How Plotting Is Like Pantsing…In Fast Forward

I love discussing process with people (and by people, I mean other writers).  It’s one of my favorite forms of shop talk.  Everybody has their own method, and it’s cool to share those methods and see what you can pick up from somebody else that will help out your own process.  Claire and I got into one of these such discussions over the weekend.  We both began as pure pantsers.  I began to pursue plotting as a means to write more efficiently with my limited time.  She started it because, well, when you exist in the traditionally published world, that’s kind of what you have to do, to a point.  She’s wanting to do less of the hyper plotting for her next project–trying to find a better balance for her between the two extremes.  I tried that with DOTH, just hitting the major story structure points and pantsing between.  And it just didn’t work.  Because without the details of what came between, I didn’t realize until much too late that my structure points didn’t quite work right.

Anyway, one of the things we were talking about is how so many pantsers believe that if you outline it first, you can’t change anything.  Which is silly.  Just because we plot something, doesn’t mean we don’t get new and better ideas as we get into the writing.  I’ve replotted the last half of Riven at least twice, the last quarter maybe four times based on new insights I had while writing the rest of it.  But some people feel constrained by such a plan and have a hard time changing things once something is written down.  For them, I guess, the outline is like Quikcrete.

I don’t think I can ever go back to being a straight pantser, writing with no plan, no ending in mind, no specific direction but where my muse takes me.  But I realized, in the course of this conversation, that I still DO my own version of pantsing.  I just do it in outline form rather than drafting.  My general process these days is to start out with what I think are my major plot points.  And then I start filling in the gaps between them with bullet points of what I think will happen (or sometimes summary paragraphs, depending on what mood I’m in).  I’m usually not thinking about character arc or the myriad of other craft components that might go into making up those individual acts.  Once I have those plot points, my brain feels free to spew out a sequence of events.  And then there’s an outline.  And then I think about it and realize, oh this other thing will make for a better plot point here, and then I go back to the drawing board and start cutting and adding and changing.  I think my YA bunny has been through 3 versions already.  THIS is where I pants now.  I spew out these plot threads and follow them, see where they go–I just do it in an abbreviated form, without taking all that time to follow IN the draft.

I doubt any true pantser will look at what I just said and actually AGREE that it’s a sort of pantsing, but it works for me, in my own head.

And coincidentally, Chuck Wendig did a 25 Things post this morning about outlining.  Worth a read.

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7 comments

  1. Same here. It works better. Really, pantsing a first draft is exactly the same thing, but you’re using a LOT more words to do it. You still have to go back and change those things. With your method, you’re still exploring possibilities and side paths, you’re just doing it by flying over in a helicopter instead of cutting through the thorny paths while you explore… or something. I need coffee.

    I’m finding a balance. Usually that means writing a few scenes at the beginning to get the concept out and give the characters some room to breathe, then outlining before I get stuck somewhere along the way (and then getting stuck anyway and going back and doing even more outlining).

  2. I think there are different levels of plotting and pantsing. I used to think there was only PLOTTING and PANTSING, but I think there are shades of both. After talking to you and Susan, I realized that I was doing some plotting, only in my head instead of writing it down. I always know my ending and the major points. I don’t know why it scares me to write it down. I’m considering plotting the REST of the WIP I’m working on because it’s becoming more complex as the story goes on. I’ve found that it’s easier to pants paranormal romance than horror and mystery. There is usually so much going on in horror that it’s hard to keep up with everything. That’s where plotting can help. I’m seriously considering Susan’s Blueprint or some hybrid of it to help me along. But, honestly, my story never goes in exactly the direction I think it’s going to go. The characters are stubborn and do what they want and, most of the time, they have it right. LOL. Like you said, plots CAN be changed. Even if you write them down.

  3. I can’t speak for every pantser, but I know that if I make any kind of numbered outline, I literally can’t see things other ways. Even when I do an “outline” of scene notes, I have to be careful not to plan out too much, because if I do, I lose track of where I’m headed and focus too much on how I’m getting there—to detrimental effect.

