The Waypoint Writer — A Flexible Way to Plan a Story

There’s one thing about the Mythic Scribes writing forums that I appreciate: the thought provoking discussions on the craft of writing. These are my favorite because they not only get me thinking about my process, but I also pick up a few tricks other writers share as well. I learn new terms too, like waypoint writer. This term was used by another member to describe the way I write my stories. It was interesting to have someone else label this for me.

Since that discussion, I’ve come across other writers who also create this way. So what is a waypoint writer?

Somewhere Between Pantsing and Outlining

Before I was a waypoint writer, I was a pantser. The definition of pantser varies, but for the purpose of this piece, a pantser is a writer who begins a new story knowing very little about what they are writing and they write by the seat of their pants to the end. An outliner is a writer who creates an outline (regardless the amount of detail) before they start writing their story, knowing start, end, and finish.

As a pantser, I struggled with plot, conflict, and having a cohesive story. But I was always able to finish my work.

However, I got sick of my stories meandering and not escalating properly. So I decided to study outlining. I dedicated a year to playing with different outlining techniques I learned about on the internet or from other writers.

As an outliner, I struggled to finish a story. Sigh (a new problem). I plotted several stories and finished only one in that entire year. I discovered that outlining didn’t jive with my creativity, so I knew that I needed something in between to help me achieve my writing goals.

I was looking for a process that would help me write a cohesive story, with escalating stakes and tension, while allowing me the creative freedom to use my gut all the way to the end.

Figuring It Out

I had to take it back to basics. Since I write romance, I wanted to write a story about a man and a woman who meet, face some challenges but fall in love, break up and get back together again, then live happily ever after. The secret sauce in a romance novel has to do with the emotions a reader wants to experience. I knew that I needed a process that would also allow me to add in what I was missing (tension, pacing) while also allowing me to explore more character development.

I’ll be honest and say that this took me quite some time. Over the span of several titles, I finally honed down the waypoint process by using a combination of plot points, pantsing, and minor outlining.

The Process

  1. Plot points. These are key. I’ve used several resources to learn about plot points from workbooks to youtube videos. I specifically studied plot points as they pertain to romance. For fantasy, the plot points will be called something different but they will still be the same points in the story set up to provoke an emotional response in the reader and move the plot ahead. I use a total of 31 plot points that I’ve combined from two different resources that I will list at the end of this article.
  2. Characters. I must know who my heroes are, what they want in the story and what the romantic conflict is (for fantasy, just the story conflict).
  3. Setting. This is pretty self-explanatory. I need to know where the story is taking place in order to set up the scenery when I pants write.
  4. Tropes. My personal goal is to write more marketable stories, so I saved a list of romance tropes on my computer that I refer to from time to time. My stories typically have 1-2 tropes, which I use to drive the plot and create tension.
  5. Gut trust. It’s a scary thing, but growth isn’t possible unless we trust ourselves to take chances. This is the part where I trust my intuition and intimate knowledge of the characters in order to craft the story. If I get to a dead end it means something is wrong with the plot, so I backtrack until the flow of the story feels right again. This involves a fair deal of pantsing and trust in my creativity.

Putting It All Together

Okay, so now I have all the tools I need in order to begin writing. Each plot point equals 1-2 chapters for me—so about 3k words per plot point. This is a general guideline for the beginning of the novel because things change once the story gets going.

I start with the first plot point, which is the introduction to the hero. I know that I need 3k words in order to complete this chapter, and that my destination is the next plot point, which is the introduction to the second hero (in romance there are two heroes). But here’s the tricky part, I also need to bring the heroes together on page in the second chapter, preferably. I could extend it to the third chapter, but readers like to see them together as soon as is feasibly possible. And I aim to please.

So, I pants my opening chapter. Then I pants my second chapter, connecting it to the third plot point of ‘meet cute’ (heroes on page together). The whole gist of it is using the plot points as markers on a map, thus allowing the crafting of a story with proper pacing and structure, while also providing the freedom of exploration through pantsing. The best part is it gets me all the way to the end. Finishing is the most important aspect of writing a book. Waypoint writing helps me finish strong because now I have a foundation for closing a novel.

It was literally a life changer for me. I now have a process that helps me write a properly structured story with the tropes readers expect while still being fully unique.

Further Discussion

I hope this technique sparked some ideas about your writing process. Are you an outliner, a pantser, or somewhere in between?

What method do you use to help you write a structured story? Do you struggle in that regard?

What part of writing books do you find the most challenging?


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Christopher Wills
2 years ago

I thought of the idea Waypoint Writer then Googled it and discovered it is already a term. I like it as it describes my way of writing exactly. I love walking and often use Waypoints when I am not on tracks or roads. The point is you don’t have to hit every Waypoint except one – the destination. Get that wrong and you’re lost. Same in writing. I set up my Waypoints to give me a direction to write toward but I’m not fussed if I veer off track as long as I am still heading for the last Waypoint, the ending. I must know the ending of a story before I start writing. Great article.

