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Plotting for the Person who Doesn’t Plot (Short Story Edition)

I feel like the name of this is super self-explanatory. I’m guilty myself of being what people call a ‘pantser’ – meaning I don’t often plot what I’m doing before I do it. Lately, I’ve decided to branch out and work on plotting things, and honestly, I’m really liking it. I hate to say I’ve ‘converted’ into being a plotter, but I definitely see its merit more than I once did. As someone who spent years simply writing the first draft and then wading through it. These methods are what I’ve been using for the past few months, and I’ve done what I think is some pretty successful plotting with them. If you’re stumped for where to start plotting, keep reading.

1. HAVE IDEA, WILL TRAVEL.

So, to make this flow a little better, I’ve decided to actually build an idea with you to help out. I generally tend to pick ideas out of a proverbial hat, which tends to make things either easier or harder to understand. If I’m building an idea, you’ll see how I use what I’m talking about a little better. When I say ‘idea’ I really mean anything from a few words to a sentence to something more in depth. I’ve decided to keep things pretty basic, so I’ll be working with the idea:

Woman without makeup is really an eldritch abomination.

Not super explanatory, but we can fix that. It was one of those random ideas that popped into my head while scrolling through Twitter and I saw one of those “women don’t want to look like ‘x’ they want…” and I had a mental image of it and…well, let’s run with it.

Now that I have a basic idea, I need a few things to get going. I need a setting/scenario, and a few characters. I’d say, for this story, I need at least two. Because of the way this idea came to me, I’ll start with fleshing out the scenario/setting, then work on characters. Depending on the idea you have, you may find it easier to create characters, then move onto scenario/setting. Whatever’s easiest. If you start on plot, but nothing comes to you, you can always work on characters, or vice versa. I’ve realized plotting is fairly fluid, much like writing, and subject to change.

2. BUILD YOUR IDEA

Now, this is often something I do in my mind. I’m not at the part of writing where I start making notes. If you want or need to, though, you can absolutely be doing this in a wordpad document, in a MSWord document, in a Google Doc, a spreadsheet. Or in a notebook or on some looseleaf or wherever. I’m not here to writing-shame you; there’s no *wrong* way to do this. I have my own Discord server to jot down ideas and sentences, so literally anywhere you need/want to put this is totally fine, even if you want to keep it in your head for now.

From my base idea, I have a few directions I can go with it, but what sounds the most fun to me might be a ‘dating’ sort of situation. For some reason, after I jotted down the initial idea, I thought of all those horrible posts I’ve seen about “always bring a girl swimming on a first date to make sure their makeup isn’t some kind of ‘false advertisement.’”
Once we have a few puzzle pieces, let’s work a little bit further on the meat of this story. This requires thought, and might not happen all at once. This is also the part where taking notes might start to be your friend as you work through possible scenarios. I’ve got to think about this a little bit, so I’ll try to screenshot and post pictures of anything I end up doing that’s outside of this blog post.

Okay, I was able to get a few ideas written down from lunch the other day.

Image of scrap of paper w/text: After date - Goes home? Part of date. Swimming? Morning after? After date - go home - fade to black - next morning guy tries to sneak out? Stopped by girl - some mention of not wearing makeup - girl basically takes her face off and shows 'true form'
I wasn’t sure how long I was going to have to work on things, so I tried to make the notes short, sweet, and to the point.
Scrap of paper w/text: "2 main characters - man/woman. 'stereotypical' asshole guy trope char? Shallow. Late college age? POV - makes twist better maybe? Woman - has full face 'glam' look. Dodges comments about it. Give hints she's not having a good time
The notes don’t always have to be great, especially if you’re writing quick like I was. Just enough to jog by memory and give myself a good reminder of where my mind was going.

With those notes, I was able to expand a little bit on this later on, shown below. As a random note: I don’t usually plan the word count while I’m writing; this was an idea I came up with for a submission, so I figured giving myself a reminder of the target word count would help me plan out the story. The longer the word count, generally speaking, the more you can expand and break down your ideas. But anyway, here’s what I was able to come up with:

Photo taken from my phone of a page of notes. The top half is a line by line series of events, the bottom half a mess of notes including sections for "Woman" character, "Man" character and "Setting" with notes written and arrows pointing to the word 'setting'
I call this the ‘random paper’ approach – I grabbed a piece of paper I had on hand and started scribbling, using the two scraps as a ‘guide’ to organize a little more.

