Pantsing vs plotting: effects on stories

Are you a pantser or a plotter…or something of both?

I started out as a pantser:  it didn’t work for me.  Back then, that is.

Then I switched over to plotting, which did a lot of good for me, but I got bored with it.  So, especially on short stories, I’ve switched back to pantsing.

There’s a lot of talk about whether you “should” be a pantser or a plotter, and generally people come to the conclusion of, “Do what works for you.”  Which is not bad advice.  But it begs the question:  how do you know which one is going to work for you?  Try and see is a great method…for people who know their own voices and talents already.

So.  Observations from someone who’s done both now.

1) Plotting

In order to be a plotter, you need to first write out an outline of your plot.  Obvious, no?  But how do you do it?  Turns out, you can plot any number of different ways.

Methods:

  • Pants it.  That is, just write down every step in your plot from beginning to end, with no idea of what’s going to happen until you get there.
  • Write a log line or very short blurb for your story first, then outline.
  • Write down your theme and major conflict first, then outline.
  • Write a synopsis/proposal, then outline.
  • Write down the major points that you envision, then write all the events that have to happen in order to lead up to each event and hook them together to get a story.
  • Start with genre, find out how long the story is going to be, decide how many major events (chapters) are going to happen, then calculate the number of words in each chapter.  Fill in the blanks for each chapter, making sure you note all the things that have to happen to set up stuff.
  • Write it fractally, that is, write down four or so steps to get from beginning to end, then write down four or so steps it takes to do each major step…and so on, until you get to as granular a level you need to feel confident you know how you’re going to pull things off.

I’m sure there are more ways, and you can combine things.

The benefits of plotting are that your plots will be stronger.  You will have to look at your plot before you actually start writing and go, “I have to get from the beginning to the end.  There has to be an end.”  The completely insane plots will get revised.  If you have weak plots, this is plot therapy.

This will also help you develop characters–because you can get to a point where you need to have a character do something in particular that’s almost out of character, then go back in your outline and add a scene suggesting that yes, your character might indeed do such a thing at a certain point in the future.

You can also make notes of places to develop the world, make sure major characters are introduced by a certain point, etc.  If you’re the kind of writer who is always missing parts, then this is a way to check for those parts and make sure you add them.

Plotting can be deadly-dull boring.  You can just kill your desire to write a story, because you already know how the ending comes out.  But face it:  plotting leads to less revision.  Always a plus.

2) Pantsing

In order to be a pantser, you need to start writing.  Again, there are a number of ways you can pull this off.

  • Write the most exciting scenes first, in whatever order you like, then write the other scenes to hook them together.
  • Write from beginning to end.
  • Write from beginning until you get stuck because you need to know backstory; then write the backstory as though it were really happening; then move forward on your main story.  Assemble in a useful order later, throw stuff out as necessary.
  • Write whatever strikes your fancy first.
  • Write minimal preparatory material, such as a logline, blurb, or synopsis, but don’t look at them when you start writing your book for real.
  • Write down three ideas (from the news or whatever), combine them, and go.
  • Start with a character and a conflict and go.

Again, I’m sure there are more.

The benefits of pantsing are that plotted stories can feel artificial and by-the-numbers.  Plotted stories aren’t usually surprising stories.  Their twists can come off as hollow.  Their ironies can seem expected; their characters, flat and predictable.  The end that ties into the beginning can be seen a mile away.

Pantsing builds stories out of your subconscious.  Craft comes out of the consciousness, but art comes out of something underneath that.  If you want an organic (dare I say artistic?) story, pantsing will do that for you…if you have the craft tools of writing deeply buried in your subconsciousness.  If not, pantsing stories will ramble, be inconsistent, jump around, start out with complete story cheese (like uninteresting prologues, characters who are just waking up, and all kinds of fictional cliches that you haven’t worked out of your system yet).  The lies that we tell ourselves, our fallback prejudices, and our mundanity comes out when we pants, unless we have our subconsciouses honed to knifelike perfection.

It’s too easy to write the same damned story over and over again, when you’re a pantser.  And it’s really hard to tell that you’re doing it until you’re already done with it.  And it’s really hard not to destroy the good things about your story when you get to the revision stage and figure out something’s not working with the plot.

But when it works, pantsing writes itself and comes out pure magic.

3) Combination

You can start out with one method and switch as you get going, in either direction.  Start out with a plot and abandon it.  Start out pantsing it, get stuck, and do an outline until you get unstuck again (or do an outline once you know what you want the end to be, so you don’t forget anything).  Whatever works.

The benefits of messing around with both techniques, changing how you write from story to story, is that you’re better able to learn new techniques and adapt to individual stories.  Let’s say you have a story that you already know what the plot is, mostly–pants it.  There’s a story where you have a pure, overriding emotional core that cannot be shaken–plot it, and toss out the first five ideas you have, so you push yourself somewhere new, instead of writing the same beautiful, moving story you wrote ten stories ago.

However, to get to the point where you can mess around like that, you have to use both techniques enough to get a feel for what they can do.  Just keep in mind that no story is perfect; you only have to worry about good enough.  If a technique isn’t working for you–don’t use it.  But don’t rule it out entirely; you may need to come back to it later, as you build technique (conscious craft that has been so ingrained that it’s subconscious now).

 


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5 Comments

  1. I’m definitely more of a pantser than a plotter. Creating big, long outlines really harshes my mellow. That isn’t to say that I’m not thinking a few steps ahead, though. I’ll often sit down to write with the main conflict in my head and then build everything organically leading up to that conflict and its resolution, filling in blanks as I go. Occasionally I’ll hit a wall, but I find a way around it and then fill in or strengthen the weak parts on revisions.

    But the actual “rush” that comes from writing, for me anyway, is making a discovery right then and there about the direction of the story. Sometimes it can be huge and earth-shattering, and I’ll walk around giddy all day. And I know I never would have made that discovery if I’d been taking a paint-by-numbers approach. My creativity is stimulated directly by the act of writing. Devoting too much energy to the “pre-production” phase takes away from my enthusiasm. You know those people who are constantly in planning mode and never get around to the actual writing? I don’t want to be one of those people, and I know I could be if I allowed that to happen.

    However, with my current book (a dieselpunk murder mystery), I’ve had to do a bit more plotting than I’m accustomed to. I have had to come up with some inventive tech, and at least generate a rough sketch of the mystery itself, because mysteries traditionally have some structure. I’m still excited, and I feel like having a bit of a roadmap for this world is helpful. We’ll see how it goes.

    • De

      I know, I’m ending up pantsing this cozy I’m working on, and it’s rough. Too many clues? Enough with the red herrings? I’m just going to have to test it on people.

  2. It’s not as though it’s an either-or, Allison. I’m a committed plotter. For one thing, it stops me from the problem of the Sagging Middle. But that doesn’t mean serendipitous ideas don’t occur, because they do. But those ideas actually fit, or almost fit, the framework and so are much more useful than sudden revelations without context.

    If a (rare) idea occurs that is earth-shattering, then I have no compunction in scrapping the rest of my outline and doing another one, incorporating my stupendous idea.

    However, if I sound a bit tetchy, it’s because I’m not sure I like being described as a paint-by-numbers writer.

    • De

      Pardon, I didn’t mean to say that plotters could only be paint-by-numbers writers, only that it was a pitfall.

  3. Not you De. I was talking to Allison who said in her comment: “And I know I never would have made that discovery if I’d been taking a paint-by-numbers approach.”

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