November 11th, 2020

7 Plot Structures for Pantsers

by John Peragine

For NaNoWriMo, I decided it was time to write book two of my trilogy, The Secrets of the Twilight Djinn. I learned volumes by just finishing the first book of the series. Book one was a bit of a fluke (I wrote about it here and here) and I had to make a decision on how to approach book two.

I had no real plans for publishing the first book, as I had written a chapter a day for my son's bedtime story. He has a chronic serious illness and the original story was created to soothe all of the emotions connected long hospital stays. It was not until a couple years later that my son insisted that I publish his book, now titled Max and the Spice Thieves.

Book one was definitely a pantser book. It took several rewrites and edits before I could honestly say it is done. As I worked on it, I realized that the book was going to be a trilogy. (Since a fourth book has formulated in my head, it might end up being a bigger series than originally expected.)

However, for book two, I'm switching sides and plotting it out. Step one: Gaining direction by reviewing my first book to see where I had been. The Hero's Journey is embedded in my brain since I used it with many of my ghostwriting projects so it was no surprise to find it was the underpinning of Max and the Spice Thieves.

Excellent! A structure I could re-use. Tolkien and Rowling did, so why can't I? Then doubt crept in and I wondered: Are there other tried and true plot structures I could be using?

Let's explore those...

#1 - Hero's Journey

This structure is used a lot in epic tales and epic movies like Star Wars, Dune, The Lord of the Rings, and so much more. Joseph Campbell is probably the most well-known person to discuss the Hero's Journey and its relation to myths. It centers around a hero who is torn from their ordinary life and is pushed into a world they never imagined to complete a hero's quest.

My favorite book describing this structure is The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. Here are the 12 steps:

  1. The Ordinary World
  2. The Call of Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the First Threshold
  6. Test, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
  8. The Ordeal
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword)
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

The link in the first paragraph gives a really good layout of how the Hero's Journey works, using diagrams and examples from two movies (Star Wars and The Matrix).

#2 - 12 Chapter Mystery Formula

For Agatha Christie fans, this is a formula that creates the pace, subplots, and red-herrings and reveals a great mystery novel. Click here for an excellent in-depth description of this plot formula. This link also includes "Raymond Chandler's 10 commandments for writing a detective novel" and "Frank Gruber's Fool-proof 11-Point Formula for Mystery Short Stories."

Here are the components of Agatha Christie's method:

Plotlines

Mysteries often have at least one or more subplots. Work on these first before breaking them into scenes.

  1. Main Plot
  2. Subplot

Scenes

  1. Introduction
  2. Disclose the mystery
  3. sub-plot
  4. Set the sleuth on the path
  5. Erroneous conclusion
  6. Facts about suspects
  7. Broaden investigation
  8. Sleuth's background
  9. Change of focus
  10. Reveal hidden motives
  11. Reveal results
  12. Review the case
  13. Solution
  14. Weigh evidence
  15. Resolution
  16. Climax

Acts

You can organize your book further into 4 acts.

Act 1

  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3

Act II

  • Chapter 4
  • Chapter 5
  • Chapter 6

Act III

  • Chapter 7
  • Chapter 8
  • Chapter 9

Act IV

  • Chapter 10
  • Chapter 11
  • Chapter 12

#3 - Dan Wells 7-point Plot Structure

Dan Wells is a well-known, best-selling horror book series writer. His very nice set of videos describing his structure, based on one of his conference presentations, can be found here.

Chapters

  1. Hook
  2. Plot Turn 1
  3. Pinch 1 (This is when something goes wrong)
  4. Midpoint
  5. Pinch 2
  6. Plot Turn 2
  7. Resolution

#4 - 8 Sequences Method

Ever imagine your book as a screenplay? The 8 sequences Method is often used to plot out screenplays and can also be used for writing novels. Click here for a solid description of this method, which involves the following:

Plotlines

Just like the plot outline for mysteries, you will want to work out you plot and subplots first.

  1. Main Plot
  2. Subplot

Scenes (Sequences)

  1. Status quo & Inciting incident
  2. Predicament & Lock-In
  3. First Obstacle & Raising the Stakes
  4. First Culmination/ Midpoint
  5. Subplot & Rising Action
  6. Main Culmination / End of Act II
  7. New Tension & Twist
  8. Resolution

Acts

You can organize your sequences into acts. Acts are like chapters in that they contain a sequence of events, that need to be resolved in the next act.

Act I

  • Sequence 1
  • Sequence 2

Act II

  • Sequence 3
  • Sequence 4
  • Sequence 5
  • Sequence 6

Act III

  • Sequence 7
  • Sequence 8

#5 - Action/Adventure Genre Plot

This plot structure uses elements of the Hero's Journey and screenplay writing. Click here to explore this method.

  1. Hero's circumstance
  2. Receives a mission
  3. Begins toward goal
  4. Travels to an exotic location
  5. Encounter damsel
  6. Encounters henchman
  7. Chase
  8. Major complications
  9. Assistance
  10. Infiltrate fortress
  11. Captured
  12. Narrow escape
  13. Attain goal
  14. Battle henchman
  15. Battle villian
  16. Plot twist
  17. Resolution
  18. Conclusion

#6 - Billy Mernit Romance Seven Beats Formula

This structure, detailed by Michael Hockney, is for the When Harry Met Sally fans, as it works well with romantic comedies. Mernit organizes his beats (sequences) as follows:

  1. Setup / hook
  2. Meet/inciting incident
  3. Turning point
  4. Midpoint / Raising the stakes
  5. Swivel: second turning point
  6. Dark moment/crisis
  7. Joyful defeat/resolution

#7 - Jami Gold Romance

For those that like a more traditional romance formula- Jami Gold offers a nine beat structure.

