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Plotting and Pantsing

There are thousands of articles debating plotting and pantsing. There are hundreds more trying to justify doing both (plantsing?). Dozens of others recommend doing whichever works best for you, the writer. So why write yet another blog post about it?

Wait. You don’t know what pantsing is?

Okay, if you’re not a writer (or maybe even if you are), you may not know what I’m talking about. Here’s the nickel definition.

Plotting means planning your storyline (whether it’s a short story or novel or something in between) before you start writing. Whether that plan is just a brief outline of the major plot points or a detailed, scene-by-scene timeline of everything that happens, if you plan ahead, you are a plotter.

Pantsing, or writing by the seat of your pants, means you start with an idea and maybe a vague idea of where you want the story to go, and then just write.

Famous plotters include James Patterson, who writes a brief synopsis of each scene before he starts his books, and J.K. Rowling, who says she starts with a basic outline. (For Harry Potter this consisted of hand-drawn spreadsheets to show what was happening with each of the main characters and plotlines during each chapter.)

Famous pantsers include Stephen King, who called outlines “the last resource of bad fiction writers,” and Margaret Atwood, who has said that working out the structure of the story first would be “too much like paint-by-numbers.”

So that’s what we’re talking about here. Where was I? Oh yeah. Why am I writing another blog post about a topic that’s been beaten to death by everybody else? Well. I guess because I haven’t beat it to death myself yet.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Why am I writing another blog post about a topic that’s been beaten to death by everybody else? Well. I guess because I haven’t beat it to death myself yet.

Oh yeah. Why am I writing another blog post about a topic that’s been beaten to death by everybody else? Well. I guess because I haven’t beat it to death myself yet.

I’m not going to reiterate the plethora of reasons to be a plotter or a pantser or a hybrid. As I said, it’s been done to death. I do want to touch on a few of the more interesting aspects of both. By the way, in case it’s not obvious yet, I’m of the school “do what works for you.” I don’t think either is the right way or the wrong way.

Pantsing, in many ways, seems to be about pure creation. You take a blank canvas and just start painting until you’re done. The result might be a masterpiece or a placemat, but it was about the journey, not the destination. I call this the Explorer Mentality. The pantser is discovering the story at the same time the reader is. Ask a pure pantser what’s going to happen to his hero, he might be able to tell you that the hero wins in the end, but he won’t be able to tell you how. Sometimes a pantser doesn’t even know how a book will end before he gets there.

The ultimate in pantsing starts with a character (a young man who enjoys stories about adventures, but has never had the courage to have his own, is suddenly whisked off to far away lands to experience a tale grander than any he has ever read) or an idea (what would happen if an ancient Indian burial ground could bring the dead back to life and a man uses it to resurrect his dead two-year-old son). No idea what’s going to happen to Bilbo Baggins or Louis Creed, but we have an interesting place to start. Ready? Go!

The plotter, on the other hand, sees that approach as utter lunacy. That’s like driving from Winnipeg to Rio without a map. The pure plotter can tell you exactly what’s going to happen when and how it’s going to happen. This is more the Engineer Mentality. For the plotter, the creation comes with weaving the story expertly into a powerful narrative, with the right pacing to keep the readers involved, and hitting the major plot points on cue, so the readers are glued to their seat.

I’ve read about a technique that is probably the ultimate in plotting techniques called the Snowflake Method. The concept is simple: start with a single sentence to describe your story (“A man kidnaps two kids from an exclusive private school and a jaded city detective has to track him down.”) Then you expand the idea to summarize the major plot points, including the ending. From there, you expand on each point and each character to make a one-page synopsis. You keep expanding until you have all of your scenes defined. Finally, you write each scene, and you have your first draft. You grow your story like a snowflake.

I suppose that might work for some writers. It sounds a little tedious to me, though I will probably try it out at least once as an exercise. The more common approach is to write a list of scenes you think you’ll need on notecards (just a short, few word description at the top). Then sort the notecards to create your pacing and make sure your plot points are covered. Then you can find out where you need more or have too much, look for plot holes, etc. At this point, some plotters will go back and create a summary of each scene on the notecards. Others skip this part and go straight to writing. Some people like to set up detailed timelines to make sure all the events happen at the right point in the novel. This is especially important for stories with multiple plot lines (think Game of Thrones here).

Done correctly, either plotting or pantsing can produce incredible stories. Done poorly, both result in crap. I’ve seen, and read, pantsing done well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. Same is true for plotting. Overplotted stories can feel wooden and stale. On the other hand, a pantser without a good feel for story flow can create a narrative that feels pointless, or drags too much in the middle.

My advice? Try the opposite of what you would normally do. Just to get a feel for the other side. Write a short story, maybe 3,000 words. If you’re a plotter, try to just write to see what happens. Maybe it’ll be crap, but maybe you’ll surprise yourself. If you’re a pantser, try at least outlining the major plot points, with short summaries, and see if you can write to them. Again, you may surprise yourself.

Pantsing and plotting are tools. Learn how to use them both and take advantage of the each of their strengths. Understand each of their weaknesses so you can deal with them.

And don’t be a zealot.

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