In the whole discussion between having a structured outline and being a "pantser," I find myself in a muddied middle ground.

Looking at past stories I've created, I've always used an outline. The problem was that I had no clue how that outline worked. It just came out of the ether of my mind, and it looked nothing like the story structure aware outlines of other writers.

When you don't know how you write, starting a new story is scary each time because you don't know what works. Writer's who write by the seat of their pants may not know exactly what's coming next, but they know what they're doing. I didn't know what I was doing or why or how...

It's like baking a tasty cake but then losing the recipe and trying to make it all over again by memory alone.

Out of all of this, I learned something important. The best works of fiction I've written so far have been planned using my intuition. Basically, I plan with my feelings, focusing on what flows and what's exciting.

Here's what that planning process looks like (I'll be referring a lot to my comic, Mascara):

The Main Character

When designing my main character, they have two desires--two things that they will be going after in the story. However, both of those desires are mutually exclusive.

For example, with the story I'm working on now, the MC wants to feel like she belongs to a certain group in her society, but she also wants to feel independent and in control in her life. When she's feels like she's belonging to this group, her desire for independence is threatened. When she's being independent, she doesn't feel like she belongs. It's this back and forth action between the two conflicting desires of the main character that makes the story interesting.

In Mascara, the main character wants to be a makeup artist, but he also wants to be in a romantic relationship with Addison, his childhood friend. Addison hates makeup, the illusions of the fashion industry and so on--so he's forced to bounce between two desires. He wants to work as a makeup artist, but he wants to date Addison, but he can't do both at the same time because if she finds out he's a makeup artist, there's the risk she won't be interested in having a relationship.

It's important to make the MC's desires as specific as you can. I've had to rewrite an entire story because the MC's desire was too broad, and as a result, the MC was a character with very little drive. When the main character knows EXACTLY what they want, it's easier to show readers what actions they are taking to achieve that.

Character Relationships

I draw a mind-map on paper of all the major characters. I write their names and draw arrows between the characters, making notes of what their relationship is and what they think of each other. I make sure that all of the characters are linked to each other in some way, even if they are not aware of it or if there are degrees of separation (friend of a friend). I also write down their opinions of each other. In drawing the mind-map, I often create character relationships that surprise me. With the current story I'm working on, thanks to the mind-map, I've been able to put together some surprising but very satisfying romantic drama.

Character Details

This may sound like blasphemy, but when I wrote Mascara, I had no backstory for my characters when I started. And looking back, I think that was a good move. The problem is the more backstory that is written ahead of time, the more tempting it is to throw it all in at the beginning of the story or info dump, hurting the overall flow and pacing.

I've noticed when I have no backstory planned, I am more focused of the main timeline of the story. When I hit a point where I sense backstory is needed to give readers a better idea of where the MC is coming from, I make it up on the spot and add it in. Basically, I only add the backstory when I feel like it is needed. With a full backstory planned ahead of time, it's tempting to add in a bunch of the backstory regardless of if it's truly needed at the moment or not.

Currently I'm working on a Sci-fi/Fantasy story. I needed to create some backstory before I started to make sense of the world building, but I even kept that at a minimum.

I've come to appreciate that when creating characters having the basics--what they want and what their relationships are with other characters--is plenty to get started.

How they look and where they come from just appears as I'm writing the story. I write that information on a character profile page as I go to maintain continuity. However, it's not necessary to fill out super detailed worksheets about the character's favorite TV show and candy bar and so on before starting a story.

In Mascara, the main character hates ice-cream, but that little detail wasn't planned. It was a whim of mine that fit the moment of the story. I was able to use that idea again later when I created the MC's backstory.

Story Moments Outline

After designing characters, I write a list of what I call "Story Moments." It's a long list of specific and broad events in the story. I mark each separate event in the list with a bullet point. First I start by listing things that readers would expect of a story that fits in this genre. For example, with a shoujo manga I might write:

  • One of the characters falls ill and is visited by the other.
  • There is a jealous character who threatens to drive the couple apart.
  • The two lead characters get lost in the woods.
  • One of the characters helps the other study for a test.
  • The two characters get together at the end.

I like writing what common tropes and reader expectations are because knowing what readers expect helps to me see how I can deliver what's expected in a totally unexpected way. Readers of shoujo want to see the main couple get together, and the writer should deliver that--but in a way that readers don't expect. I also like to note what I would like see happen in this genre of story that isn't very common.

For example, I added a football game to my shoujo manga because it was something I had never seen before in such a story, but would like to see.

After addressing genre expectations, I write events that will keep the MC away from his or her two desires. I try to show how going after one desire gets in the way of achieving the other. As I'm working on these conflicts, I often come up with a person--an antagonist--who can be a force to stall the MC from reaching what they want. The antagonist threatens the main character's desires or puts their world in danger. For example, in Mascara, Blaine also wanted to date Addison, but only one guy could have her.

If the antagonist appears as a person, I add them to the character mind-map and connect them to all of the other characters. More drama. Yay!

When coming up with events that get in the way of the MC's desires, I also think of what the MC wants to happen, but what happens instead. In Mascara, often the MC wanted to get Addison to appreciate his profession as a makeup artist, but usually things worked out differently.

I also write events that other side characters are getting involved in that can effect the outcome of what the MC wants.

This is not an organized list. Often when I do it, it's sort of chronological, but not completely. Some events are very specific. Some are very board, and sometimes I just write a concept that I want to convey. I even write catchy dialog at times. It's just a big brainstorming session. Think of it as the "what-if" list, but it's not a bunch of random stuff. It's all about what goes wrong for the MC as they try to reach their desires.

As I do this, I draw stars next to the worst of the worst events. These are moments that can push my characters to the breaking point. With my current story I have a star next to an event like this:

  • Mandy & Jax face death together.

I highlight the super bad stuff because that helps me see the path to the climax of the story. With Mascara I had multiple key character breaking moments to choose from.

Once this "outline" is done I'm ready to start writing! As you see, I don't write using planned arcs and acts. I have tried doing that (Blue Room Cafe is a good example), but stories I've written that way lack the spark. I'm not sure what exactly that spark is or how to describe it, but they are not like the stories where I capture the unexpected.

When I write stories that follow arcs, they're nice, but they just kind of sit there. However, when I write from my intuition my stories are alive, powerful, and have even changed my life!

I know that planning intuitively is not the same as writing intuitively. I do that as well, and you can read about that method in my post, Using Writer's Intuition to Write Fiction.