I used to “pants” (write without planning) every story.
I didn’t complete many stories that way. It didn’t matter how long the story was supposed to be; most of mine are longer than the SFWA definition of 7,500 words, for a short. I write novelettes, novellas, and novels. Mostly novels. And most of them are beyond 40,000 words. I’d frequently hit the halfway point (40k-60k) and fizzle out between there and the three-quarter mark. Because the ideas would fizzle out, and the stress of need another scene to write would block me to the point of abandoning the story.
Then I started reverse outlining incomplete stories I most wanted to complete. Reverse outline cards typically consist of a one or two-sentence summary of the written scene. When I reached the end of the written-out scenes, I’d traditionally outline (do the plot cards before writing the scenes) the rest of the story. I completed a few stories this way.
There were also a couple of stories which I started and abandoned, but which needed full rewrites. Most of the time they had plotting issues. Events happening out of order, periods in the project where I focused on one subplot to the exclusion of every other plot, including the primary one. Stuff like that. These I entirely outlined prior to writing them, and I completed the rewrites. I know now I was able to complete these outlines before writing the stories because I already had almost the entire stories written in some form prior to reorganizing the plot to be workable.
Then I started outlining stories before or as I wrote them. So, I may start, get two scenes; these I’d reverse outline, then add two or three fresh plot cards before writing one scene. Outlines I started before writing began with that pattern. Two or three plot cards per scene written. I completed more stories this way.
When plotting is going well, I find I’m most comfortable working plot cards about ten or twenty cards “ahead” of where I’m writing the scenes from the cards already done. This has been hard to accept, because I’ve been, of course, trying to cling to the RULE that The Outline Must Be Complete Before Beginning Writing. But I reach a certain point in my fresh stories—my speculative fiction stories—where I hit a block in the outline. Usually this block harks back to an earlier point in the outline, and involves an aspect of the story which my subconscious hasn’t presented to my conscious mind. The best way for me to unlock these plot points, I’ve found, is to write out the earlier scene.
So I have a plot card like:
This is for Brotherhood A: Stirrings, as you can tell according to character names. The snippet this card covers is on the project page for Stirrings. I would not have been able to write this plot card if I had not worked out already Lorien’s psychology on the wedding, Doéna’s reactions to Lorien’s behavior, and the behind-the-scenes (in my head only) of Necée’s feelings about the situation. I didn’t even know Necée would be this way and why until after I worked out Lorien’s response to the marriage arrangements. I wrote a description of a small portrait of her Lorien received in an information packet, and I can remember thinking at the time, “What if she’s got a sweetheart she’d rather marry?”
That’s all I had on the sweetheart until I included the first scene with Karé, the story’s antagonist, who plots to destroy Lorien’s faith in love and happiness—and Lorien’s standing in Imperial Court. I had no idea just what he’d mean to the story until the moment he introduced himself, and I wouldn’t have had that without first writing the previous scenes out. In writing those scenes out, I learned of the Éecinis, Doéna’s status and standing in the Vénari Court, and the pitfalls he expected in the Imperial Court. Without those, I’d have had nothing to write after the point where Lorien and Doéna arrive at the Imperial Court, at which point I’d have hit my block and been unable to write past if I’d been pantsing the story.
The scenes I’d written gave me the basis for Karé’s presence and conniving nature.
My plot cards have evolved somewhat since then. I now include “dates” on the top margins of the cards, as on this plot card for Degrees of Subtlety:
“2” indicates which plot card this is, which is the second scene in the story. “Arrowroot” is the Point of View character; this story alternates between his and Sweetbriar’s points of view. The “date” is “Fruiting, Rowan 1,” which is the name of the month, day of the week, and which week. I’ve determined, much to my discomfort, the people of Hatu Napor have a 364-day year divided into 13 months of 28 days apiece. Those in the area of the world where Sweetbriar and Arrowroot live have named the months after various natural events which occur throughout the year, and the days after trees to be found in various locales. No year date yet because I haven’t worked out the year-dating system yet, at least not for this hemisphere. I suspect I’ll use something the whole world adheres to, which will most likely have to do with either the appearance or disappearance of the fairies; both events are rather prominent.
The scene summarized includes the snippet I have on DoS’s page. As you can see if you compare the card to the snippet, I didn’t write the scene exactly as described in the card. This was another thing I had to learn, that the scene did not necessarily have to follow the card precisely. Allowing such flexibility enables me to come up with workable scenes which do their jobs. I’ve gotten so flexible I don’t even care if a scene I write matches the plot card which was supposed to inspire it any at all. What I usually write in those unexpected scenes generally serves the story much better than what I’d planned in the plot card. And, if I need, I can later plumb the card for any plot-pertinent info to include in later cards I haven’t yet written.
It bothers me that I’m not completing the outlines before I write the stories, but this is the way my mind works, and, I’ve discovered, I have a tendency to get blocked on plot cards if I’m not writing earlier scenes out. This is why I write ten-to-twenty plot cards ahead of where I’m writing out the scenes. Frequently, I’ll get one or two plot cards and be unable to see just what should happen next. Sometimes letting things percolate in the back of my mind works for moving past such blocks, but more often, I find that if I write out an earlier scene and read through the plot cards between it and the point where I stopped, I’ll come up with a decent idea much, much sooner, and the idea will be much stronger than it would have been if I’d forced myself to outline past the point of when I felt I had to stop.
I occasionally use other methods of plotting, but I won’t go into them here. This post was about my basic Everything Is Going Well plotting method.