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Life lessons

on the craft 

Starting a Novel: The Pantser & The Planner

Writing as a craft is difficult enough, so planning out an entire novel can seem overwhelming. Should you must start typing and fly by the seat of your pants? Should you plot out plan each scene and character before typing? Pantser or Planner – each has its advantages and drawbacks, and by now you’ve likely answered the questions above with something like, “A little bit of both.” It doesn’t matter if you’re a Pantser or a Planner, the best way to keep your novel organized is by focusing on just one key element: The Decision!

We all know that a book needs a climax – that point when the protagonist does something forever irreversible to solve the problem. But, exactly HOW your protagonist accomplishes the goal can change… but what never changes is knowing THAT they will make that existential choice. “The Decision” is the point right before the climax when the protagonist “decides” that epic decision. If you know the ultimate choice, you can Plan or Pants and never go awry.

So, however you plan, do not start at the beginning of your novel and go forward. Do not start at the end of your story and go backwards. Start in the middle with The Decision and fill in the rest however your style necessitates. You should start – yes, START – your writing with The Decision, regardless of other processes.

Let’s take a look at how The Decision works for each type of writer. First, let’s presume you have a really loose idea: A young woman, lets call her Sarah, is offered her dream job, but it requires her to move far away from her beloved boyfriend, lets call him Zach. Pantser or Planner, you still need to know Sarah's The Decision. Will she ultimately choose the job or love? This single decision will determine the climax of the story. Let’s presume you want to have Sarah choose the job. That’s The Decision – as long as everything else aligns and leads to that point, all plot points will work.

You Pantsers sit down to write with little to no idea where you’re going. No worries. If you know The Decision, you know that Sarah will be forced into a choice, and therefore all scenes will work as long as they accomplish one of two (if not both) goals: 1) the scene increases her desire to take the job, or 2) it increases her love for Zach. As long as those two opposing forces strengthen in the face of each other, that spur-of-the-moment idea to have the Zac propose works because this escalates her conflict later. A proposal makes leaving more difficult, which means her desire to leave must also increase. As you write more and more you start to fill in details while simultaneously sparking new ideas. The new, stronger desire can be anything you think of (almost) randomly. Sarah can waffle and waver and make mistakes and mis-turns, and whatever happens in the middle is fine as long as Sarah never foregoes her core desire to take the job.

You Planners don’t like to start typing until each idea is set. Yet, starting with The Decision is the only structural guide you need. Instead of writing out a scene, as the Pantser does, you make a list of ideas and options. From that list, you choose the best option(s) that leads Sarah to taking the job. You also toss out any ideas that don’t lead in that direction – or you create the stronger-and-opposite reaction that, despite a desire to stay, still sways Sarah to leave. Working backwards from The Decision, you can easily add or delete scenes, create a character arch (Sarah does have to change after all), craft your subplots, bring in secondary characters, et al. For each planned-out scene, you need only ask, “Does this bring Sarah closer to taking the job?” If so, keep it.

Determining The Decision before you start writing even allows you easier access to literary elements like theme or foreshadowing. For example, because you know Sarah will take the job, you write a scene in chapter 2 that foreshadows her ultimate decision. Similarly, because you know she’ll choose the job over love, you can embed that moral in smaller scenes, like having Sarah choose a materialistic option over a moral one in Chapter 4, or in Chapter 6 have her say something like “Love doesn’t buy me a new car.”

With or without knowing the inciting incident (a meet-cute? Sarah and Zac have been dating for awhile now?), with or without knowing how the actions rise (will Zach selflessly encourage Sarah’s ambitions or selfishly hold her back?), and even with or without knowing the climax (will it be a knock-down-drag-out fight? Tears and hugs? Does Sarah just ghost Zach?), as long a you know The Decision, your story will never detour into anything random or require some cheap Deus Ex Machina.


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