Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Save the (Cat) Pantser! A Solution for Pantsers with Plotter Envy

By Roni Loren, @RoniLoren

JH: Got a fun one for you today. Roni Loren is here to share with us her thoughts on pantsing, plotting, and how using a little bit of both (with a dose of screenwriting) might just solve all your writing woes. Or at least help you find your way to making it all a little easier. She also gives me one more reason to check out a book everyone keeps talking about.

Roni wrote her first romance novel at age fifteen when she discovered writing about boys was way easier than actually talking to them. Since then, her flirting skills haven’t improved, but she likes to think her storytelling ability has.

Her debut novel CRASH INTO YOU will be released January 2012 by Berkley Heat/Penguin. If you want to read more posts like this one or follow her journey to debut authorhood, you can visit her writing blog Fiction Groupie or her author blog. She also tweets way too much for her own good.

Take it away Roni...

Before I started writing, if you would've asked me if I thought I'd be a plotter or pantser, I would've said plotter without a thought. I'm the girl who loves an organizational tool and who can lose hours browsing through an office supply store. So of course I should be the type of writer who has beautiful boards of color-coded index cards and neatly tabbed binders of research and chapter outlines, right?

Well, yeah, maybe, but I also forgot that I'm the person who when we plan a family vacation is always saying to my husband--"What are you researching now? We have our hotel and flights booked, what else needs to be done?" He wants to plan out every step, every restaurant we're going to eat at, and every activity we're going to do. He enjoys this planning process almost as much as the vacation.

This baffles me. Why would you want to know every step? Isn't the point of going to a new place exploring and finding things you want to do and eat as you come across them? That's part of the fun for me.

And I discovered quickly that I approach writing the same way. Detailed outlining gives me a brain cramp and kills my passion for the story. If I already know what's going to happen, then it feels like I'm just writing according to this instruction manual I've created. Talk about buzz kill.

But the problem is with no guide at all, you can sometimes find yourself wandering into places you shouldn't go and getting lost. You may go on that vacation and end up stuck in a crappy part of town and eating McDonald's because you didn't plan anything ahead.

Plus, once you've sold a book, you want to be able to sell your next books on proposal--which means you HAVE to write a synopsis before you write the book. This concept terrified me.

But then I discovered the magical world of screenwriting techniques through attending Michael Hauge's screenwriting workshop and reading Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!

Screenwriters focus on the big moments and turning points in a film. It's a very broad version of outlining. Michael Hauge maps out both the external plot and the internal journey. Here's his chart for the external plot:

1st chart

And Blake Snyder takes it a bit further in his book Save the Cat! and fleshes out a screenplay into 15 "beats" such as Debate, Fun and Games, and All is Lost. (You can download a copy of his Beat Sheet here, though you should read the book to understand exactly what these all mean.)

THIS was a revelation to me. Like a cue-choir-singing moment.

Almost every story out there can fit neatly in these structures no matter how complicated the story. I know people accuse things like this of being "formulaic" but let me tell you--there IS a formula to good storytelling. You can lay this structure on top of 99% of stories (be it book or movie) and pick out these points.

And I discovered as I tried to apply these to stories I'd already written and stories I was considering writing that this made sense to my pantser brain without ruining the story for me. It gives me a general map of where to go--one simple sheet of paper. It also allowed me to write synopses for my proposals with ease. (Yes, ease. I went into that topic more here.) And I'm no longer wandering around in my story. I still have the joy of discovery of new twists and turns, but I'm at least hanging out in the correct neighborhood.

So if you're like me--a pantser with plotter envy--I highly recommend you take a look at some of the screenwriting resources. I adore both the Save the Cat! books I have and though I attended Michael Hauge's workshop and don't own his book, I know all his great info is in there.

So what about you? Plotter or pantser or somewhere in between? Has anyone else tried out the screenwriting techniques? What is the key for you staying on track with your story?


  1. This post is so perfect for me today--I just thought long and hard about my writing style (and blogged about it). I am looking forward to clicking through your links, and can't wait to pick up Save The Cat.

    I am definitely in between on the panster and plotter scale. I imagine that most of us are. :)

  2. I just read Save The Cat this weekend (super fast read). Loved it. I've read plotting books before that just didn't click with me, but something about STC resonated with me on an intuitive level. When I went back through novels I'd already written, I realized that the ones that worked, I'd hit those beats without even realizing it. The ones that didn't, not so much. I'm plotting my next novel with it now. Huzzah!

