In college, I studied English and Creative Writing, yet nobody ever taught me how to plot a story. There were vague whispers about inspiration, character and setting as far as how they factored into plot, but it wasn't until recently that I understood the two main schools of plot.
One method for creating a plot is aptly called plotting. A plotter is a person who lives and dies by the outline. Plotters create outlines, character sketches, detailed notes for settings/themes and/or timelines to leave less of the story to chance. Most of the plotting process happens before the author starts the first word of chapter one.
The polar opposite of plotting is called pantsing. A pantser flies "by the seat of her pants" and lets the story happen in the moment. Instead of starting with an outline, a true pantser begins with chapter one and figures things out as he goes along.
I come from a theater and improv comedy background. Improvisation is constant pantsing on the stage. You come up with dialogue, plot and character all on the spot. That training served me well in writing several plays during and after my four years of school. Plays tend to be short compared to novellas and novels. I've never had any trouble finishing a play after starting it. Fiction has been a different story.
I first took my pantsing/improv approach to a novel during National Novel Writing Month four or five years ago. My first attempted novel was actually about an improv student attending classes. I tried to write what I knew. After 70,000 words, I flat gave up. I'd written myself into a corner and I didn't like the idea of writing myself out of it. I'd been caught with my pantsing around my ankles.
Seeing as I still didn't know the difference between plotting and pantsing, I employed the same approach with several of my stories. I finished one novella, but several other attempts ran into the same trouble as my NaNoWriMo novel. I considered giving up on my attempts to write anything longer than a short story. I assumed it was me, not my process. Shortly after my most recent failure, I learned that when you plot a story, you don't have to be a straight up pantser or plotter. You can pull from both sides.
The trio behind the Self Publishing Podcast, Sean Platt, Johnny B. Truant and David Wright, have discussed on several occasions the importance of story beats. Sean writes story beats for Johnny and Dave writes beats for Sean. The beats, which can range from a paragraph to several pages per chapter, work as an outline. They hit the major points in the story and leave the other writer to determine how the characters get from start to finish. Johnny and Sean take those beats and pants their way through the story to connect the dots. While Johnny and Sean are free to play around with the beats, they have a general understanding with their beats writer that they'll only change the beats if the story dictates it. The three of them also have story meetings to discuss major digressions from the original beats.
Most of us don't have two writing partners, but we can serve as both a plotter and a pantser when we plot a story. I've never been much of an outliner, but after coming up short time and time again in my fiction writing, I'm beginning to come around to the idea that plotting has its purpose. It keeps you from getting stuck nearly as often as you do when you are a 100% pantser. It also helps when you have an end goal in mind during each chapter and throughout the story as a whole.
I have yet to put this lesson of how to plot into full practice, but when I do, I have a feeling it will be a big improvement over my previous efforts. Who knew the secret to my writing success would involve taking off my pants?
Bryan Cohen is the author of more than 30 books, many of which focus on creative writing and blasting through that pesky writer's block. His books have sold more than 20,000 copies. You can find him on Google+ and Facebook.