One Write Way: Plotting versus Pantsing

Wiki Commons CC

Wiki Commons CC

~We each must write according to our personal needs and compulsion~

Plot first? Find it as you go? Know the characters deepest inner everything? Just met over a drink? I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. The only correct way to write, is your way.

There is no one guru out there bearing elixir panacea for all writing ails. The best anyone can tell you, is what works for them. And therein, I believe, lies the crux of the plotter versus pantser debate. Among others *smile*

My earliest memories are of playing with army men and Lincoln logs. Creating stories for the soldiers in my head. In fact, these are the only good memories of my childhood. Story is a bastion of life.

I wrote and “published” my first public piece in second-grade. It was a wonderfully-pantsed story with each page choosing a subject with a different letter of the alphabet. A to Z. Detailed in its hallowed pages, artwork included, was a war between two peoples of the sky. I even bound it with colored string. Gotta make it look sharp for the teacher, ya know.

She was not impressed. And so, at age seven, I knew how to write, publish and take a hard critic on the chin. And, on that day, my dream remained untarnished.

But then, we age, and life – happens. When I came back to writing I was in my early thirties. Life had taught me the hard lesson of clean process. The young pantser was a lost memory in the professional mind.

As I came back to writing, I rushed into a Writer’s Digest Short Story contest. Pretty sure the judges didn’t make it past the first paragraph. At least I hope they didn’t. This told me training was required. After all, that is the way professionals approach things.

Two hundred craft books later. I found myself sitting with 150k in prep materials for each of three different projects. Zero words of fiction written. My worlds were going to be spectacular in about a decade. Guaranteed.

Plot a story? Oh yeah, got that covered. Only thing is: Zero words of fiction written. I do find moderation comes, for some of us, by having first lived through extremes.

So, here is what I’ve learned.

We each must write according to our personal needs and compulsion.

Think of it as a sliding scale, where zero is 50% plotter and 50% pantser.

Knowing yourself is the key. What things are you always going back to work out? What things do you always prep, but rarely or never use? When it comes to writing, and life, what comes naturally to you: dialogue, action sequence, metaphor?

Wiki Commons CC

Wiki Commons CC

Think of prepared items as the structure of a playground. Without these items, there would be so swings to fly on. No merry-go-round to twirl the world palette into rainbow soup. No twisted slide to conquer from bottom to top.

If you’ve ever watched children play at a playground, you know they flit from one activity to the next. Often with a running interior and exterior dialogue of the adventure before them. Must pour sand from the plastic castle and then, rock the teeter bar. And there, friends, is the mixture of plotting and pansting.

If you pants-it, what things do you always have to go back and figure out after each draft in order to make the story work? Slide a little bit to the plot-side and give the pantser-side a better image of the playground. A better idea of the world calling them to come play. After all, it is hard to have an adventure in a void.

If you plot and pre-plan, what things do you find, in retrospect, to have been extraneous? or forgotten? Playground cluttered, over-designed? Slide a bit to the pantser-side and free yourself to explore the incredible world you designed. After all, we are the first explorers of our realms. Feel the awe.

To get the most out of our time, discovering where we lie on this scale, maximizes our efforts. Think of it like the firmness to softness number on a Sleep Number bed.

Yes, everyone has a right way. Just remember as you read others systems and advice; it is simply advice. Always do what works best for you. Know yourself and you’ll maximize your time and your effort.

Where do you fall on the plotter to pantser scale? Have you switched sides over time, or even by project? I’d love to chat with you.

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About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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26 Responses to One Write Way: Plotting versus Pantsing

  1. I find that if I know too much ahead, I get bored with the story and have no desire to write it. If it’s boring to me, then it will be boring to a reader. I’m more of that hybrid writer. I know I need to cross the valley to reach the fort on the top of the hill, but I don’t need a map of every tree in the forest that fills the valley!

  2. Amber West says:

    I am very much a pantser. I sit down at the keyboard (or notebook) and just go. There are changes in some stories that I can honestly say I didn’t see coming.

    However, one of the projects I am working on now, I AM doing some kind of mapping after the fact. As I get further in, I’m taking notes on who, what, where, etc. A guide to refer back to so I don’t necessarily have to re-read past scenes. We’ll see how that helps!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      That sounds fairly similar to the way I write, except I do a skeletal layer in front of the first draft. Since stories typically start with Theme for me, I’ll map the main characters, get a general feel for where and when and going to “X” destination. Then draft, and reverse engineer a guide from there. Rinse and repeat until done.

  3. Karen Klink says:

    I sat down and wrote. And wrote and wrote. It’s takes me six times as long to revise as to write the first draft. Maybe I should plan a little more?

