follow a rookie writing his first novel

On plotting and pantsing

It is a question I’m sure you have seen or been asked many times in the past – ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ I’ve given this question some thought too and have to conclude that I’m a bit of both.

It’s like this. At the start of my story I have an idea; it is often vague and not well-formed. The idea might be a plotline, but equally it could be a character or a place or sometimes just a line or two of dialogue that pops into my head.

I might flesh this out a little bit by writing a scene or two. A great idea for a start or an ending might occur to me so I write that too. Before long I have a collection of fairly unrelated scenes, some of which are sketchy at best and others fully written and edited. I have a few notes and ideas as well; possibly even pictures that look like they might be of interest.

At some point though my inner plotter takes over and attempts to impose a state of order on the mild chaos. When it does I start to outline the story into chunks that may or may not end up as chapters, but they have a sort of logic between the scenes they contain. I then realise what scenes are missing and also need to be there and add these to the diagram.  Before long I have an outline plan consisting of scenes loosely grouped into blocks/ chapters. I then go on to write out the scenes that I now I know I need, from the plan.

You would think that was that, and with visions of my press interviews and award ceremonies that would surely follow I trot serenely to the finish line called ‘the end’ waving at the imaginary crowds there to cheer me on.

No. What actually happens is what happened this week. I was gaily knocking off about 1000 words per day (might not seem a lot to you, but given that I am pathologically idle it is a lot to me) when drawing towards the end of a scene the inner pantser who had by now managed to throw of his manacles and bonds that the plotter had thoughtfully tied him down with grabbed the mike. “You really need to add in a scene about that group of nobodies that you mentioned in passing about 5000 words ago.”

“But it isn’t in the plan” the planner says.

“Go on, it’ll be fun. You’ll love doing it.”

“But my plan, my wonderful plan, it doesn’t fit…”

Too late, I’m off writing the said scene with a sense of glee and the inner planner shrugging his shoulders and wondering how it might fit in. A while later and with another couple of notes about scenes that I have no idea how they will relate to the overall story, the inner planner has found a taser and the pantser has been restrained once more. For now.

The plotter strokes his chin and before long has a flash of inspiration and has inserted the new scenes, which he hates to admit, has added another dimension to the overall story.

So this is how it is. A constant interplay between pantsing and plotting all the way to the end. As for the accolades and awards, we’ll just have to see…..



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9 thoughts on “On plotting and pantsing

  1. I’m mostly a pantser, I suppose, but I think there are many many ways to write a novel, and they don’t really divide up that neatly. That being said, the thing that usually doesn’t get mentioned in these discussions (so it may be just me) is that I’ve found that different stories can require different methods.

    My first novel had a plan, which it kind of followed. My second novel was a complete pants-a-thon, until I had to get organized or it never would have ended (as it was it’s around 170,000 words). Then I wrote a series of mystery stories, mostly without a plan, but the genre structure of the mystery kept things from getting totally out of control. Then I wrote a novella with a very clear idea but a loose structure. Now I’m working on a new project where I seem to be writing the entire ending first.

    So, in my experience, it’s not really a question of me, it’s a question of how to write each project in the best way.

  2. Ah, a fun topic! I blogged on this once, using a left-brain/right-brain terminology (left brain the plotting, right brain the pantsing, but I love those terms far more than mine).

    I’m a plotter, but as I reflected on it, I realized it is in some respects a false choice. I just finished this week writing yet another outline of my memoir, which I’ve been working on for about a year-and-a-half. I’ve always had an outline to work on, but it’s changed so many times that what I have now isn’t remotely similar to what I started with. So for me, the key is allowing my pantser to be free to revise what the plotter has mapped out.

  3. I like to think of it this way; My plotter works with a pencil, sketching out how he’d like the story to unfold, then in comes my pantser with watercolours, oil paints and a backpack stuffed with aerosol paint and she goes absolutely freakin’ wild. My plotter just sighs and walks away, shaking his head.

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