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Plotting Your Novel as a Pantser

And so, it’s that time of the year again. November. Which means: NaNoWriMo!

I’ve been taking part in NaNo almost every year since 2005 (I just skipped a couple of years), and still every year is different. It’s always a new sensation. But this year even more so.
After five years of being a rebel and revising my project rather than write a new draft, this year I’m back at drafting.
No, I’m not done with Ghost Trilogy. No I’m not giving up on it. But this year I want to work to a completely new project. And no, I won’t talk about it now, that’s matter for a new post.


But a new draft means starting all over again… only in a different place.
When I first drafted Ghost Trilogy during that distant 2010 NaNoWriMo, I knew nothing about novel writing. Seriously. I even started off thinking I wasn’t writing a novel at all, but just a trilogy of novellas (and I hope this is not going to happen again, because I’m once again going for a series of novellas… gulp!). I started off drafting a synopsis, I ended up writing a first draft. I just went with my intuition, take one step at a time, ending up in the middle of the trilogy completely confused and overwhelmed with all the character arcs and the plot threads and an understanding that there was no way I was going to do a good job out of it unless I planned it in a more structured way.

It was a very exciting journey, which I really enjoyed, but a very long one too. Had I been more experienced, Ghost Trilogy might be finished by now.
Still the trilogy has thought me so many things, so I’m going into this new project with a very different mindset. I thought I wasn’t going to just write and see what happens, as I did in 2010. I thought I am a planner, and so I’d plan everything before I started.

Confession: I’m definitely a planner after I’ve written the first draft, but before I write it? I’m an hopeless pantser.
I couldn’t do the job I hoped I’d do before NaNo. There’s no way I’ll have an outline before I start writing. That’s fine, that’s how my creativity works, but still there’s some work that I can do.

Follow me.


The 7 Points Story Structure

I won’t have an outline ready for NaNo, but I’ll have a direction, which is really everything I need. How will I find that direction?

I had heard about the 7 Point Story Structure before, but I considered using it only when I read Hunter Emkay’s post 7 Points Story Structure. This is what the basic structur elooks like:

Hook – This is where the story begins, it’s what your character starts our as, or the situation they’re in, or the action happening when the story starts

Plot Point 1 – The place where the character or the action is moved forward. The trigger.

Pitch 1 – Where something serious happens that really puts pressure on the character to fall irrevocably into the arc of the story.

Midpoint – The point of no return, where the character makes that conscious decision to change or move forward on their own. The midpoint (in spite of its name) doesn’t need to be in the middle of the story.

Pitch 2 – The point where the story really deeps and something extreme happens, so that the character is left to fend by themselves.

Plot Point 2 – This is where the story reveals the tools or secret to triumph.

Resolution – The story has concluded and we find ourselves in the opposite state from the initial hook

As you can see, it’s sort of an outline, but not really an outline. What I like about it, is that it pins down all the major points of the story, but it doesn’t get into too much details, so I know the direction, but everything else is still undetermined.

On Hunter’s post I also found a couple of truly fantastic resources:

What I like about the 7 Points Structure is that it makes a lot of sense on its own, but it also allows to mix the different threads so to create a structure that is already quite complex and complete in itself.

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Get More Details Out of It

I’m basing my NaNo preparation on the 7 Points Story Structure, but there are other tools I like and I’ll probably use… if I come that far in the prepping.

Book MapCheryl B. Klein’s Book Map is a very similar concept to the 7 Points Story Structure, but it goes a little more in detail: chapters and scene structure, loglines, plot changing scenes. It is probably too much of details for me at this stage, but this is what I aim to reach before NaNoWriMo starts (wish me luck).

Getting to Know Your Character Questionnaire – Another confession: I love templates and I especially love character templates. Everything that allows me to get deeper into my characters’ motivation is welcome, that’s why I like character’s interviews and questionnaires.
There are tons of character’s questionnaires online, but I often found them incomplete and therefore not always very useful.
This is not the case of Holly Evan’s Getting to Know Your Character Questionnaire. I’ll be honest, I probably won’t do this before NaNo, I prefer to see my characters act before attempting the questionnaire, but I think I will at a certain point do it. You never know what a character may reveal to you when you least expect it.

Svenja NaNoWriMo Spreadsheets – And of course, Svejia’s spreadsheets. I started using them four years ago, just as word trackers, but they are a lot more than that. Sheets for sorting out different elements of the story are included and last year I realised the full potential of it when I worked the revision Give in to the Feeling on them.
These spreadsheets force you to look at the very essential characteristics of your character and arcs (you’re allowed just few words to describe anything), this way I discovered connection, echoes and similarities I had never realised before. They are not only useful during NaNo to keep track of the word count, they are also useful in sorting out the actual plot of your story.
And they are beautiful too.