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Perhaps, but it isn’t just about pre-planning, it’s about focused planning – targeting the items you know tend to be trouble spots down the road. For instance, I don’t need to know a great deal about setting to write one, but if I don’t have a deep “friend-level” of knowledge with my protagonist I’ll be in trouble. So I plan by getting to know my main’s (protag, antag, top allies, minions and players), but spend no time on setting beyond picking a location. Concentrate on what tends to delay your forward momentum by planning a bridge over it before you start.

  4. Jami Gold says:

    Great post, Gene! I’ve mentioned before that I’m a reformed-plotter pantser. 🙂

    I started off plotting because that’s my normal mode in life in general–to-do lists and organization galore. Yes, I ended up with a story, but it was voiceless because I stuck more to the outline than listened to the characters. Now I know plotting doesn’t work for me–no matter how organized I am in the rest of my life.

    Since then, I’ve written at various levels of pantsing: everything from not even knowing who the main character was, much less any aspect of the story, to planning story turning points and character arcs. I think every story will be a little bit different in what I need to prepare ahead of time for my muse to feel comfortable moving forward. So I’m definitely a believer in the “no one right way” idea. LOL!

    The whole reason I developed my “plotting for pantsers” workshop was because *I* needed a technique I could use for every story–whether it turns out to be a low-planning or a high-planning story. Now I have worksheets with a sliding scale of planning, and I only need to do what feels right for each story. 🙂

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Jami 🙂

      I do use one of your spreadsheets consistently, Save the Cat! plus Brooks milestones, to act as a road guide for the story. For the rest, you are quite right about the variability of needs. A mystery may require a detailed-to-the-minute timeline, whereas a sci-fi action/adventure can likely be loose with time. I really think that over-planning is more dangerous to the story than under-planning, but maybe that is just my own curse. I’ll have to get signed up for your next class and see if there are more ways to tweak the ever-evolving system.

      Great comment, thanks 🙂

  5. Jess Witkins says:

    If I wasn’t sitting in the library with other people around me right now, I think I’d be in tears, Gene. I’m seriously blinking them back. First off, you have to know this post is exceptionally well written and so I went into it thinking, “WOW! My friend Gene is SO TALENTED! He truly is a gifted writer and amazing things will come along for him.” I still think that. What brought me to tears is the section about how prepared and how driven you were and yet no words were written. I feel like I’m on that sinking ship right now. You know I did a major life change recently, and while I believe I’m happier, I also feel like my dream is just within my grasp, but the ladder I’m standing on to get there is slowly sinking beneath me, so even though I reach and I stretch and I try, nothing works. I can’t believe I’m about to throw another book to the Island of Lost WIPS. The up side is I have 3 shiny new ideas that I love, but starting over just sets me that much farther behind than I already was.

    Plotting versus pantsing you ask? I got really far on the last WIP by plotting. I love Candace Havens’s plotting process of a half circle with tick marks of action points. That helps me know where I’m going. But right now, I gotta pants my way on to the page just to get writing again! I think you need a combination of both so you don’t forget the “magic” of writing. Otherwise, for me anyway, it just doesn’t work. Thanks for a wonderful post today!

    • The nice thing about pansting is the discoveries along the journey. You can take those little side-road detours and see where they lead to. It’s that road trip where you decide things on a coin flip: Do we go east, or west? FLIP! Do we stop and see this historic site15 miles off the highway, or do we drive on to the big city lights in the distance? FLIP!

      Plotting to me is like driving with blinders on, only looking down at the map. Like navigating in a submarine with a chart and a stop watch. (Think of the scene in The Hunt For Red October when the Russians run down Red Route One.) You can do it, and you’ll get where you’re going, but it just seems like so much..tedious work. Twice. Because you already “wrote” the book plotting it out all intricately. Then, you’re writing it a second time to actually write the book out in narrative form.

      Bah! Give me a destination, and a map, and let me look out the windshield for opportunities for fun. 😀

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Ahhhh, Jess. I hate to see you feeling defeated. Keep at it!! You’ve got stories inside you waiting to be born.

      I’ll tell you about a little exercise I do when I feel like I can’t find my book anywhere in my mind. I got it from Anne Lamott.

      I pick one person in the book (usually the protag or antag) and put them into a space they know – their home, office, car, ranch, school. And I write about a tiny 2 inch picture frame worth of that space. Nothing too big or fancy, just a little snippet of their lives or memories. Even if I throw it out, it gets the creative juices flowing so I can begin pouring out the story.

      Writing begets writing. Always. 🙂

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Hi Jess 🙂

      Trust me when I say I know your frustration. Being on the cusp of something is always the most difficult part. Perseverance wins, I know you believe that one.