When writing your outline, especially if you choose the ‘random paper’ approach like I do, always try to start with what you know. If you write down the facts, it makes it easier for you to focus on filling in the places you don’t know. For this instance, I know I need my ‘woman’ character to not want to take her makeup off. I know I need the ‘woman’ and the ‘man’ to end up alone in a somewhat intimate setting. Once I do that, I start asking myself questions. Usually these don’t get written down, but it’s a lot of asking “why” things happen, or “why” something makes sense, etc.

Since this idea is a short story, I’m not sure I’ll need much more information before I start. I have a basic timeline of events as they happen, and since there isn’t going to be more than one or two scenes (since I want/need this piece to be on the shorter side) there isn’t a lot of ‘what ifs’ that I need to get through. If you are writing a longer piece, and you end up stuck on one of the parts, it’s fine to either start writing, or write the outline backward. When I’m writing short stories, I always try to come up with the ending first, getting that as solid as it can be. Sometimes it can help answer some of those ‘why’ questions I slam myself with. For this one, my brain went sort of like:

-Girl is eldrich abomination without makeup
Why?
Well, because it would be fun to play off all those memes/sexist shit about ‘take a girl swimming on the first date so you know they’re not ‘catfishing’ you or whatever the hell they say.
So the guy’s like an asshole? Is it a guy? Is it a first date or just a date where the guy is hoping to get lucky and see her like, morning after face without makeup? 

There’s a little more to it than that, but I basically asked myself questions and built the plot from what I wanted the last scene to be. I firmly believe that you, as the author, should know almost too much information about how things work so I’ll just keep asking. You certainly don’t need to ask yourself why about every little thing, just enough to try and get the plot out of yourself.

You’ll also see I sort of smushed two steps together and worked on the characters, too. I have more to say about making characters, though, so don’t worry.

When building the base idea/plot information, it’s important to focus on the big picture stuff. Whether it’s a short story or a novel, it works either way. If it’s a novel, you’ve just got to keep breaking down ideas and filling in blanks. There’ll be more on that later, with more examples of my chaotic mess of a brain on paper to show you. I had plenty of time to think about this plot between my original chaos and the much-more-organized-than-normal outline.

3. CREATE YOUR CHARACTERS

Even if you’re not writing a novel, there’s a few sort of ‘defining characteristics’ you want to have for your characters. Otherwise you run the risk of making them too cliche/predictable (think 90’s scream queens, the fan-fiction trope of the dreaded “Mary-Sue,” etc), or not knowing enough about them to make the ending of your piece plausible. For this piece, I have a sort of ‘bare bones’ approach, where I only have basic characteristics, and almost no physical attributes since it’s harder for things to get lost in only a few thousand words than in say, a 50k+ novel. For a short story, one of the important things to have for your characters, I think, is either a problem that needs solving, or a goal.

In the case of my short story, I have the “Man” character (I literally have not given them names yet they are just “Man” and “Woman”) has a goal of seeing the “Woman” character without makeup to make sure she’s really as beautiful as he’s been led to believe. The “Woman” character also has a goal that I’m aware of and she’ll also be taking steps to achieve that goal, even though she will not be the POV character.

I used to think I needed to have super in-depth, meaningful names for my characters, and I would spend hours poring over baby name sites. Unless the name is important to the story, don’t do this. It’s unnecessarily time-consuming. The only story I have where I did this was my story “Night Terrors” – the main character’s name was Aisling, which means ‘dream’ or ‘vision’ and it was integral that character end up with a name that loosely meant “dream weaver.”

Unless the story has something like that, it’s perfectly fine to name your characters without rhyme or reason to how normal or strange they might be. I know, this is writing blasphemy, but I’ve spent so long torturing myself to find the ‘perfect’ name when I could have been writing. So even if you’re absolutely going to ignore me and pore over naming sites, try to have a placeholder to use in the meantime so you can at least get something done while you look for the Holy Grail of names.

In Conclusion

That’s how I plot out short stories. If I’m going to plot out short stories. There’s a good chance I’ll just write out the ending quick and then start with a blank document and see what happens. I know this looks like a sort of ‘bare bones’ approach, but unless you’re planning a short story that’s more suited for a ‘serial’-type approach, or many interconnected short stories like some of the ones I’ve seen on r/nosleep, I don’t think a plot should be too rigid. I find if I write too intensely, I lose interest in the story because it feels like I’ve written it. I also (personally) prefer to leave myself plenty of wiggle room to let the story ‘tell itself.’ If you need more, by all means, do more. Keep expanding on the plot points until you have a story that works for you.

If you are planning either a novella, novel, or serial-type story series and would like more information on how to plot a whole novel, I’m working on a follow up to this post, complete with screenshots and more terrible pictures of things to try and help you out.

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