Today, I’m going to talk about Plotting and Pantsing.
Let’s start with some definitions, because these words are rather weird, if you don’t recognize them.
Plotters are the writers who prefer to plan their novels ahead of time.
Pantsers are the writers who would rather not. They “write by the seat of their pants,” as it were.
Now, to hear people talk, it often sounds as though you have to pick a camp. You’re either a plotter or a panster, and there’s no two ways about it.
That’s not true, though. Like most things related to writing, there’s no set way to do things–in fact, there’s as much variety in means and method as there are people who write.
Like me, for example–sometimes I outline, sometimes I don’t. Most of the time, I wing it until about halfway through the book, then I stop and put together an outline to help me push through and keep the story focused to the end.
So I’m not going to tell you that you HAVE to do things one way or another way, but I AM going to try to illustrate some of the various styles and techniques. Because everyone does things a little bit differently, and experimentation is the only way to find what works for you.
So. First, we’ll go over Pantsing, because it’s probably the easier option to discuss.
As a pantser, you sit down to write with a blank sheet and an idea. Sometimes you know where you’re going, and sometimes you don’t–you write what comes to you as it comes to you. Writing becomes an act of discovery as much as anything else.
When I take this route, I tend to work linearly–I lose track of the story and character development if I try to hop around, and I use the cool scenes I’m looking forward to writing as motivation to get me through the less-interesting transition parts.
Other people, though, like to skip around. They chase inspiration as it comes, writing what they want to write as they want to write it, and they order the scenes and string them together during the editing process. Personally, I can’t work like this–I’d never have the energy to go back and fill in the gaps between things–but I’m not going to criticize a technique just because it doesn’t work for me.
There are about a million and one different ways to write a novel, which is why I decided to do this part second. I can’t cover all the different strategies, but I can list a few.
Me, when I outline, I typically go through three phases:
- Stream-of-consciousness braindump –I’m essentially talking myself through the plot, either on paper or over the phone with a friend
- I condense the brain-dump to a list of keywords so that I can summarize and order the parts and scenes
- Finally, I sit down and expand upon those keywords into paragraphs, fleshing out the events of each scene and connecting them together logically
This process takes time and I’m impatient, so I only ever do it when I’m really stuck or have too many disorganized details to work through in my head alone, but it works for me.
If you think you wanna try plotting, there are several ways to go about it. There’s my way that I just said, but other authors prefer:
- writing scenes on notecards so they can be easily arranged
- drawing flowcharts and diagrams to connect scene ideas together
- writing a formal outline with headings and subheadings and whatnot
Oh–and then there’s my actual favorite method–the one I use when I need to order my thoughts, but my thoughts are speeding along too quickly for me to waste time with words and stuff. It looks something like this:
Yes, that’s an actual outline. I know exactly what I mean. It doesn’t matter if you can understand it, because it’s not meant for you. (Well, it is–but only as an example.) All that matters is that I, the writer, can understand it.
Heck, half the time, I don’t even look back at these things–the outline is there to help me sort out my thoughts, and that’s it. The paper one gets lost, somewhere, and the ‘true’ outline survives in my head.
Which goes back to the relationship between plotting and pantsing.
You can do whatever feels right–there’s no right way or wrong way. It’s all just what works for you and what doesn’t.
Maybe you’re one of those writers who needs an outline to function.
Maybe you’re one of those writers who just throws it all on the page from the start and sorts the messes out afterwards.
Or maybe you’re like me, and you make the whole process up as you go along.
It’s all okay. You can pick, you can choose, and you can switch as you please.
Write an outline. Abandon it. Let the story go where it wants.
Write half a book by the seat of your pants. Outline the rest, if that’s what it takes.
Fun little anecdote–I participated in NaNoWriMo this past November. I had a book I really wanted to write. I had it all planned out–outlined nice and clean, because I’d outlined the last book I’d written, and it went really well.
Then Day One hit, and I was struggling. I hit 1000 words and got stuck.
On a whim, I flipped to another story I had sitting on my computer. I’d hit 1000 words several months prior, and I had gotten stuck and put it down.
Since I was at the same point in both manuscripts, I decided to switch projects. I had no plan. No idea what would come next. I had no clue where this story was going, but to my surprise–it turns out it was ready to be written.
The remaining 49000 words flew by with hardly any trouble at all.
So, In Summary:
Plotting is the style of writing where you plan everything out beforehand.
Pantsing is the style of writing where you make it all up as you go along.
Both are legitimate strategies, and each person has their own technique and preference.
The most important thing is to be flexible–even if one strategy worked once, it doesn’t mean that’s the right approach for every novel. Don’t be afraid to mix and match and reorganize whenever you get stuck.
Also–let me know in the comments if there’s anything you want me to talk about in future posts!