      Because I’ve over-plotted more than one story to death, I’ve come to feel that I should know as little as possible, while still knowing what is important, at the start. Such as, story is about character, so I’ll get to know my main players. I want to know where they are going, in general – a city or area and take a five minute look to see what the place looks like. I also find a milestone list or Haven’s half-circle, or similar method, helps to keep the story on track without boxing the characters to a tyrannical itinerary. Ever vacation with someone that was hell-bent on sticking to their carefully crafted plans to the detriment of their companions vacation? To me, that is what over-plotting does to our characters.

      Know only what you need to know in order to write the first draft. Then write it. When you read that first draft create a “guide” that includes needed research, on-the-fly choices, etc. In this way you’re rarely going to do more than is required and give the story room to breathe at the times it is needed.

      Hang in there, Jess. We’re all cheering you onward 🙂

      • Jess Witkins says:

        Thank you so much for the outpouring of love and encouragement you guys! I appreciate all the tips each of you shared and I know I’ll get back in the groove of it. I have to remember some very sound advice that this guy named Gene Lempp once shared with me: We may not be moving as fast as we like, but we’re still moving forward.

        *hugs* 🙂

    • K.B. Owen says:

      Jess, hang in there, hunny. You can do it! Think of it as great material for a future suffering character. 😉

  6. Solomon says:

    I sure did like this post. I am a bit of both. I definitely have a plan and an outline, but I don’t set it too hard because I also surprise myself occasionally by adding elements to the story that are fully spontaneous ideas. These must be allowed for, so the outline must have some flexibility.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Same philosophy here, Solomon. A bit of planning gives direction and focus, but too much planning will spoil the soup, so to speak. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  7. This is a great post, Gene, and a topic most writers can relate with. Your and Derek’s and Jami’s experiences sound so familiar. Overdoing the worldbuilding and character backgrounds and not writing the damn story – check. Getting bored with the story because I already know so much about it – and also being driven crazy by everything I don’t know yet. I should get more adventurous, just go with the flow and trust the characters and the Muse.

    Like Jami, I love lists and planning ahead. But I also have a bad habit of canning all that careful preparation and winging things. In writing and in life. So I’m probably in the middle of the scale. I need some preparation to get started but too much stalls me.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Agreed, Eden. I’ve totally followed the cycle you describe, craziness included. I think what we are seeing in comments is that knowing just enough to write informed, and little to nothing more, is a more effective method than full-on plotting or pantsing. Although, either of those will work well for some I’m sure.

      For the rest of us, here’s to finding that right balance 🙂

  8. “We are the first explorers of our realms.” I love this!

    I’m a little bit of plotter with a lot of pantser. I generally jot down scenes, in no particular order, as they happen in my head and then I try to incorporate them all somewhere in my story. I get the big chunks in a non-linear outline/pie chart sort of thing, and then start writing and see what happens.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Almost exactly the way I do it, Patricia! I also try to know my turning points and black moments in advance too, then write toward them. Mostly pants, but with a plot structure holding it up. 🙂

    • Gene Lempp says:

      I think your method is a common one for many writers, and as long as it gets you to the destination, all good. I use a similar method for short work, but find the longer the story, the more details I need for turning points and planned character arc moments – which act as landmarks to write towards.

  9. I’ve done some pantsing (I have an entire draft that started with a character name and context) that turned out ok but that needs a lot of editing; I’ve also plotted so much that the story became so boring I had to make major changes to get myself interested in it again (current project). Lesson learned. Plan, but not too much!

  10. K.B. Owen says:

    Gene, I’m finally coming up for air and reading your post. I’ve had it saved all this time. Sorry I’m late to the party.

    As a mystery writer, it’s really important to be a plotter – and that was my comfort zone. It worked pretty well with the first two books. But this third book in the series is giving me trouble, and it felt as if I’d run dry of ideas and plot twists (which is really tough on a writer’s pride, as you might imagine). So I decided to take a chance, and be part of our little speed-writing/emotion draft group we’re currently doing. Very scary for me, though, to not have as much of an idea of where I’m going. Thin plot=trite ideas, in my pre-conception of things. But I was desperate.

    I’m really glad I’m trying this. At least, on this occasion, a hybrid approach seems to be working for me. It’s early yet, but I’m learning to trust the process of speed-writing, even though it’s based upon only the skimpiest of scene-prompts. It IS giving me ideas and interesting directions to take my characters that I wouldn’t have thought of before.

    I try not to read over what I’ve written, though, and keep reminding myself that I can fix or cut badly-written stuff later! Got to have wall-studs before you can hang pictures, right?

    Good luck with your project; I’m glad you’re trying out new stuff, too, and so grateful to be on this journey with you. 😉

    ~Kathy

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  13. Daveler says:

    I had never heard this term before, which is great because I rarely get something new anymore. I had always described “pantsing” as, “trying to write like you read,” but there was something condescending about it, and I agree with you that variation of writing styles lead to variation of books.

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