  3. Like Karen, I JUST finished reading Save the Cat. I got a lot of helpful tips for my WIP. I wish I had read it earlier, it would have saved me a lot of revision time, because I too am a pantser with plotter envy. ;)

  4. I LOVE Save the Cat--I've always been a plotter, but this made it a lot easier!
    Nice post!

  5. Heather, Glad you found the post helpful. :) And I agree, I think each of us probably have qualities of both pantsers and plotters.

    Karen, I did the same thing--went back through my old stuff. And I was like--ooh, look, I hit this beat and didn't even know it, lol.

    Jenn, You and me both--I wish I'd found it earlier too!

  6. Faith, glad to hear it works for plotters too! :)

  7. Thanks for the chart!! That is a helpful tool! I usually write a basic outline...I know some poeple who get very detailed in theirs. I keep it basic.

    And I admit, I am a huge planner when we go on vacation..it is almost as much fun as the actual trip! Nothing is ever planned to the minute and day, but I like to know what there is where we're going.

  8. What you say is so true. I'm working on my masters in screenwriting, and the plotting techniques have helped me grow from a very lost panster to a comfortable combination between plotting and pantsing.

    I haven't read Save the Cat yet, but keep hearing good things. I guess I'll have to check it out. :)

  9. Great post, Roni;
    I've wasted a lot of index cards because I think I SHOULD be a more thorough plotter, but I just don't know what's going to happen until I start writing.

    I feel better now.

  10. Hmmm. Got to try out that chart on my WIP. Save the Cat looks worth picking up, too. Thanks.

    But I'm a plotter with pantser envy. I get so bogged down in details and fixing things as I go that it takes me forever to get anything written.

  11. I'm more of a "plantster". I have a plan but only a broad sketch of the book's actual plot. And I'm usually working only a few scenes into the future. I use a 'tracking" system to follow where I've been, and an "idea board" to note plot points or other important things I need to cover.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  12. Excellent post Roni!

    I'll have to check out Michael Hauge's stuff in more detail but thank you for that chart. I'm used Snyder's beats when I plotted my current WiP and am enjoying the draft process :)

  13. Very helpful, Roni! Great post! :)

  14. Wow, great resources Roni! Thanks so much for sharing :)

  15. What a great chart. Even I might be able to plot with this one. It would save me a lot of wasted time and dead ends. But I can still be surprised by what happens in between. Thanks Roni and Janice! Will RT!

  16. After I learned about Blake I vow to never write another book without his beat sheet! LOVE it! I will never look at another movie the same again either. I used to be a panster. This gives me a great map to follow. It doesn't have to be set in stone.

    So glad to hear you are a STC fan too!! I did a blog post on my bloga bout STC as well...if you like to stop by.

  17. I recently finished Save the Cat and then Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I'm more of a pantser also. I agree entirely with you, Roni! I want more a better planned story, but not so much that the story is done before I begin writing. I'm using Scrivener for Windows now, which is helping. Thanks for the tips.

  18. Thanks for the reminder to get reading my copy of "Save the Cat!" I fall somewhere in between, but closer to the Pantser end, and can definitely benefit from this chart!

    I enjoyed the post!!

  19. I used to be a Pantser and now I am firmly in the Plotser camp like you. Great post. I am going to hit up every single one of those links.

  20. I am in love with this post...

  21. I'm a plotter...who had diverted a lot from my original outline. For example, in the outline I didn't have the narrator gain a lot of powers until after the mid-point, but then I put in training scenes during the first part. But now I moved those training scenes out and putting in a few more encounters and a sub-plot.

    At least I had an outline.

  22. Loved the six stage plot structure... makes is so simple to see it like this...

  23. This is sssssooooooo good. Thanks Roni, I popped over to the link and got the full picture. The beauty of it is that you get the best of both worlds, you know what you have to do, but the how to do it can come as you write.

    Thanks for sharing.

  24. My wonderful significant other just bought me Save the Cat after I've been slobbering over it for a while so I'm excited to know it will help waffling pantsers like me.

  25. Stephanie, You and my husband would get along, lol.

    Kaitlin, definitely check out the book if you're in screenwriting. It's fabulous.

    Teri Anne, Glad I'm enabling your pantsing ways, lol. Death to index cards!

    LD, I am always amazed at those of you who can outline all that detail. It gives me the shivers.

    Terry, You sound pretty organized. And I like the term plantser, lol.

