story
- Set-Up of the Protagonists World and Problem
- Catalyst/Call to Action
- Choice to Act and Point of No Return
- Intro of Major Subplot
- Promise of the Premise and Problem Solving
- Midpoint False Victory or False Defeat Where Stakes Go Up
- Wind-Up Toward Climax with Bad Guys Closing In
- All Is Lost Moment Where Protagonist Loses Everything
- Dark Moment Where Protagonist Digs Deep Within Herself for Solution
- Plot and Character Arcs Merge and Protagonist Finds New Way Forward
- Climax Where Protagonist Applies Lessons Learned to Defeat the Villain and Solve Problem
- Closing Image Reflecting the Change in the Protagonist's World and Character Journey
There's a great article here about why you should take all story structure shortcuts, worksheets, beatsheets, etc. with a grain of salt, but the truth is, they can be helpful when thinking about your story and getting you to ask the questions that will help you find your own structure.
No one method or "formula" is going to work for everyone, and the truth is that no "formula" is ever really going to bring a story to vivid, sparkling life.
YOU are the secret ingredient that your story needs. Write the story that only you can tell, based on the things that move you, that make you feel, that spark your interest. If you don't have that burning ember of heart in every scene and chapter, your book will fall flat in the end. But if you understand story structure and then you search within it for your meaning and your story, that story is going to have resonance with other people.
Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of AdventuresInYAPublishing.com, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and YASeriesInsiders.com, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the CompulsionForReading.com program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.