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Plotting (and outlining)

The ultimate solution (and nightmare) for every pantser!

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by Cynthia T. Luna in Books I Read, Creative writing

I have a confession to make, plotting and outlining are big challenges for me when writing fiction. As a professional writer, I have no issues outlining nonfiction. I do it all the time. Beginning? Middle? End? No sweat. Key messages? Sure thing. Anecdotes and illustrations? Got those. Hitting crazy word counts is never a problem for me. And editing my work isn’t either. (In fact, most of the time, people are telling me to slash verbiage.)

So, when it comes time to write long-form fiction, there’s a sort of mental disconnect. My brain wants to run free – make the implausible, possible, the impossible, plausible. Outlining feels constraining. (You might have seen an earlier blog post where I “whinnied” about this.) But I also know it’s necessary to really develop a story that I would enjoy reading – my ultimate goal and motivation for writing fiction.

Plotting: The Ultimate Solution for Every Pantser

1) Begin plotting from end to beginning

Still, when you’re writing a long story, it’s helpful to write down notes of what you want to see happen at the end. I have some general rules of what I would like to see happen. Because I enjoy writing light, chick lit fare, the girl and the guy usually end up together. So, I write this down. I know I want this to be my ending. For other genres, it’s knowing you want the main character to diffuse the ticking bomb, the spy to find the assassin, the detective to figure out whodunit.

My biggest challenge is knowing what happens between the girl and her antagonist. I work on what the climax between antagonist and the heroine will look like. Where would it take place? How will the reader know this is the big showdown? What’s at stake? I really struggle with writing conflict, understanding the antagonist and essentially putting my finger on what resolution would look like between the antagonist and the main character.

This leads me into my next step for plotting.

2. Plotting your antagonist’s story first

Because of my aversion to conflict, it helps me to tell my main character’s story (the one in my head) from the standpoint of the antagonist’s point of view. It also helps me to see the main character from the lens of the antagonist – because, let’s face it, my antagonists need a reason for the main character to become a person of interest to them.

When I tell the story from the antagonist’s point of view, those elements the main character might think are important, often don’t have an impact on the antagonist’s life. So where are those points of impact?

Or – referring back to step one above – how does the antagonist want this story to end? And how am I, the writer, going to end this story for the antagonist?

When I identify the points of impact, as well as the ends for both antagonist and protagonist, I can begin to see how the conflict plays out for the main character.

3) Plotting a chapter-by-chapter breakdown

This is a simultaneously easy and tough task for me. My goal is for the breakdown to be divisible by four. This fits into the overall structure of your story:


Coming up with an inciting incident that simultaneously pulls the protagonist out of her usual rhythm, and also hints at why all the protagonists dreams and desires are just out of her grasp is what I’m aiming for in this section. It’s also a great time to introduce a bunch of your other characters – your protagonist’s posse, as well as the environment she’ll be operating in.

Uphill Middle.

In this beginning part of the middle, the main character is seeing the world as a painful, difficult place. She may pine for the early version of her life, but there’s no going back. She’s pretty much encountering conflicts through this stage, and she’s losing with every blow. Ultimately, she’ll have lost a lot, which is the culmination of this middle point: the all-is-lost moment.

Second Middle.

I see this in my mind as a bit of a plateau that will lead her to a grand confrontation with the antagonist. I think for a lot of writers, this is where they encounter the so-called “murky middle”. After so much to-do for the protagonist to meet all these challenges and get whipped, she needs a little time to regroup. Some people spend more time on the regrouping phase than others. Some people find the regrouping period boring, because much of the activity is taking place internally for the characters. Of course, remember that for all the regrouping your protagonist is doing, your antagonist is also gearing up for his own final smack-down. He is now aware that your heroine exists and also more than just a mild irritation. So he’s got his own regrouping to do.


This section begins once the protagonist needs to finally enter the antagonist’s realm. The protagonist knows that this time, it’s truly now or never. The protagonist also knows that her odds of winning are not good—but she really has no other choice. She must do this. There may be some other trials leading up to the climax, but she knows that until she’s gotten the chalice, disempowered the antagonist, and overcome her own damn fears, she’ll be forever haunted by what she could have accomplished if she had only tried. So, the end is actually longer than you might think it is – it has a beginning, middle and end, too.

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It’s up to you if your protagonist wins or loses. Once you’ve written that, the unfolding that closes up your story is a swift affair. Any other questions that your reader might have need to be addressed – and quickly. If possible, gather all your characters nearby – or have them witness the antagonist’s decapitation, because you’ll have to wrap up their loose ends pretty darn quick.

Plotting Resources to Jump Start Your Writing!

This is the process I’m using now that I’m working on another fictional story. I haven’t come up with these ideas out of the blue. Reading process books by other experienced writers has also been extremely helpful. Check out these resources I have read and also recommend:

Libbie Hawker’s “Take Off Your Pants! Outline your books for faster, better writing” (Amazon UK) – In this book, Libbie really walks the reader through a clear and clean process that juggles theme and premise, character, plot and pacing. The result is a relatively manageable outline that can help pantsers stay focused on the thread of their story.

Katherine King’s “Plot with Character: How to Quickly Plot and Outline a Novel with Character Arc in 40 Scenes (The Plot Chronicles Book 1)” (Amazon UK) – This book has some useful tips. Katherine includes a 40-scene breakdown, which works well with the story-structure breakdown I noted above.

Neal Soloponte’s “The Ultimate Hero’s Journey: 195 Essential Plot Stages Found in the Best Novels and Movies” (Amazon UK)– Though it may not be practical due to the sheer volume of plot stages (a whopping 195), it’s particularly useful when you’re wading in the murky middle and you need clarity on how best to position your story for the climax.

Do you have or know of any good resources? Maybe you have a method you swear by? Let us know!

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What gets measured gets managed. Amp up your writing speed today!

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