I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about plotting recently. Oh not that kind of plotting. What kind of a woman do you think I am? Oh, yeah, that’s right. I kill people in my spare time. On paper, on paper. Let’s not get excited.
Back to my story. The above paragraph is an example of how my mind really works. It’s like a pinball machine with great flipper bumpers. Thoughts and images carom everywhere. Sometimes it can be distracting. Especially when I’m trying to nail down a murder. On paper, on paper.
Over time, I’ve trained my pantser instincts to accept a certain amount of plotting. Not much, mostly just a listing of highpoints for the overall book and then again for each chapter, but it works for me and keeps me closer to on course. What that means for me is three drafts instead of seven. This is a good thing. I’ve tried doing a full outline, but I got bored. It’s impossible to make a story exciting if it bores you. I knew too much. I knew what was going to happen and I knew why, I knew when, and I knew who. BORING! I need the danger and the risk that not knowing where the story is going next gives me. I love the kick of adrenalin when I paint myself into a corner. The what ifs kick in and both my and the story juices flow.
All of that is well and good. But there’s another problem we pantsers face. We can fall so much in love with our stories that we forget there is a story, and story goals, and certain events that must take place to move the story along. That’s where the Hero’s Journey comes in. I don’t use it for a plotting device, although I do usually read the outlines over before I write each book and again at end of the first quarter and at the end of two thirds. Why? That’s where things have to happen in a story. If they don’t the pacing feels “off” and readers feel dissatisfied.
The Hero’s Journey is based on the book by Joseph Campbell and has been adapted by numerous writing teachers ever since. The core is the same, eleven categories. The ordinary world, the call to action, the refusal of the call (and a good place to meet a mentor), the first threshold, the test where we solidify the allies and the enemies, the approach to the innermost cave, the ordeal, the reward, the road back, the ultimate test, and the return with the elixir. All of these events happen in an orderly progression.
The terminology makes it clear that the story events have their roots in mythology. I would suggest re-reading the Iliad or the Odyssey and tracing the progression to make the myth connection, but the same sign posts hold true in Gone with the Wind, The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Agatha Christie, PD James and every other successful work of popular fiction. The stages of the Hero’s Journey define ancient and modern fiction. It doesn’t pay to noodle with them. Just accept them.
I use them in a different way. Although I may (or may not) review them at the start of a book, I always complete the various templates and signposts at the end of the first draft. I want to know where my plot holes are, if I’ve covered all the essentials. It’s easy to miss something in the heat of the moment. That’s the curse of a pantser.
I’m not ready to make the commitment to plotter, but I am willing to reverse engineer into a plotter. My second draft is all about filling in the holes the Hero’s Journey uncovers.
What about you? Do you plot or pants? Readers, do these eleven categories feel familiar and comfortable to you?