Scenes (Beats)

These beats represent inciting incidents and pinch points for the characters.

  1. Opening
  2. Give
  3. External & Internal
  4. How
  5. External & Internal
  6. How
  7. External & Internal
  8. External & Internal
  9. Show

Acts

These acts are similar to other plot structures as a way organize sequences. The acts also represent main plot points in the story.

Act I

  • Opening image/hook
  • Inciting incident
  • End of the beginning

Act II

  • Pinch point #1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch point #2
  • Crisis

Act III

  • Climax
  • Final image/ resolution

I've recently started using Plottr to build my book. It is simple and relatively inexpensive. My two favorite features are that you can export your plot into Scrivener and that some of the plots I have described in this article are available as templates. Several WITS bloggers also use OneStop for Writers for help with plotting and characters.

There are many more plot structures, and perhaps I will do a follow-up blog with some more ideas. I like to take these structures and use them as a foundation, and then make changes that suit my style and my story. There is no right or wrong plot structure or strategy for writing your book! Whatever works for YOU is the best method.

Do you use a specific plot structure in your books? Do you think they help or hinder the creative process? Are you a plotter, pantser, or a combination of the two? We want to hear about it down in the comments!

About John

John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine EnthusiastGrapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.

John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, will be released on April 20, 2021. JohnPeragineBooks.com. Click here for a free first chapter. (The new cover is below!)

31 responses to “7 Plot Structures for Pantsers”

  1. barbaralinnprobst says:

    So interesting to see these structures side-by-side, as you've done! It's a question so many of us wrestle with: a story needs a shape, but does it need to follow one of these templates? In part, I think it depends on genre. For my genre, with is upmarket women's fiction leaning toward the literary, the "story spine" is an emotional journey from A to not-A, or from not-A to A. I think of the shape of my books as a journey over several mountains, each of which represents a key moment of change or near-change, of confrontation and choice that is relevant to her emotional goal. I begin with those mountain tops, and then find the events that lead up to each (i.e., the steps that make it possible, the antecedents and anticipation) and the events that lead down the slope (i.e., consequences of that choice or confrontation). It's not quite that linear, but that's the general idea!

  2. LauraDrake says:

    Thanks for that, John, and I hope your son is okay. Gorgeous cover!

    • John Peragine says:

      Yes he is much better than he was- Covid has been a little scary because he is prone the pneumonia- so far he has been good!

  3. What a great resource you've created for us! It's a keeper. Many thanks, John.

  4. Eldred Bird says:

    I've been a pantser from word-one, but I find the more I write, the more plotting tends to slip into my routine. I've always likened my writing process to using a compass, rather than a GPS. I know the general direction I'm headed and where I'd like to end up, but have no idea the route I might take. It seems the more I write, the more I find myself adding waypoints to shoot for in the middle instead of just having a beginning and an ending in mind. I still let the characters drive the bus, but now I try to keep them from taking too many side trips.

    • John Peragine says:

      For me it was a bigger vision and world building. Plotting allows me to create characters and stories. I believe the greatest use, since this 1st POV is to have lines of plot moving that the MC is not aware of- what is occurring in a different place at the same time. My MC- Max is sailing to find his mother- meanwhile there is a war breaking out and other characters moving through the world- that way I can create points in which they intersect with purpose.

      • Eldred Bird says:

        I get that. I had parallel timelines goin on in my second book and it made pantsing much harder. I think that's really when my plotter started to sneak out bigtime. My current WIP is requiring even more planning. I'm writing fantasy for the first time. The world building and "rules of the realm" are a challenge, as well as keeping the parallel action taking place in both the fantasy real and the real world straight without confusing the reader.

        The writing gods are doing their best to make a fulltime plotter out of me!

  5. barbdelong says:

    This is the first time I've seen some of these plot structures, especially the mystery one. The hero's journey and Blake Snyder''s story beats have been ingrained in me through many years of excellent online courses and workshops at Orange County Chapter of Romance Writers of America. To see all these other structures is an eye-opener. Thanks for this post!

  6. Ellen says:

    Your resources are fantastic, John. Thank you for those.

    I am primarily a pantser, but with a basic vision of where to go. Since joining in the NaNoWriMo fun, I am plotting more. This has made a bigger difference than I anticipated. I'm writing a lot more than I normally would. It helps that this is straight fiction. Historical fiction takes a lot more time.

    I love the cover you've chosen for Max and The Spice Thieves. It's quite striking.

  7. What is pantser? Can’t find it in the dictionary.

  8. Jami Gold says:

    Thanks so much for the shout out to my Romance Beat Sheet, John! And just an FYI that I have beat sheets for other structures in the Worksheets for Writers section of my site -- including some along the same lines as the Dan Wells 7-Point Plot Structure, 8 Sequences Method, and Billy Mernit Romance Seven Beats Formula.

  9. Alice says:

    This is a fabulous post. I shared it in my Facebook group. Thank you.

  10. Kris Maze says:

    John,
    I was able to read this before it posted and I was amazed at how many versions of story structures exist.

    It was like shopping or finding the right packaging for shipping a present. (Don't get too excited, I'm trying to wait until after Thanksgiving to get all the Christmas décor up)

    I'm working on stories for Nano that cross into different genres and seeing these variations helped me find tools to work with my latest short story. Timely post - thanks!

  11. dholcomb1 says:

    I'm a pantser, but I do have a method. I write down scenes or events I want to have happen, close to an Act structure, but very loose. It's based on the characters and what I need them to go through to get to the end.

    denise

  12. colleen says:

    Great review of these, John, thank you!

  13. John Peragine says:

    Thank you Colleen!

  14. What a great overview this is of various schools of thought, John! I'm sharing in my FoxPrint newsletter next month. Thanks for such a considered, useful post.

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