Plotting? Pantsing? Plotsing!

Writing Fountain PenIn the eternal quest to improve my writer’s craft, I do three things. These are, for me, the three pillars that make the best, most stable structure for growth. They are:

This article is about that third aspect, with links to some excellent resources I’d recommend to every writer, regardless of genre. I make use of the views presented and illustrated, and hope they would come in handy to you too.

Planning vs Ploting and Pansting

As the title to this post alludes, there is the usually bruited dichotomy of authors between plotting and pantsing. There’s only one thing I can say about it.

It doesn’t matter.

Whether you plan your story ahead of writing or whether you write first to discover the story and then improve structure in editing, there is no denying that a good story benefits from having a good structure, in building up and then delivering on expectations.

For myself, I continually explore both ways (planning ahead and exploratory writing). I think quite a few authors arrive at this semi-structured middle way: planning some things like major themes, writing to explore different aspects, then editing the manuscript into a coherent story, with rhyme and reason.

I just dubbed it “Plotsing”, because this article is serious enough and there is nothing like low-brow bodily noises humour to break the ice. You can call it “plantsing”, if you like plants planning. Jokes aside, I think this approach can provide value to other authors.

The theory

Anyway, here’s the deal.

Start with this 3 part article about story structure from the Mythic Scribes:

Part 1 & 2 are about the classic three-act structure. Part 3 is about Dan Wells’ 7-point plot structure (that has a lot of commonality with the previous). I find that both can be used together, to good effect. From there, I suggest you take a look at that 7-point structure in more depth. The best way to go about it is the lecture given by Dan Wells himself on YouTube:

Watch it! This is an hour of your life that is very well spent.

The practice

Did you read the articles? Watch the lecture? Good, let’s continue.

Armed with this knowledge, you can try planning a story ahead even if you’re a pantser. This isn’t necessarily the same as plotting – you don’t need to know everything before starting to write – but it helps you know the emotional pay-off you’re writing (or editing) towards. If you’re a plotter, it will help set scenes and action in a good order. It helps weave multiple sub-plots into a coherent thread.

You should adapt these guides to the style of stories you tell (e.g. with detective mysteries like Felix, the start is always with him being hired – the inciting incident and conscious choice rolled into one). It doesn’t really matter what genre you write in, a good structure still applies. The below is remarkably consistent across genres, even if relative word-counts differ for each part.

My own method (remember, under constant experimentation – I make no claims), combines both the 3-Act and 7-point structures. One to plan the overall book progress, and the other to track what happens to each character.

Based on the lectures, here are easy to use tables to plan your novel. First, the 3-Act story structure:

Plot Elements

Act I

Inciting Incident

Rising Action (Try/Fail 1)

Conscious Choice

Act II

Promise of the Premise

Midpoint (Try/Fail 2)

Midpoint Counter-balance


Crisis (Jaws of Defeat)


Declining Action

It’s worth noting that the three acts aren’t necessarily thirds of the total written words, but rather about themes. Act 1 deals with reacting to the hook, until that point when the protagonist moves from reacting to acting (usually involving a more conscious choice to do so). Act 2 is where most of the try/fail cycles take place, and things get grimmer. By Act 3 the protagonist has all they need to succeed (though they may not realise it yet), and this is the crescendo of emotions and actions.

I believe that the common view is that Act 2 takes about 50% of the book. This also fits with Lester Dent’s Master Plot Formula, which has the (short story) divided into 4 equal parts. In this case the mid-point is just another major turning point – though I like the alternating up and down beats of action and emotion that the 3 act structure above describes.

Again, the midpoint isn’t necessarily at the exact middle of the book. E.g. I break Felix’s novels into 3 scrolls based on themes; the inciting incident is usually right off the start, and the mid point is closer to the end of scroll 2. The above just acts as important milestones or pivot points for the plot, that I know I need to hit.

For example, here’s a spoiler-free breakdown of Murder In Absentia:

Plot Elements

Act I

Inciting Incident

Felix is hired to  deal with what appears to be a cult ritual murder (chapter 1)

Rising Action (Try/Fail 1)

Going about town, and failing to find the murderous cult (most of Scroll 1)

Conscious Choice

Going back to basics, and follow the deceased last days (end of Scroll 1)

Act II

Promise of the Premise

Explore more of the Romanesque world of Egretia, drum up clues (most Scroll 2)

Midpoint (Try/Fail 2)

Find what was needed and who might have done it (a high point – towards end of Scroll 2)

Midpoint Counter-balance

Trudge again in trying to infiltrate the cult (First half of Scroll 3)


Crisis (Jaws of Defeat)

Confront the cult, and almost lost life; Learn that he still knows little (last quarter of the book)


Make sense of it all, in an Agatha Christie style reveal (last 2 chapters)

Declining Action

Barely any – just a couple of paragraphs to hook future books

As you can see, the 3-Scroll structure of Murder In Absentia is not the same as the 3-Acts of story structure, and the word-counts in the framework are only rough guides. But that doesn’t mean that the same rhythm of up and down beats does not apply.

Next, using Dan Wells’ system you can take a look at both big and smal plot elements:


Main Plot

Character 1

Character 2

Sub-plot 1

Sub-plot 2

The Hook






Plot Turn 1






Pinch 1












Pinch 2






Plot Turn 2












The way I use this, is that I have the story’s main idea in my head (the elevator pitch, as it were). I know what it’s all about. So I fill in the blanks for the general 3-Act structure as I understand and know them. I then take a look at the progression of sub-plots as needed, and possibly track down other character’s actions and emotions. This may not always be directly relevant to what gets written on the pages in a Felix mystery (where there is a single, first-person POV), but these rough notes can help me keep track of what other characters are doing and feeling.

For example, in charting In Numina each scroll has almost it’s own 7-point structure in addition to that of the over-all novel. On a character level, the main antagonist’s plot-line starts well before the novel, and his up-and-down beats rhythm is almost diametrically opposite to that of Felix as they clash. I won’t chart them here as there’s no good way to do it without spoilers. I would only mention that for each and every important character, charting their arc is as important as understanding their motivation. Everyone is the hero of their own story, after all.

(And, also, there might be *ahem* other writing projects in the works…)

Summary: reprise

Looking at your (well, my) stories like this and thinking in those terms, helps me understand the story I’m trying to tell better. I may not know everything when I start to write (how will our intrepid heroes get out of the Jaws of Defeat – what stroke of genius will by their key to success), but it changes what was a subconscious process into an aware set of decisions.

I know at each point if I’m writing towards a high or a low, I keep track of who is doing and feeling what. A bit of planning ahead doesn’t take the mystery out of writing (like full plotting does for me), but it certainly helps in making the writing process smoother and the editing process easier. Well worth the time investment.

I hope you find this article of value. I dedicate this blog to my Three-R’s: reading, writing, and Romans. As I learn and grow, I like to share my lessons — because I’m awesome, but also because it helps cement the knowledge for me.

I make no claims about being a master author with years of best-selling work behind me, but I do generally consider myself a decent author. More importantly, I’m one who would like get even better. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, and how you make use of such devices.


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