Are you a plotter or a pantzer?
If you’re new to writing fiction, I may have just offended the pantz off of you — but hear me out!
Fiction authors tend to fall into one of two buckets when writing their books:
Bucket One: Pantzers are writers who basically only have a few vague elements about the story in mind when they start writing, but nothing else.
Armed with almost no details, they hit the keyboard, banging out a magnificent novel in no time. One of the most famous pantzers is Stephen King. In interviews, Stephen King has said that he often has an idea of the beginning, the premise, and a vague idea how it’s all going to end – and that’s all he needs to start writing his book.
Bucket Two: Plotters are writers who need to know every piece of their story, down to the minute detail, before they will write a single word.
They will know who each and every one of their characters are, what their motivations are, the chapters needed for the book, chapter sections, and in some cases, even paragraphs. Probably the most famous plotter out there is James Patterson.
Clearly, it’s possible to be successful whether you’re a plotter or pantzer. But here’s the harsh reality: whereas Stephen King and James Patterson sit on opposite extremes of the ‘Outline Spectrum’, most of us fall somewhere in between.
If you are a new author who has never written a piece of fiction before, how can you know if you are a pantzers or a plotter?
The answer is unfortunately you don’t. And the deeper answer is, the more you write, the more you will tend to go to one end of the spectrum or the other. I started out my writing career as a pantzer, but the more I write, the more novels I publish, the more and more I’m becoming a plotter.
So, who you are as an author changes.
But that still doesn’t answer the question: Are you a pantzer or a plotter?
My best advice is to be something in between. Someone who looks beyond the “outline” of a novel, and identifies something much more important in their story…
The 5 Key Milestones.
How you outline your novel is absolutely moot if you can’t identify these five critical milestones in your story — and that’s what we’ll be discussing today.
Got your pen and paper ready? This guide will not only cover the milestones but challenge you to start documenting your own. Once you’re done, you’ll be ready to get down and dirty with your novel’s outline… pantz or plot style.
How to Write a Novel: The 5 Key Milestones of Every Successful Novel
Most novels and movies have five key points that make up the core of their story.
What’s more, these milestones are something that readers have subconsciously been trained to look for when digesting a piece of fiction. In other words, if you don’t have these five key moments, your reader is likely to turned off of your story because it didn’t meet expectations set by the hundreds (if not thousands) of stories they have already digested before yours.
Let’s take a look at the milestones:
How to Write a Novel – Key Milestone #1: The Setup
This is where you make your story promise.You tell your reader what kind of story it will be – a comedy drama, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi – and you give a few clues as to what they can expect. Whatever you said in these initial pages must be followed to the end of your story.
A stone-cold drama cannot turn into a slapstick comedy by the end of the story. That doesn’t mean a stone-cold drama can’t have humor in it, it just means that you can suddenly pivot and become an Adam Sandler movie.
Also, during the setup, we learn a little bit about…
- The characters
- Their challenges
- The world they live in
We get a sense of where the story is heading.
One mistake made by first-time fiction authors is that they do not properly set up the story expectations and the reader goes in expecting one thing, only to get another.
Nothing annoys readers more and so it is essential that during the setup phase of your novel, you set the expectations that you will meet during the book.
Example: In the Hunger Games, we meet Katniss. From her surroundings, it is obvious that she is poor, and as soon as she steps outside of her wooden shack we see hovering drones.
- Within the first few pages of this book, we have learned three essential things:
- This book is a drama
- Katniss is our heroine and she has a miserable life
- SURPRISE! There are drones and other technologies that indicate this to be a sci-fi
- We are about to read a dystopia set sometime in the future
- What does your story’s setup look like?
- What happens?
- What story promises do you make?
Create a list of everything your reader needs to learn in order to enter your story’s world.
How to Write a Novel – Key Milestone #2: The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the moment in your story when your hero’s life changes forever. It is the ‘no-going back’ moment, where nothing that happens afterwards will return your heroes world back to normal.
Katniss volunteers, Neo takes the blue pill, Dorothy lands in OZ … the aliens are here!
As soon as your inciting incident happens, your story should be full throttle towards the climax.
The most common mistake first-time authors make is that their inciting incident is reversible. That means that something could happen that would return the hero’s life back to normal.
No, no, no!
Your inciting incident should as final as the severing of a limb or a death of a loved one. Nothing should be able to reverse the effects of your inciting incident has on your hero.
Example: Katniss volunteers! In the Hunger Games, the inciting incident is irreversible because – quite literally – soldiers grab Katniss, whisk her away from her world, and into the world of the games.
There is no escape.
And even if she could get away, she would be hunted by the Capital for the rest of her life. With those two simple words, “I volunteer!” her life has changed forever.
- What is your inciting incident?
- Is it strong enough?
- Are there ways you could up the stakes or shorten the timeline?
- How can you make it your inciting incident as impactful and irreversible as possible?
Brainstorm several inciting incidents… Don’t settle for one. Take a look at your inciting incidents and ask yourself this: Which one of these is the harshest, deadliest inciting incident of the bunch. Then pick that one.
Note: There is an exception to this rule when it comes to romances.
With romances, the inciting incident is almost always win the two lovebirds meet. (Not always, but for the vast majority of romances, this is the case.) With romances, try to create an inciting incident that simultaneously shows how perfect these two people are for each other while setting up the numerous reasons why they can’t be together.
