Writing, Writing Wednesday

Plotting, Pantsting & Everything Inbetween

I can’t believe it’s November already!  Many of you are probably geared up or already diving in to your NaNoWriMo projects bursting with energy and ideas.  I decided this would be a perfect time to talk about one of the things that trips up a lot of new writers: plotting.

It’s an ongoing struggle, whether you’re writing your first novel, or your fifteenth, though most writers have figured out their plotting system after the first few completed books.  If you haven’t yet exactly figured out how to plot your story, or you’re like me and just collect different methods to try, or perhaps you’re not even sure what exactly this amorphous thing called plot actually is, this post is for you!

What is plot?

Strictly defined, the plot is the sequence of events that happen in your story. The events themselves are the story, but the order they happen in is the plot.  Though that sequence can also easily be confused with structure, which is how those events are presented (POV, style, etc.).  Clear as mud?  I thought so.  That’s why I love this quote from E. M. Forster:

The king died and then the queen died is a story.  The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.

This perfectly sums up what I think the strict definition of plot misses–plot is about causality.  Simply put, the plot is the WHY.  A happens, and then B happens because PLOT.

  • When the plot thickens, it is because another layer of previously unseen causality has been revealed.
  • When the plot twists, it is because the story goes in a direction that was not expected based on our understanding of the causality at the time.

A plot is always necessary if you want to hold a reader’s interest–there must be a why–but there are two main types of plots to choose from.


A character-driven plot means that the main why moving events forward is coming from inside the character.  Something inside of them needs to change or grow or is searching for something (could be revenge, love, wealth & glory, adventure, etc.).


I know plot-driven plot sounds weird, so for clarity let’s call this event-driven even though that is what most people mean when they say plot-driven.  This is a plot where outside forces are pushing the sequence of events and characters.  Those forces could be the antagonist, a shift in circumstances, or disasters that the characters must tackle.

Most literary fiction, historical fiction, and romance falls into the character-driven category; most genre fiction besides romance falls into the event-driven category, but it’s a spectrum.  Science fiction, thrillers, and mysteries tend to be heavily event-driven, whereas fantasy (imho) hits a nice sweet spot in the middle.

It’s important to put some consideration into where your plot falls on this spectrum, but the most important takeaway is that regardless, there must be a plot.  If there isn’t, you’ll end up with “talking heads” where the story is all exposition and conversation and nothing actually happens.  Or else you’ll end up with a story that is full of interesting action and events but no one cares because there is no apparent reason for any of it.

[Sidenote on backstory: the only backstory that is necessary is that which fills in the WHY.  When debating whether to include an element of backstory, ask yourself if there is anything happening in the present story because of the backstory.  If the answer is no, leave/cut it out.]

Do I have to have a plot before I start?

Though I would argue the answer is yes, you don’t necessarily have to have it all planned out.  Whether you write 10,000 word outlines (plotter) or completely fly by the seat of your pants (pantster), the plot must come through on the page or your story will quickly stall.  Even if you haven’t outlined it or thought about it, you almost certainly hold the answer to WHY? somewhere inside your head.  That’s all you need.

This is where my very favorite writing/plotting tool comes in.  There are many, many different ways to plot, and I’ll link a few of my favorites below for you to peruse at your leisure, but this one is the simplest, most universal, and, in my experience most effective tool at filling in plot holes.

It’s called G-M-C and stands for goal, motivation, conflict.  I first learned about it from this marvelous book by Debra Dixon, which I highly recommend to ALL writers.

I won’t summarize it here, because I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, and you can also find a host of other explanations on the web.  Instead I will tell you how I use this tool.  At the outset of every project–great or small–I write something like this on a piece of paper:

I do one of these for every main character, including my antagonist.  Even if I don’t use all the information, it helps to know it.  The only kinds of plot holes you want are the ones that are intentional.  If you normally feel constrained by detailed plotting methods, give this a try.  I think it gets the creative juices flowing like nothing else!

So, why am I telling you this now, when you’re supposed to be writing, not plotting?  Because this is also my go-to exercise whenever I’m lost in the weeds or get stuck in a story.  Without fail, when I’m stuck, I discover it is because there is a piece of the GMC puzzle that is missing.  I want you to have this in the weeks ahead to fall back on if you need it so that you can get quickly back into a writing groove.  Of course, you can also use GMC retroactively during revisions with the same amount of impact.

You can do a GMC chart once, as an overall zoomed out summary of your plot, or–like me–you might find that it’s useful to do two or three per character per story.  I follow a six stage story structure, where the midpoint represents a shift in the story.  So, at a minimum I do a GMC chart for my protagonist and antagonist for each half, as the goal often changes (e.g. in the first half of the story the goal might be “discover the source of woe”, while in the second half the goal is “defeat the source of woe”).  Sometimes I take it even one step further and do one for the very end of the story too so that I can have a complete view of how things have progressed.

