Hi, my name is Carol, and I have a confession to make. I am a pantser.
I know I'm not alone. You'll find us in the deep underbelly of the writing community. We are writers without a plan, with barely a clue of where our story is headed and what its main themes are. We write by the seat of our pants, in our carefree but eventually crazy-making fashion.
While deep in the first draft of a cozy mystery, the sequel to The Princess and the Poison, I finally had enough. I was sick and tired of not knowing where my story was going or what in the heck I was going to write next. In my document, I had scenes that led nowhere, disjointed sections of dialogue, and plot holes aplenty. But I still couldn't get myself to plot. It just wasn't happening.
I finally landed on a compromise, a method halfway between outlining every scene and working in unmitigated chaos. Believe me, it's made my life a whole lot easier. Here's how I did it.
Create a Table
When my murder-solving heroine is trying to figure out whodunit, she uses a spreadsheet to keep her suspects and motives organized. Ashling's technique gave me the idea to try it myself. So I created a table with columns for suspect, motive, opportunity, means, alibi, and red herring. Each table row is dedicated to a different character.
Fill Out Your Table
Let's talk about what the table might look like for a theoretical mystery. Victoria Valente is found dead in her million-dollar home overlooking the ocean. She has been killed with a blunt instrument, but the weapon has not been found. There are no signs of a break-in. Our suspects are Carl Caldwell, Nan Nielsen, and Bob Bennett.
Victoria hired Carl, a contractor, to do some remodeling on her house, but she was dissatisfied with the work in progress and fired him before he could finish. She'd badmouthed him around town, posted negative reviews, and tried to get his license revoked. Naturally, Carl was upset by all of this (motive). He'd never returned the key to the house (opportunity), and he had plenty of construction equipment that could have acted as the murder weapon (means). His alibi is that he was at home sick (alone) at the time of Victoria's death.
Nan, Victoria's neighbor, didn't appreciate the planned addition to Victoria's house that would block her own ocean view (motive). She used to cat sit for Victoria in better days, and she also still had a key to the house (opportunity). Nan is known for the numerous cat sculptures that decorate her home; some of them are small enough to carry but still lethal enough to kill. It turns out that one of the sculptures is missing (it's actually being repaired; this is a red herring). Nan's alibi is that she was cat sitting at another home at the time of the murder.
Bob, Victoria's boss, is heartbroken that Victoria broke off the love affair they'd been carrying on for years (motive). He, too, still had a key to Victoria's house (opportunity).
In this manner, fill out each character’s row until the table is complete.
From Table to Scenes
With your table filled out, you're ready to write. Your table represents the bulk of information that the reader has to learn. It’s up to you to reveal this information in the most innovative, engaging way possible.
Pick a suspect and start creating scenes that expose each of the columns to the reader. For example, write the scene in which Bob confesses to your detective his undying (so to speak) love for Victoria. He claims he never would have hurt her and that he was at a conference at the time of the murder. Another scene could show your detective following up on Bob's alibi. All of Bob's scenes done? Move on to Nan. Write the scene in which your detective discovers that the cat statue is indeed being repaired (but why is it being repaired? Maybe it really was the murder weapon). You get the idea.
Of course, eventually you'll have to weave all the scenes together so they flow seamlessly, but at least you'll have a first draft written and ready to be edited.
For Other Types of Fiction
For other kinds of fiction, some columns you could try are character, relationship with mc, traits, backstory, and story goal. Think up other columns if you need them.
Potential scenes can involve dialogue that exposes story goals, or action that reflects a character trait. Not only will this table help you in determining what scenes to write, but you can also refer back to it if you've forgotten how you've described a character or what someone's backstory is.
There you have it! A simple plotting technique that will balance out your need to keep your story organized while also allowing the creativity to flow. Go forth, pantsers, and write!