3 years ago

Already in my bookmarks, thank you!

3 years ago

An interesting read, I disappeared from the forums for a few months (OK nearly 8 months) to try and plan my work in progress fully. I got stuck in a world building hole, and couldn’t write my way out of it, so took on board the story grid process – which actually helped a great deal – I use a spreadsheet to plot and record the various parts of my WiP. However, I tend to pants the bits in between working towards a fixed point that I know needs to happen, I have been refining the plot points down to chapter arcs – which I guess are the waypoints that you identify.

Finishing the story I think is the challenge, and where I used to meander, and fail to finish, I now have targets to hit and (self-imposed) deadlines to hit those targets I am getting closer to completing a work for the first time ever. So waypoints are I think the way to go for me – although I think my outlines may be a bit more detailed than what you are suggesting you do.

Thanks for sharing.

Carolyn McBride
3 years ago

So THAT’S what my method is called! This is such a revelation to me, I can’t type fast enough! I always outlined to some extent. I kept copious notes in a binder on characters, worldbuilding and the like. Each story got a different binder. And then I found the Story Grid method. I tried it, I really did. And it sucked every ounce of my creativity faster than you could say chocolate milkshake. It was pretty bad. Finally, after I got a migraine and nearly dissolved in tears, threatened to quit writing, etc, etc, my partner suggested I go back to the way I wrote before.
So I did.
So now I’m back to outlining as much as I can, using waypoints as a guide. Along with character motivation, a little psychology and asking ‘why?’ a lot. I guess you might say I use waypoints with a heavier hand on advance planning. An odd combination I suppose, but we should all do whatever fosters our creativity and writing style. The Story Grid may work well for others, but for me? It has at least taught me how I cannot write.

L. Blades
L. Blades
3 years ago

I don’t think I would fit into either the ‘pantser’ or ‘outliner’ categories, so that leaves me somewhere else:

I found much of my work can be written when not doing the writing; that is, while doing other tasks, whatever it may be, I think of things I want to include in my work. This could be something simple, or complicated, such as a scene, some dialogue, a character, or even a progression of the plot, and then I note it down before I forget it. In my case I write fantasy-parody, so I usually think of something funny, something random, that I then want so include Somewhere in my book.

By the time I get back to writing, I’m working with a whole bunch of materials I’ve come up with, a bag of stuff that I can pick and place where and when I see fit. I find it best to think of the lessons (if any) or the feelings/thoughts I want the reader to feel when writing a passage, and by incorporating that I find the next part is written easier. Sure, if you really don’t know what to write next ‘pants’ it, but just focus on the next goal, the next milestone, and think of how and what your characters are going to need to do to get there.

Melody Daggerhart
3 years ago

I love this term! ^_^ Thanks so much for sharing it. I’ve been trying for years to describe my blend of pantsing and planning, and I really like how this suits what I do. I may have to start calling my method “waypoint”, too.

I generally start the first few chapters based on nothing but inspirational pantsing. Then, when I run out of fuel, I start trying to think about where I’m going. But they’re not outlines; they’re plot points. I think in terms of what I MUST hit in order to end the story. And I use bullet points to make place holders for those ideas because some events have to happen before others. (I never use numbers or letters because “blank” points can be rearranged easily if necessary, whereas numbered and lettered things have to be renumbered and re-lettered every time they’re moved. This is also why I flinch at the idea of outlining for fiction in general. Old English class habits die hard.) Finally, I start writing the necessary scenes, but they inevitably include inspiration I didn’t plan. So, I go back and insert more inspiration scenes to make sure those inserts don’t come out of nowhere, or to help bridge from one scene to the next more logically. I used to call this method “connecting the dots” because it’s like those puzzles I did as a kid where you create the lines that connect one point to another.

However, your term makes me realize it’s more like using push-pins to plot a trip on a map (like in the image above) because connecting the dots is a linear activity, but my plotting is more of a back-and-forth process. First I have to decide what kind of trip I’m in the mood for (pantsing). Then I have to decide my destination (plotting). Then I look for all the necessary stops (plotting) and fill in any fun stuff I’d like to hit in between (pantsing). That leaves a lot of wiggle room around the main plot points, but the plot points are there as a guide so I don’t stray too far off-road when wanderlust hits. And yet I can enjoy the wanderlust when it does come along, so long as I can link it back to the main road that gets me to my destination.

Rose Andrews
Rose Andrews
Reply to  Melody Daggerhart
3 years ago

Melody, thanks for sharing your process. It sounds similar to what the article describes, too (wanderlust can be exciting though)!

3 years ago

I outline to the point that I have a binder full of notes tabbed by characters, plot, maps, research, …. When it comes to actually writing the book, it’s no longer a fun and creative challenge, so I don’t bother. I’ve done this many times with no novel to show for months of work. Do you think the Waypoints strategy might work for me?

3 years ago

Do you plan a plot point as “and then X happens” or as “something has to happen that serves the function X”?

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