To drill down even further, you can do a GMC for every scene!  Yep, every scene should have these elements too.  Say you’re stuck at one juncture in your story and you’re not sure what should happen next… do a GMC and focus on CONFLICT.  Say something happens and you’re not sure how your character should react… do a GMC and focus on MOTIVATION.  The causality is literally built-in to GMC, so you just need 1 of the 3 to figure the others out.

Why are there internal/external columns?

Again, this is optional.  You needn’t fill out every box completely, and one side will be heavier depending on what sort of story you’re writing, but I find having both gives the most complete view.  Character-driven plots will be heavy on internal conflict (character growth) and event-driven plots will be heavy on external conflict.  But even if you’re writing a character-driven story, you must have external causalities too, and if you’re writing an event-driven story, your characters must still react/decide/act in response to external stimuli (and they MUST also change and grow); I argue both are always important.

I’m sure that your eyes are crossing at this point, so I’ll leave you with a few references for later:

Save the Cat! — a 15 “story beat” plotting system for screenwriting that works great in novels too. Website | Book

The Writer’s Journey — the classic Hero’s Journey plot distilled into novel format. Website | Book

Hauge’s Six-Stage Plot StructureSummary on Fiction University

Break Into Fiction — a comprehensive technique that incorporates story structure and GMC. [Note: I plotted To Tame a Wild Heart in one live 8-hour workshop with Mary.]  Website | Book


Happy Writing!

Writing, Writing Wednesday

She’s a B*tch, She’s a Lover

With Wonder Woman dominating the box office this past summer and all of the AMAZING female protagonists we have in the mainstream and blowing up the fantasy genre, I thought it a perfect time to revisit a post I wrote back in 2008.  It’s heartening to see that in less than a decade, women in fiction have come so far. Little girls have so many female heroes to look up to now!  

(PS: my money is STILL on Daenerys to rule Westeros #teamfireandice #motherofdragons ) 

But writing a “kickass” heroine can come with some pitfalls.  Make sure you watch out for them! Continue reading “She’s a B*tch, She’s a Lover”

Writing, Writing Wednesday

Draft Faster and Cleaner with a Writing Notebook


Whew! What a whirlwind the past month has been. The weather has been blessedly warm and dry here in Seattle, so I’ve taken every opportunity to go outside and soak up the rays, because who knows when the sun will wander back behind the Shroud of Eternal Grey? Between that and moving (on short notice), quality butt-in-chair writing time has been hard to come by. I didn’t want to lug my giant laptop outside, and with my home in disarray, it has been very hard to focus.

Which is why I am SO glad that about three months ago, I started writing in a notebook. I’m not talking about a handy little “idea book” to jot down notes. I mean that I have a full size spiral notebook that contains my ENTIRE WIP. I’ve written the last 20K words longhand, and am a total convert. This post will give you a few reasons you might want to try it too, and a couple of tips I’ve learned through trial and error.
Continue reading “Draft Faster and Cleaner with a Writing Notebook”

Writing, Writing Wednesday

Writing Wednesday: Trust the Process

Writing Wednesday

Every Winter Solstice, I set an intention for the solar year to come. This year, my intention was balance, and so far so good, I think, but there’s been another lesson/struggle that keeps coming up along with it. What I’ve figured out, is if you want balance, what you really need is ACCEPTANCE and PATIENCE. You have to be able to accept things as they are right now, and even in the act of striving for better balance, you have to be patient with how it comes about.
Continue reading “Writing Wednesday: Trust the Process”

Writing, Writing Wednesday

Finding a Groove & The Compound Effect


Writing Wednesday

March is just stomping right along for me.  I’m on day 17 of my 21 day Fitness Challenge, and 10 working days away from a week in PARADISE.  I can barely contain my excitement!  As part of the challenge, we’ve been reading a self-improvement book as well.  The Compound Effect, by Darren Hardy.  It applies to the fitness challenge, but it’s been resonating with me more on a writing and publishing level.  I don’t know why it never occurred to me before, but self-publishing is a form of entrepreneurship.  Seriously – I know I’m trying to build a business and that I want to work for myself, I just always thought of it as “cheating the system” by making money from my art.  But it’s not cheating the system.  There is a whole other system for entrepreneurs.  It’s well-established and well-documented, and reading this book has opened my eyes to a sub-genre of self-improvement books that I had never considered useful before. Continue reading “Finding a Groove & The Compound Effect”

Writing, Writing Wednesday

Adventures in Self-Pubbing: Opening Up Shop

Happy Writing Wednesday!

Many years ago, when I first started blogging, I did all sorts of posts on actual writing technique aimed at newbie writers.  This time around, I will leave that to the experts, though I will probably do a round-up of my favorite craft books at some point and maybe occasionally offer public floggingscritiques, if there’s interest.  The writing posts for this blog will be more about my steps/journey into the indie publishing world and my take on the writing “lifestyle.”

So…I published my first book.  I equate this to setting up a virtual “shop” on the web.  I have a storefront (my Amazon author page), I have signage (my blog, twitter, goodreads) pointing people to my shop, and I have one product to sell (my book).
Continue reading “Adventures in Self-Pubbing: Opening Up Shop”