A Plotter’s Guide to First Drafts

To plot, or not to plot? It’s the perennial question writers everywhere eventually face. The internet is rife with articles waxing poetic about the virtues of Plotting vs. Pantsing. It’s the Empire vs. Rebellion of the writing world.

Do you plan out your story before you write? Then you’re a Plotter. Do you let the muse guide you along the journey without a plan, or maybe with an end-point in mind? Then you’re a Pantser.

I’m not here to make judgements about which drafting method is best. Truth be told, I’m a natural-born Pantser. The problem is that I’m just not a very good one! The first novel I ever wrote was a behemoth that clocked in at over 900 pages—which even for epic fantasy was WAY TOO MUCH. So what did the newbie author in me do? I split the book into two books. Then three.

There’s a reason that book (books???) will never see the light of day. It was a hot mess of garbage-fire proportions.

So when I was finally ready to sit down and write my debut, The Frozen Crown (out now!), I knew I needed to do things differently. So even though I was convinced it would take all the fun out of writing, I made an outline.

And it turns out, that fear was unfounded. Creating the outline wasn’t like writing a middle-school book report. It was fun—fun because the outline was in itself an act of creativity. A perfect blend of left and right brain. It was less homework and more like story-boarding a movie. Yes, it was a checklist of things that needed to occur for the plot to come to a satisfying conclusion, but it was also snippets of dialogue, flashes of world building that manifested in Pinterest boards. It was a target to aim for when I actually sat down to write.

With this in mind, how did I actually plot out The Frozen Crown? Well, there are a ton of different plot structures to choose from, but if you’re just starting out, I’d recommend a high level 7 Point Plot Structure which I first learned about from Dan Wells. It looks something like this:

Brain spinning? How about I give you an example from a movie we’ve all probably seen: Aladdin!

  1. Hook: You meet Aladdin, the “street-rat” with the heart of gold, as he travels through the city of Agrabah with his trusty friend, Abu. Elsewhere in the city, Jafar is on the hunt for the Cave of Wonders and learns that only Aladdin can enter it and retrieve the lamp.
  2. 1st Plot Point: After meeting Princess Jasmine, Aladdin is arrested by the palace guard and is about to be executed when Jafar (in disguise) tells Aladdin there is a way to escape, but only if he fetches the lamp
  3. 1st Pinch Point: Aladdin retrieves the lamp but is betrayed by Jafar and trapped in the Cave of Wonders.
  4. Midpoint: Aladdin meets the genie in the lamp and is granted three wishes. Promising to free the Genie with is third wish, Aladdin uses his first wish to become Prince Ali and win the heart of Princess Jasmine.
  5. 2nd Pinch Point: Enraged by his failure and the appearance of Prince Ali, Jafar has the guards throw Aladdin into the sea. Aladdin uses his second wish to save his life.
  6. 2nd Plot Point: After exposing Jafar as the evil wizard he is, Aladdin reneges on his promise to free the genie. Preoccupied with maintaining the lie of Prince Ali, Aladdin is unable to stop Jafar from stealing the lamp. Jafar uses the genie to take control of the kingdom and banish Aladdin.
  7. Resolution: Aladdin defeats Jafar by convincing him that the only way to become all-powerful, is to become a genie himself, leading Jafar to being trapping in a lamp looking forward to an eternity of servitude. Aladdin then gives up the dream that was Prince Ali, and uses his last wish to free the genie. Aladdin and Jasmine get engaged while the genie sets off to see the world. Everyone lives happily ever after.

That’s it! Seven key moments in your book that lead you from start to finish. But what if you know how you’re story begins, and how it ends, but are a little fuzzy on the details? You’re not alone on this one—happens to me all the time, and when it does, I work the outline in reverse. What leads your heroine to that final battle? Often a terrible loss (often referred to as the dark night of the soul) which is your second plot point?

How does that loss occur? Maybe your heroine vastly overestimated her own power and went into a smaller battle unprepared. Why was she overconfident? Perhaps she won a something at the midpoint that bolstered her confidence.

See what I mean? Half the story fleshed out by answering half a dozen questions!

Now, fair warning, the story you outline is probably not going to be the story that you actually end up with—that’s just the nature (and magic) of writing. It also doesn’t mean that you won’t have to do edits once you finish.

I know that first draft of The Frozen Crown was still a bloated mess. But the outline helped me focus on the core of what I wanted the story to be, so it was easier to know what parts of that draft could be cut off in a way that wouldn’t harm the overall plot of the novel.

Plotting isn’t the only way to write a novel, but it can be an extremely helpful tool. One that—for me at least—resulted in a fast first draft, and quicker more targeted edits. And really, isn’t that efficiency something we’d all like to attain?

Happy writing!


Author: Greta Kelly

Greta Kelly is (probably) not a witch, death or otherwise, but she can still be summoned with offerings of too-beautiful-to-use journals and Butterfingers candy. Though she has travelled across the world, including brief stints living in Germany and Japan, life always kept bringing her back home to the Midwest. She currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband EJ, daughter Lorelei and a cat who may, or may not, control the weather. Her debut novel, The Frozen Crown, is forthcoming from Harper Voyager.