How to Write a Novel – Key Milestone #3: The First Slap
Now, we are away to the races!
Over the next few chapters, your character should be making a series of gains and losses, where the aggregate result is that their situation is slightly better than what it was at the moment of the inciting incident.
The reason why we need this upward trajectory is because we are setting up the reader for the first slap.The first slap is the moment when everything that our hero has gained is lost in fell swoop. Your hero is brought down to zero. In other words, all gains are lost, and your hero’s situation has never been bleaker.
The greater the fall, the more engaged your reader will be.
Example: In the Hunger Games, Katniss’s world is brought down to 0 when she actually enters the Games.
Between the inciting incident on the first slap, Katniss has made several gains, garnering the attention of the Capital and making some friends along the way. But none of that matters the moment she enters the Games – and what a moment it is.
Challenge: Brainstorm what your first slap can be. Like with the inciting incident, try to come up with 3-5 scenarios and pick the one that is harshest.
Take a look at all the events that could potentially happen between the inciting incident and the first slap. This is a loose mind map as you are not committing to anything at this point, but do try to get a sense of whether or not your hero will be making gains and losses (with a net value of gains) and try to assess whether or not the first slap is harsh enough to truly wow your reader.
Remember, you want your readers to hate you for what you’ve done to the characters they love.
How to Write a Novel – Key Milestone #4: The Second Slap
Your hero has rose to the challenge! She has successfully thwarted the big evil that has been thrusted upon her by the first slap and she is doing well.
…Now it is time to bring her back to 0 again.
The second slap should be as harsh, if not harsher, than the first slap. This is the moment when the reader should be looking at your book and thinking, “Wow, this author is mean. Diabolical villain mean!”
But there are two essential differences between the second slap and the first. In the second slap we are setting up for the climax, which means that the hero needs to have an out. In other words, there should be some semblance of hope.
Example: In the Hunger Games, the second slap is when the Game Masters announce that two tributes can survive the Games should they both be from the same district.
Katniss goes looking for Peeta, only to find him mortally wounded – he is bleeding to death and won’t survive the next few hours, let alone the rest of the Games. We know enough about Katniss to realize that Peeta dying is the worst thing that could happen to her (besides her own death).
But there is hope!
An announcement is made that there is something at the cornucopia that the Tributes need, and Katniss just knows that there is medicine there for Peeta.
Challenge: Brainstorm several seconds slaps and pick the harshest one. Then ask yourself – where is the hope and how will it lead into the climax?
How to Write a Novel – Key Milestone #5: The Climax
The rollercoaster that you’ve put your reader on is almost over.
The reader has gone from an engaging setup where they get to learn about your characters and world to the inciting incident where everything is turned on its head. Then they are subjected to the first and second slaps where you embrace your inner sadomasochist in order to punish your hero and give the readers the thrills they so richly deserve.
Now it is time to wrap it all up with the climax.
There is only one rule to the climax. A rule that must be adhered to, no matter what genre you are writing in…
Make it amazing! The climax should be the moment where your reader puts down the book and goes, “Holy S&*%! That was awesome!”
Example: The climax in the Hunger Games is the final confrontation between Katniss and the remaining Tributes, as well as the monsters that the Game Masters send after her. It is wrought with danger and excitement. But what makes the climax truly kickass is the poisonous berries at the end.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, pick up a copy of Hunger Games today and read it! You’ll immediately get why this scene is so amazing.
Challenge: Brainstorm your kickass climactic scene! Show us how amazing, smart, resourceful, powerful your hero is when overcoming their final obstacles.
There you have it, the framework to creating a kickass story. This method is particularly effective for first-time authors who are still finding their writing feet (or should I say typing fingers) and is an awesome resource that experienced writers can rely on time and again when planning their stories.
The 5 Key Milestones combined with a spot-on Premise and A-Story will tell you where your story starts, where it is headed and how it will end. In other words, if you do the exercises above, you should have everything you need to get your novel to the finish line.
(If you haven’t planned your Premise and A-Story, do so using these guidelines.)
And with those elements in place, there’s nothing stopping you hitting that keyboard.
Before we go, I’d like to leave you with one last piece of advice. All of the above are guidelines … a roadmap, if you will, to help your story stay on track and get you to the finish line. But be warned, your characters will surprise you, your plot will take unexpected twists – don’t worry, that’s where the magic is.
If your character does something that you didn’t expect, then your reader will most likely be blown away by their actions.
If your plot has a twist worthy of Six Sense or Fight Club that wasn’t in your outline, then your reader will walk away, entranced by your writing skills.
Go with it, enjoy the process, because your readers certainly will enjoy what you produce.[READ NEXT: The Story Foundation Trifecta: 3 Critical Elements Every Novel Needs to Succeed]
That said, do pause for a moment to take a look at the unexpected elements and see if they affect your 5 Key Milestones. If something unexpected happened somewhere in between Key Milestone 2 and 3, for example, then see how, or even if, it will affect Key Milestones 4 and 5. Adjust accordingly – then write boldly.
And if you need a bit of extra help, I’m going through these 5 Key Milestones in a lot more detail in an upcoming webinar I’m going to conduct with Chandler Bolt. Get the full scoop and register to join us (before we fill up!) here.