Friday, July 6, 2012

Pantser Learns to Plot, Courtesy of Storyist

Writers, like everyone else, have preferred styles of working. Some (“plotters”) work out every detail before they craft a single line of dialogue, expanding their initial premise into ever-longer outlines until the story writes itself. Others (“pantsers,” as in people who write by the seat of their pants) embark on a journey of discovery toward a distant shore, guided by the stars and their muses. Devotees of the “snowflake” method combine the two, plotting and pantsing as the mood takes them.

My first attempts at writing fiction were pure pantser. One day I had an idea for a scene, wrote it down, and soon had a quarter of a novel. In those days, I had no idea what I was doing, but I persevered. When I finished the manuscript, I showed it to a friend; she had comments; I revised and tried again. And again. And again. When I couldn’t face any more revisions, I gave up. Five years later, I had another idea, wrote a rough draft in three weeks, showed it to another friend, and began the whole process anew.

The good news is that I just published the second book. One day, I may even salvage the first one. But the tally was daunting: five years, no result on book one; four years leading to eventual publication on book two; and three years plus on book three, now ready for print. If I wanted to finish my five-part series before hitting Social Security, I needed a better plan.

In the interim—halfway through book two, in fact—I had discovered Storyist, a Mac-only program that combines data management (characters, plot, settings, notes, research, images) and word processing. In the beginning, I didn’t do much with it except record character and setting information, take notes, and edit text imported from Microsoft Word. I embraced images when they became available. But plot? I had a plot! Besides, I was a pantser. Who needed to plot?

I did, as it turns out. As I sit down today to write the first pages of my new novel, The Winged Horse, I have an outline covering the entire plot, specifying the main conflicts at each step, and adding a custom field that reminds me of details I need to include (O’s reaction to news that his mentor has died, e.g.). I have descriptive sheets with story goals, physical descriptions, personality strengths/weaknesses, and images for every character as well as sheets with sounds, smells, sights, and images for each setting. Each of these sheets is or can be linked to the others, allowing me to track stages of character development for multiple characters or explanatory notes to plot points. And Storyist has a tightly integrated iPad app, so I can edit on the couch in the evenings (vital when work takes over my days) and sync my files over the air with Dropbox. I still need to feel my way into the sensory details and emotional experiences as I go, but I find it incredibly reassuring to know I have a story structure that works.

Storyist is not the only alternative for writers. Scrivener gets a lot of press; it has Mac and Windows versions but as yet no iPad app, and it’s a worthy program, too. Some people (pantsers?) prefer it because they find Storyist’s prepopulated sheets inflexible. But for pantsers learning to plot, or plotters or snowflakers who plot first and write later, those prepopulated but customizable sheets are an invaluable resource. They encourage you to ponder what conflict this plot point produces, how those woods smell, what your hero(ine) learned in this chapter, whose point of view you need for this scene. If you hate the sheets, you can hide or delete them, but if you do, you strip Storyist of much of its power.

To find out more, visit or stop by the Storyist forums.


  1. I totally suck at plotting, but have yet to decide whether to try something like Scrivner. I thought I was a plotter, but I'm not so great at pantsing it all the time either, so I'm somewhere in between. Hmmm...perhaps I should go back to the notes form an online class I took and apply those suggestions. :)

  2. I'm somewhere in between - I live the stories in my head for months - know what's going to happen - then I write bits in no particular order but just how my mood takes me! this leaves me at the end with a great deal of scene shuffling and double checking all is included but it's my way and seems to work somehow.

    I have scrivner because I do mean sometime to outline and have character studies (I haven't yet!) I like the way I can see the written scenes so easily and can dart back and forth more easily than on word - so it's nicer to work in scrivner - one day I'll put aside some time and find out how to use it properly:)

    20+years ago - I wrote a book:( which has spent all that time in a box - last year with NaNo I resurected it - took the idea and changed location amongst other things and brought it up to date it is now a robust WIP - so who knows don't abandon that first one:)


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