Finding the Beats: Plotting for Pantsers

Do you ever get a book idea in your head but don’t know where it’s going? Do you find that you have a saggy middle? I ́m not the biggest fan of plotting. I usually see my first chapter in my head and then I jump straight in from there. But doing so has left me with plot holes and undeveloped characters that I have to spend a long time editing.

To help me with that, I ́ve spent a long time researching different plotting techniques. There are many out there, from Save the Cat to Map Cap Plotting. Taking elements of different plotting tools, I’ve created my own plot outline that is great for pantsers.

World: Before you can plot your story, you need to know your world. That may mean an entirely new world, or just your character’s world. This includes your characters and their pasts. The reason why you need this is because you need to know what motivates your characters, what makes them take action because that will help you discover what moves your plot forward.

MC’s want: What does your MC want at the beginning of your story? Why do they want this? Again, this want will drive your MC through the story.

Satisfying ending: How do you make an ending satisfying? Well, I was once told to take the MC’s want and turn it completely around. For example: if your MC wants to save their sister, well what’s the complete opposite of that: killing or disowning their sister.

So how do you take an MC who wants to save their sister and turn them into an MC that disowns their sister? That’s where your plot points come in.

It’s often that you hear plots talked about in 3 Acts. This mes from screenwriting, such as Save the Cat. The first act goes from the introduction of your character to the inciting incident and a call for action. The second act starts from the call to action and goes until the dark night of the soul, so this is the entire middle of the book. The third act starts after the dark night of the soul and goes until the very end. 

This 3 act structure is why so often writers have that soggy middle. Act 2 takes up about 50% of the book. Recently, an editor friend of mine introduced me to the 4 Act Structure instead. The 4 Act Structure helps break Act 2 into 2 parts and prevents that soggy middle. Act 1 stays the same, Act 2 is broken up at the midpoint of the book. Thi is where Act 2 ends and Act 3 begins. Act 3 then ends at the dark night of the soul, and Act 4 is the climax.

Plot Points: Within each act, there are certain plot points that you want to hit. This is what I plot out. I don’t plot every chapter, but I know what my points are and then I let my character take me there.

Act 1:

Character Set Up: This first plot point is where you introduce your MC and their wants.

Let’s stick with my example of the MC who wants to save her sister. MC starts her story by planning to sneak into a ball to steal back her sister who was kidnapped 5 years prior to be the future bride of the prince. 

Catalyst: Your catalyst is your inciting incident. What happened in your character’s world to set them on their path. 

Example: MC’s rescue plan is foiled when an assassination attempt on the prince causes her to kidnap him instead of her sister to save his life and she learns that there is a magical artifact hidden on their island that the queen wants, but it can also mean the end of the queen’s reign. 

Debate: This is when your MC must make the decision to act upon the catalyst. 

Example: Finding this magical artifact could give the queen ultimate power, but on the other hand, it could release the MC’s sister from the queen’s hold. So, the MC decides it’s worth the risk to find the artifact, even with the kidnapped prince in tow.

Act 2:

Break into 2: This is when your MC heads out on their adventure. You’ve given them their mission, and it is time to begin.

Example: The MC with the prince in tow sets out to talk with a woman who claims to have information on the artifact.

Fun and Games: This is the meat of your act 2, when your MC is on their adventure. 

Example: The MC and prince track down leads to the artifact.

Midpoint: This is the middle of your novel, when your MC either reaches the highest of highs or the lowest of lows. It is when the path changes.

Example: The MC and prince find the artifact

Act 3:

Bad Guys Close In: This is when the story changes. If the MC reached their highest point at the midpoint, things become worse, or if the MC reached their lowest point at the midpoint, things become better. This is the time when the bad guys, either internal or real, begin to close in.

Example: MC tries to figure out a way to get the artifact to her sister without the queen realizing, but tensions are high and she’s still running around with kidnapped prince, who has an assassin out of him.

All is Lost: This is the moment when everything goes bad for your MC. When they’re pushed to their lowest point.

Example: MC is captured for kidnapping the prince and the artifact is brought to the queen.

Dark Night of the Soul: While the All is Lost beat is pushing the MC to their lowest point, this is when the MC reaches their lowest point. It is the moment before they come up with a plan or learn the theme of the story.

Example: MC’s sister comes to visit and it is revealed that the sister wanted the artifact for herself to take the throne and kill the prince (who the MC now has feelings for).

Act 4:

Break into 4: This is when your MC realizes what they must do to be successful.

Example: MC needs to break out of jail and steal the artifact back before her sister can use it on the queen and prince.

Climax: This is the point of the story when your character learns the theme of the story, when they act on the plans they created. 

Example: MC breaks out of jail and steals the artifact back. However, she has to face her sister. Instead of saving her like she wanted, she leaves her sister behind. 

Resolution: The ending scene. Where your MC is in comparison to where they started.

Example: MC now on the run as they have the artifact both the queen and their sister wants and are an enemy of the crown.

As you can see, these are really basic plot points, but they form enough of an outline that I can write to. Things will probably change as I write and these characters and world dictate the actions, but I’ve got a rough idea where the story is heading so I won’t end up going in the complete wrong direction.

Do you have trouble plotting?

What works best for you?

Comment and share below!

Related posts:
The Plotter, Pantsed by Diana Sanchez
Plotting a Novel with Sticky Notes by Alison Potoma
Book Review: Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Alison Potoma

8 comments

  1. This is a helpful map! I’m definitely guilty of having a soggy middle (also a case of art reflecting life, unfortunately!) where I know the beginning and end, but have a hazy idea of how I’m getting there. And, yes, I do a lot of back-editing/padding. I’m going to take a closer look at the dynamics here and give it a try. Thanks!

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  2. This is so helpful! I have been stuck with half a story written and trying to outline the rest but not getting the plot/arc figured out. Breaking Act 2 into two parts could be exactly what I need. Thanks, Dana, for sharing your research!

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  3. I think I’ll try this out today. I haven’t written an outline on this WIP yet, still playing around with the voice of it, so, perfect timing 😀.

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  4. Perfect timing. This is just what I needed to read. Struggling with an idea because I don’t know the story. Wrote scenes as they came to me, but still no story. This will help focus me.

    Like

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