Failing To See The Big Picture

Are you a plotter or a pantser? I hear this question asked all the time among writers. Some authors plot their story because they need to know what is going to be the incident that gets the story going and sets the character on his journey. They need to know the major plot points and know how the character is going to reach his goal and what obstacles he is going to face. Without this outline or map, some authors can not write their story.

Pantsers or people who fly by the seat of their pants, do not plot at all or if they do, it’s very little. They begin to write and let the story take them wherever it leads. I do think this is misleading, however, even pantsers have a mental plan. They know who the character is and what the character’s goal is, they just don’t have an outline for every scene that will happen.

I’m going to take a wild guess that writers who get frustrated with not seeing the big picture of their story are pantsers. Plotters do see the larger story, they know how character choices will lead to the ultimate transformation of the character and the happy ending or at least satisfying ending.

I’m not a big plotter, but over the years, I have come to realize that plotting key events and turning points in the novel is helpful. It doesn’t mean that writers have to stick to this outline if as they write the story, they discover that the story needs to go in a different direction. But it simply gives us as the writer a direction.

One reason I never liked plotting was because I felt like my story lost its soul during the plotting session; like I had to follow this boring outline that lacked passion. I liked the freedom of letting my story evolve, of discovering what was going to happen the same way as the reader will. I still do this. The only exception is that after a few chapters, once I know the character better and know where she is headed, I plot out the key scenes, mostly to see if I’m headed where I think I’m headed.

A great book to read for Pantsers who want to learn how to plot lightly is Write Your Novel From The Middle by James Scott Bell. What I liked about this book was that Bell recommends understanding the characters “mirror moment”. This is the moment when the character sees who she really is and where she’s headed if she doesn’t change. It’s that moment when the character thinks, “what have I become?” It usually happens right in the middle of the story.

Bell gives many examples, but one that I like is from It’s a Wonderful Life when Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a job in return for closing his father’s Building & Loan. George has a choice to make. What kind of man will he be? Will he become just like Mr. Potter or will he reject the offer and try to save his father’s business even if it means continuing to struggle financially. George makes his choice and rejects Mr. Potter’s offer. This was his mirror moment. It was a look at himself and the kind of person he could become.

What Bell states is that if we know where the character begins the story and we understand the mirror moment or the big decision the character will have to make that will lead him to become the transformed person who has grown and deserves the prize at the end of the story (whatever that prize might be), then we will have the “big picture” in our mind. Then when we write the scenes in between, we can be as free as we want; we will not end up getting lost or wondering what this story is really about.

This takes the frustration out of writing ourselves into a dead end because it’s less likely to happen. It also makes writing more enjoyable because we know where we’re headed. Understanding this mirror moment also helps us to avoid scenes that are out of order.

We will instinctive know that every scene prior to the mirror moment must lead us to that moment. I have a scene in my upcoming novel where the main character is a medical student who is caring for her dying mother. Margarita is extremely confident in her medical abilities, but not confident in her role as a daughter or where she fits into the family. She feels she doesn’t fit in at all. So, she is a work-a-holic who has no friends, and drinks too much.

I wasn’t sure what her mirror moment was going to be, but I did know that there was going to be a scene where her mother’s illness took a turn and she ended up in the hospital. I decided that this was going to be Margarita’s mirror moment because her personal issues were going to get in the way of her being there for her mother when her mother needed her most. Margarita was going to fail at the one thing she was good at, being a doctor. She had to literally ask herself the question: what have I become? How will I ever be a good doctor if I continue along this path? I need to change. I need to heal this connection with my mom and heal myself.

Knowing this about my character, I knew every scene prior to this middle had to lead to this moment. And ever decision after this moment had to show the transformation to the new person she would become.

Not every scene I wrote was smooth. This novel is still in its rough draft stage. There will be changes and tweaks, but the general, big picture structure of the novel will not change.

My recommendation for those who want to avoid that dreaded feeling of being lost in pages of scenes, is to do a little work understanding the main character’s goals and journey, understand where the character will begin, the mirror moment, and the transformation at the end, and the rest will fall into place.

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Julia Amante

Women’s Fiction author of That Was Then, Say You’ll Be Mine, and Evenings at the Argentine Club. Speaker and and teacher. https://www.facebook.com/juliaamante/