    Particularly with short stories, I’ll write entirely by the seat of my pants, starting from a situation. I did one short story a while ago that ended up with a completely different climax and ending than I expected, but it fit the situation better than the one I’d had planned.

    I’ve learned to recognize when I’m falling into holes, and then I draft the blurb or write some notes—just enough to figure out what I need to focus on, to keep going.

  4. Our methods evolve, and that’s a good thing. I learned with my very first attempts at novel-writing that I’m not a pantser. But I don’t outline either. Tried it, and even an informal outline (no numbers) proved too unwieldy. Once I have a general idea of the story, I start making notes — lots of notes, completely at random. Just whatever pops up in my head about background, characters, settings, themes, characters, etc. Eventually, That will all resolve into a rough story line. That’s when I start organizing the notes more or less chronologically. As the work develops, notes are moved or expanded or deleted. Neither a pantser nor a plotter be.

  5. When I was writing regularly I’d have entire stories drop into my head from start to finish. My job was to show up and write that down, almost like watching a movie. Starts are either a character or a situation and everything works out from there. Once it’s written I have to go back and edit the words, not the story. (I’m comma happy and use ‘that’ too much) There’s a little bit of plotting that goes on in that I draw maps and make character sheets and drawings of the characters/creatures/whatever, and I keep a timeline cause I don’t want Billy showing up on page 100 with blue eyes when he’s got brown ones on page 12. Or worse, having a dead character show up at the end of a book who had been killed off early in the story…I’ve actually seen that happen in books. I like maps because they help me keep track of movement. And I make some scene and dialog cards. (Sometimes the idea stems from a conversation between two character and everything launches from there.) If I end up with a fistful of cards I put them in some sort of order and get to writing. I always have the first line, a middle pivotal scene, and the last line on paper…so see, I do plot a little.

    The last thing I wrote was for the last NaNo. It dropped into my head. BOOM. Then I started messing around with it…and really messed it up. I intellectually changed things which led to more changes which led to…well it went on foreverrrrrrrrrrr. By the time I was finished I had so many plot holes that I didn’t know which end was up anymore. I went back and read the first draft and that didn’t have holes but it was a character driven story. I was reading a lot about crafting at the time and so a crafting I went. Messed it up again.

    I stuck that sucker in a box. It’s still sitting there taunting me. Meanwhile, I’m reading Story Engineering (thank you very much, tho the man just took 20 pages to get to the beginning of the point. Oy!) and I’m trying get a handle on plotting. I don’t like it but it’s sensible. I studied some of Holly Lisle’s stuff on writing and that messed me up but I think her method would work great for working out the story from the initial idea whereas I was trying to apply it to something that was finished. I think outlining is great but it’s really kicking my Muse’s butt because she’s a pantser. Right now I’m locked up tight and can’t write a thing except epic comments and emails. lol I’m sticking with the outlining thing a while longer then, if the writer’s block continues, I’ll kick it to the curb and go back to pantsing. But I REALLY need to learn how to do it cause you know someone’s going to ask for one at some point! (Are there CP’s to do that? lol)

    I saw Chuck’s post, awesome as always, and one commenter mentioned using a Q & A format. I’m going to give that a shot and see if it cuts anything loose.

  6. Interesting post – and fascinating comments that show just how far most of us are from being “pure” pantser or plotter. I’ve evolved to more plotting, though the idea of detailed spread-sheets and knowing exactly who / what goes into every scene ahead of time still scares me – and is probably not where I’ll head.

    Plotting to me helps keep things in order, and on the days when things aren’t going well (ie: you’re looking for an excuse not to write and your head just isn’t in the game), it’s a road-map to write the next item on the list. Maybe it leads you somewhere better. Maybe it gets cut in rewrites, but at least you keep moving forward.

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