So, this is how I’m getting ready. What about you? Are you doing NaNo? Are you preparing for it? How are you preparing? Let me know in the comments!

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  • JEN Garrett
    Posted October 21, 2016 at 22:48

    THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH! I’m a pantser and my critique friends keep telling me I need an outline now that my first draft is done. But I didn’t know where to start! Until now. I can’t thank you enough!

    • Post Author
      Posted October 22, 2016 at 08:24

      You are so welcome, JEN. I’m happy I could be of help 🙂

  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted October 22, 2016 at 01:18

    Thank you, Sarah. These are excellent resources. I’m a planner, but I worry that I plan too much and possibly injure the potential for immediate inspiration. This information is a great help!

    • Post Author
      Posted October 22, 2016 at 08:26

      Happy this was of help, Lillian 🙂

      Do have a look at the videos, they’re super. Dan Well’s methode is something that satisfies a planner, but it’s lose enough to leave a lot of space for the imagination. That’s why I like it.

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  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted October 27, 2016 at 06:50

    I like to have a general outline (even if it’s just a list of chapter title names), or brief chapter-by-chapter notes, so I have an idea of what happens when, and how the timeline will proceed. Along the way, surprises always happen, as new subplots and characters make themselves known, or events play out differently than I’d planned. I’d never exactly plan everything in advance!

    I’ll probably be a rebel this NaNo, since I don’t like the idea of having too many unfinished books on hiatus. I want to try finishing my WIP, which will probably be about 400,000 words when it’s done, up from my original guesstimate of 120,000 words. Adding the flashback Part II has really made the wordcount soar far above what I’d planned! If I do decide to start something new, I’ll be resurrecting one of my long-shelved 19th century characters. She was one of the first characters I ever created, at age five or six, though she originally was a modern character. I figure, if I never forgot my 19th and 18th century characters after over 20 years of thinking they were shelved forever, they were really meant to be.

    • Post Author
      Posted October 27, 2016 at 09:25

      Good luck whatever way you’ll go 😉

      400k words is a huge book! Do you plan to publish it in that form, or do you plan to split it in parts?

      • Carrie-Anne
        Posted October 28, 2016 at 00:01

        It’ll be published as one book, just as my other deliberately saga-length books have been published. The only exception I could see myself making is my third Russian historical, which was 891K in the first draft. I may put it out in four volumes (making clear they’re part of the same book, not four different books), since each of the four Parts reads so much like its own story, with a focus on different characters and storylines.

  • Megan
    Posted October 27, 2016 at 22:07

    Lovely post! Can’t wait to check out the links. I’m somewhere between pantsing and planning, but my first full novel was definitely pansted and I’ve been paying for it in revision ever since! >.< So, thanks so much for posting these. Definitely gonna use them when I get onto book 2!

    Excited to hear you're gonna work on something new for NaNo, too! I think it's good to take a creative break from stuff for a bit, and new stuff is fun. Hope it goes well, and you enjoy working on something new :).

    • Post Author
      Posted October 28, 2016 at 21:49

      Hope the links will be useful, Megan. Definitelly, I’ve learned that while I can panst a short story, I can’t do a novel.
      I’ve just posted about my new project 🙂

  • Annie
    Posted October 29, 2016 at 13:38

    I totally get being able to plan AFTER your first draft! I have what I call a narrative outline where I kind of sort out the story from beginning to end but in a narrative style with dialog and some skeleton scenes. It’s how I get to know the story and the characters and their motivations. Then, once I have that I can plot out landmarks in a more plotter style. I’m intrigued by the 7 Point Story Structure, though. I want to try to incorporate that into my next novel 🙂 Thanks for sharing it!

    • Post Author
      Posted October 29, 2016 at 14:05

      Hi Annie, thanks for stopping by.
      That’s more or less what I do too, only I usually call it detailed a synopsis.
      I’ve written short stories for many years before trying my hand at a novel, I’ve always thought that’s why I prefer to start with a shorter version of the story. I find it easier to handle. The ‘narrative outline’ is what I’m going for in November.
      I like that: narrative outline 🙂

  • Sadye K Brown
    Posted September 2, 2018 at 20:18

    Love the seven point story structure. Think I’ll try it for this year’s NaNoWriMo. Thanks!

    • Post Author
      Posted September 3, 2018 at 08:37

      You are very welcome. I’ve been using it for a year or so, especially as preparation for writing the story, and I’m very happy with it. It helps me organising my ideas – and see whether an actual story is there – before I dive into writing.

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