    Raelyn, Michael Hauge's stuff is great too. I love the chart he has for the internal character arcs. So helpful.

    Carrie, thanks!

    Jess, thanks!

    Anne, Hope you find it helpful. It really does leave lots of room for discovery while you write, but gives you a nice frame to hang things on.

  26. Martha, I'll have to check out your posts. And I'm the same way--I totally find myself breaking down movies now. I can't help it!

    Julie, Glad to hear it's working for you too! :)

    Patti, Definitely give it a read. It's an easy book to get through and gave me many a-ha moments.

    Jessie, hope you find the links helpful! :)

    Jeff, The post loves you too, but thinks you should both continue to see other people. ;)

    CO, Outlines were meant to be broken, right? :)

    Tfwalsh, glad you found it helpful!

    Tahlia, it really is the best of both worlds, isn't it? So glad you liked the post. :)

    Sophia, yay, hope you like the book! :)

  27. I'm a huge fan of screenwriting books that talk about story structure. I have both Save the Cat and Writing Screenplays that Sell, plus several others. They've made a huge difference in my writing.

  28. I've been hearing about `Save the Cat'. Seriously have to look into finding a copy. :) I love Hauge's grid. It's going to be interesting, seeing how my own stories match up.

  29. I'll have to check out the book. A couple of my other friends have raved about it too.

    I'm somewhere in the middle, btw. I keep character profiles, important dates, some events in a word document - but haven't been able to get more organized than that. I do research and plot out settings and careers though :)


  30. You are totally right. I started off as a pantser by nature and became a plotter by necessity. Pantsing is like driving in unknown territory without a map. You WILL get lost...you WILL take wrong turns. I like Save the Cat, and Alexandra Sokoloff also has a great website with screenwriting tips for authors. I used her layout to create a plot board and just like that, I could see my story as a whole. The scenes that didn't fit as well as the ones that were missing suddenly came into focus.
    Great Post, Roni!!

  31. Going to bookmark this so I can read it thoroughly! I am a complete Pantster but after several novels where I pantstedy away, I want to challenge myself to write something in a more structured way - *gulp* if I can!

    Alex Sokoloff - as I see Charissa has also mentioned her - has a wonderful website and I think book on screenwriting techniques-she's brilliant!

  32. Great post, Roni!

    I love examining narrative structure. I find it really helps to craft a story when we see that almost every plot can be broken down into re-usable elements like these.

  33. Excellent. As a plotser (half way between a pantser and a plotter) I've been using a very similar outline for my current WIP. It really does work, and best of all it allows some flexibility for new scenes and plot changes.

  34. Great post, Roni! I think I might try to use this for my next story. But I don't know... I'm such a pantster when it comes to writing. Vacations on the other hand...

  35. I love using Save the Cat. It seems to help the editing process to have things beat out, doesn't it? And I think, for me anyway, it still leaves a lot of room to pants. I find several things still able to pop up and surprise me as I write while still managing to hit the beats.

  36. Yes! What a wonderfully useful post.

    My screenwriting books and classes have helped me far more than most novel writing resources. After all, as we read, we turn all those words into pictures in our heads, so the writing needs to support that.

    I always need all the help I can get with plotting, too, because I'm definitely a pantser. If I write a thorough outline first, then I feel like I've already written the book. So inevitably I blunder along, hit a wall and have to go back and study the basics again. Maybe by the time I've written the 10th novel I'll just breeze through it. Thanks so much for all the tips!

  37. I love this post! I can totally relate to expecting to be a plotter, but ending up a pantser! I mean, I'm an engineer for crying out loud. We CALCULATE things. Uh, no, not that creative stuff, apparently. But then I discovered screen writing and Save the Cat and had literally that same epiphany! Now I'm almost a hyper plotter, but it doesn't take the fun of discovery out, because ... I'm pantsing my way through the beat sheet and the chapter by chapter plotting. It's crazy, I know.

    Thanks so much for the great post!

  38. I am really intrigued on this book. It seems so full of good points that would be of great use. I wish I could grab a copy of it. Thanks anyway for sharing this information.

  39. The book was interesting, but the beat formula never did much for me as a pantser. It's like trying to make my story fit in something where it doesn't fit. There's also been some recent complaints about Hollywood movies following Snyder's formula so much that movies are losing their creativity.

    1. I've been hearing that more and more. That's certainly a risk in using a format like this. The trick is to let it help inspire you and remind you of potentially strong moments that could add to the story.