3 Tips for Plotting with a Pantser

I was in Bermuda last week on vacation with my husband Rob, visiting with our friends Cathy and Stephen West. Yes, that Cathy West — author of Yesterday’s Tomorrow and Bridge of Faith — and newly contracted with HarperCollins. In between walks along the beach, swimming in a sea-filled cave, and watching the sunset during a sailboat cruise, Cathy and I talked story.

Two writers together for an entire week? Of course we’d talk about writing – specifically the story Cathy has just started writing. We faced one challenge: Cathy is a pantser – a writer who likes to be surprised and who writes by the seat of her pants. I am a plotter.

But after introducing her to what I called “My Book Therapy Lite,” by the time I boarded my plane back to the States, Cathy had a basic plot for her story – and a short synopsis.

I learned a few things while Cathy and I talked story. When you’re plotting with a pantser, remember to:

1. Give pantsers room to breathe. Seat of the pantsers like the freedom to follow their story wherever it may lead them. Plotting feels like you’ve shackled their creative muse. I talked Cathy through the basic steps of The Book Buddy, the work-text created by Susan May Warren, but I didn’t insist she follow it page by page.
2. Tell pantsers that yes, what you’ve plotted can change. Say this repeatedly. Pantsers want freedom, remember? When Cathy and I would plot out a scene, or maybe come up with a possible Disappointment or Y in the Road for one of her characters, I always assured her, “This sounds good and it fits with your character’s Wound, Lie, and Fear. But we’re flexible. If we talk tomorrow and want to rework this, we can.”
3. Encourage pantsers that plotting helps build a framework for their story. By developing our main characters’ Dark Moments and Black Moments and Disappointments (Ds) and spiritual journeys – all the things we talk about in My Book Therapy – we’re giving ourselves something to work with. When I helped Cathy plot scenes, I reminded her that we weren’t plotting every last little thing in her book. What we developed was a good foundation or framework. She could change it – yes, I said that a lot – and she would definitely add scenes we hadn’t talked about. But she had something good to start with.

When our week was up, Cathy had:
11 pages of notes
• a Story Question
• a short synopsis for her story – including a hook and a premise

I asked her if plotting had benefitted her at all. Her reply?

“Plotting with you got the wheels churning. It got the movie going in my head. My books start playing like a movie in my head – now I have an outline to line up with the scenes. I’ve never had that before. I’ve read so many books on plotting and tried to do it myself. It helped to talk it out.”

What about you? Are you a plotter or a pantser — or a little bit of both?

Stalled in your writing?  The Benefits of a Quick Read!

I read a quote recently that said if you look at the state of your house, office and garage, that reflects the state of your inner being.

Hmm…I just came off a week of celebrations – my daughter graduating from college, my son graduating from high school – and the ensuing parties and houseful of guests.  All my adult children, plus extended family hung out at our house, playing games into the wee hours of the night.

The morning light revealed piles of coke cans, Doritos wrappers, blankets, shoes and pillows scattered around the family ottoman or kitchen table, the evidence of, well, fun had the night before.

We capped off our week with a hike up to a local waterfall, where we took a few minutes to sit down and reflect on the accomplishments of our graduates, as well as looked ahead to the future with hopes and dreams.

Amidst the fun of the game playing and cake-eating, the three hour hike afforded us with an opportunity to cherish the important stuff.

In the middle of writing a book, we can get caught up in the drama (and challenge) of writing, moving from one climatic event to the next. But somewhere in the middle we sometimes lose steam as we look ahead at all the scenes we must yet accomplish. Our progress begins to slow and suddenly we find ourselves standing in the middle of the room, looking at the debris, wondering how we got here, and how we might find the strength to continue.

It’s time to do a Quick Read of your book.

Reading what you have so far will charm you back into the story, into the big picture, and charge you with momentum to finish.  You’ll see what you have accomplished – and the reward of staying the course.

Here’s some advice on how to maximize your Quick Read:

  1. Don’t edit each scene as you go. If you stop to edit, you’ll find yourself suddenly reworking essential moments, slow your progress and you might even change something that will affect your ending.  Instead, TAKE NOTES on your story – outlining possible changes.  You might also highlight areas you need to pay special attention to later.  Remind yourself that you WILL go back and re-write, and give your story a deep edit when you’re finished.  Now, you’re just trying to reignite your inspiration.
  2. Keep an eye out for shallow (and unfounded) emotional responses. When you’re writing that first pass, you’re still getting to know your characters and their emotional responses. A second read through, after you’ve gotten to know them better will unearth deeper responses, more meaningful reactions, and add to your emotional layering of a scene.  Again, don’t rewrite it yet, but make notes on how you might react to this differently.  Then, on your editing pass, you’ll have a springboard from which to rewrite the emotions.
  3. Make notes on where you might need more storyworld, or perhaps even an additional scene. You might even find a redundant scene.
  4. Pick up plotting threads you might have forgotten as you’ve trudged through Act 2. Make a list of all the threads so you remember to wind them up at the end.
  5. Ask: WHAT DO I LOVE? I always ask myself this as I’m reading. What do I love about this book?  What character moments, plot twists, dialogue, prose – I go ahead and highlight it so I can remember why I’m writing this book, and I’m encouraged that yes, it’s a worthwhile venture to continue.  Seeing all those pink highlights is encouraging as I’m scrolling through my kindle, ready to start moving forward away.

Finally, doing a Quick Read of your book, especially while you’re busy with other events (e.g. family graduations!) utilizes that “non-writing” time and helps build your momentum for getting back on track after the party has died.

Life gets in the way of our writing – (or rather, writing gets in the way of life?), but you don’t have to let yourself get derailed.  Or, maybe you simply have lost your steam.  Stop writing, sit down and start reading.

You might just discover you’ve found your next favorite author.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May



Conversations: Understanding Turning Points

“I’m so sorry,” Sally said, sitting down and unwrapping her scarf from her neck. Outside, ice glazed the puddles, the sky a slate gray. The first hint of snow hung in the air, the world of northern Minnesota in crisp expectation. It was a perfect day to teach Sally about how to understand Turning Points in a novel.

I love the change of seasons.  I blew on my candy cane mint mocha.  “Why?”

“Our high school football season is over,” she said. “I know how you love to go to the games.”

I do.  I live for the Friday night lights.  “It was a tough game.  A number of game-changing turning points that could have turned the game our way.  Our boys fought a tough fight.”

“I heard that on the second play of the game, the other team got past our defense and ran for a touchdown.”

“Yes, and then when we got the ball – we fumbled and they ran it back for another touchdown. Two touchdowns in less than five minutes of play.”

“Pretty tough for an undefeated team.”

“Yes. Suddenly, the game became a fight.  Can you say Noble Quest?”

She smiled. “Is everything about writing with you?”

“Yes.   I’ve often said that a football game is like a novel – the teams the protagonist and antagonist, the downs representing scenes and how to create tension.  I like this analogy because it also works for understanding the different between Turning Points and Bumps in the Road.  Which is what I wanted to talk to you about today.

“With so much going on in the Second Act of your novel, how do you distinguish the real Turning Points from the other steps along the journey?

Act Two of your novel is the part where you character confronts his flaws and fears and begins the process of character change.  Act Two is fraught with obstacles, challenges, decisions and frustrations that require your character to learn new things about him or herself, all of which cumulates in the Epiphany of Act 3 and then causes them to finish their journey victoriously.

“What does that have to do with football?”

“After the two touchdowns by the other team, our players realized they had to do something different if they wanted to win.  We entered into Act Two of our game/story.

“In order to win, we had to change how we played defense and stop the other team from running the ball.  It worked and the other team was forced to start passing the ball.  Which is what we wanted…until they completed a pass and ran it in for yet another touchdown.”


“Or, we might called that a teaching moment or Turning Point. Because our players had to figure out what to do.  They needed to score, so they rearranged their offense and drove down the field for a touchdown.


“And, another Turning point, and the mood of the game changed. We came out at the second half with a new defensive and offensive strategy…and it worked.”

“Sadly, it wasn’t enough to win.”

“Thank you, Sally.  But, we learned from the mistakes of the first quarter, and by the time we finished the game, we not only played our best, but we felt triumphant about how we’d grown as a team.  We had nothing to be ashamed of, despite our loss.”

“I agree,” Sally said. “Great season.”

“Alright enough about football.  Let’s apply this to our Act 2.

“Turning Points in a novel are those big plays that change the course of a story.  They add new stakes, new trouble, even victories. The Purpose of a Turning Point is to teach your character something they’ll need in order to achieve victory.

“A Turning Point also involves big sections of a novel rather than tiny events. 

“People often define a Turning Point as a crisis –and yes, this can be a turning point. But think back to your own life.  Sometimes it isn’t a crisis that turns us from our course, but some sort of event, decision, information or even obstacle on our journey.  We need to start thinking of Turning Points as those things that teach us something.  They open the door to new lessons, opportunities and relationships.

“Besides, if you are writing your scenes correctly, you’ll have an goal, an obstacle and stakes for every scene.  Often, these will also have a crisis of some kind. But not every scene can act as a turning point.  It would simply be too high drama.  Imagining a player fumbling or scoring in every play.”

“I thought we were done talking about football.”

“Right. Okay, bumps in the road are the smaller roadblocks or mini problems that occur during the Turning Point sections. They may be a result of the Turning Point, or contribute to the turning point. They may reinforce a lesson or a fear.  But most of all, they simply contribute to the impact of the turning point.

“Bumps in the road in a football game might be a quarterback getting sacked. Or a badly thrown pass.

“Turning Points in a football game are touchdowns or turnovers (that’s when the other team gets the ball).

“Susie –“

“Stay with me — Turning Points are the big events in a story that require us to learn and adjust and then keep going.


“Right.  So, as you’re writing this week, look at your novel. Do you have 2-3 big turning points in your novel, with bumps in the road between each one?”

Outside, flakes began falling past the window.

“Here’s to next season,” Sally said, holding up her mug.

“Here’s to basketball,” I said with a wink.

Truth:  A great story has 2-3 big turning points in Act 2 that drive the character forward and teaches them a mini-lesson (or confirms a mini-lie) that will be used in the Climax/Black Moment and Epiphany.

Dare: Watch a movie this week and see if you can find the Act 2 Turning Points. Can you find the Turning Points in your own novel?

Have a great writing week!

Susie May

P.S.  Was this helpful?  Maybe you’d like to learn how to apply Turning Points to your novel?  Watch the entire Turning Points Advanced Writer’s Lesson available in the Premium Membership! Get a 24-hour free pass today and check it out in the Advanced Team Member Lockerroom under Chalktalk: Advanced Monthly Lessons!  Or, to find out more about MBT membership, both FREE and Premium, check out:  http://www.mybooktherapy.com/join-the-team/






Idea Sparking: Brainstorming Conflict in your Novel!

At MBT we’re all about trying to give you the best tools to create powerful stories. That’s why I asked our MBT Brainstorming Coach Michelle Lim to write a book about brainstorming techniques that help a writer create conflict in their stories. I’ve discovered that many authors just get stuck while brainstorming, and their stories lack spark or twists. Michelle’s book is a powerful tool to help an author think outside the box and create powerful twists and turns in their story. 

I’ve asked her here to today to chat with us about her new book: Idea Sparking: Brainstorming Conflict into your Novel.


What prompted the idea for this book?

Since I was a teenager I loved plot. If the story kept me turning pages by flashlight after bedtime, I found a new favorite author. Over time I began to think about how writers have great plot or flat plot. I would brainstorm stories with, “What if it ended this way?”

As a writer I see so many struggle with ideas and originality. They want to grab their readers and their wordsmithing is astounding, but they struggle to keep the reader guessing and the conflict high. I’ve brainstormed with many of these writers and they ask me where I get my ideas.

A year ago I decided I should start to synthesize my methods for brainstorming in way that others could utilize. Breaking it down into small pieces is where Idea Sparking: How to Brainstorm Conflict in Your Novel was born.

What does you book contain that different from other books?

My Idea Sparking book is about more than just a theory, or a here is how you brainstorm in all situations. This book is designed to target specific problems in your plot conflict and give you a tool to fix it.

The diagnostic tool to match conflict problems with a specific tool to fix it is so practical and easy to use. You can turn to a chapter and pull out a strategy and apply it to your work.

What is one of the best ideas generated by this book?

One of my favorite strategies utilized in this book is Secret Sabotage. It helps create unpredictable behavior in your hero or heroine that keeps the reader guessing. It allows readers to unravel the character one layer at a time and find surprising twists.

What is one of the best ideas generated by this book?

One of my favorite strategies utilized in this book is Secret Sabotage. It helps create unpredictable behavior in your hero or heroine that keeps the reader guessing. It allows readers to unravel the character one layer at a time and find surprising twists.

Just like us, our characters have things they’ve done they are not proud of or they find embarrassing. Identify a few these things for your hero/heroine to create unexpected behavior, all in the interest of keeping this secret. Then find someone in the story, or a situation in the story that could threaten to reveal their secret.strategies utilized in this book is Secret Sabotage. It helps create unpredictable behavior in your hero or heroine that keeps the reader guessing. It allows readers to unravel the character one layer at a time and find surprising twists.

For example, a character that is unable to dance may turn down an opportunity to go to a ball with Prince Charming. She may have loved him secretly for years, but won’t risk being embarrassed by her lack of dancing skills, so she turns him down. This behavior is unexpected to Prince Charming who thinks she just doesn’t like him.

Another possibility is that her sister threatens to tell Prince Charming that she used to date a Prince from an enemy kingdom. She would turn him down to protect this secret as well.

By pulling out this secret, we have created an unexpected turn of events in our plot that can cause more conflict.

How would the MBT audience, or aspiring author use this book?

My hope is that writers would read the book through and then use it as a desk reference to help them as they plot and as they edit. If they see a scene is flat, they can turn to a list of strategies to fix this problem and apply it. If they have difficulty thinking out of the box, they can turn to one of the exercises and it use it to solve the problem.

Feedback on this excellent resource!

“I think it’s a great resource! I love the way you give examples, offer opportunities for writers to craft out their own ideas.”  ~Lisa Jordan Author of Lakeside Reunion and Lakeside Family 

“Michelle recently helped me brainstorm Silent Night, my newRockHarbor digital novella coming at the end of next month. Her brainstorming prowess amazed me! I loved her new book, especially the chapter on secrets.” ~Colleen Coble Award Winning Author

“Michelle encapsulated some workable, practical, yet energizing techniques to help spark that all-important conflict and tension in our stories. I especially appreciated the buffet of ideas that showed how a combination of tips could bring about a tailor-made solution to a lack-luster character, scene, or plot.” ~Cynthia Ruchti Multi-published Author, speaker, and writing instructor.

Pick up your copy of Idea Sparking at:  http://ideasparking.mybooktherapy.com

Thanks, Michelle, for creating this powerful tool for authors!