Pantser to Plotter

One night, I got a message from my brother, who also writes novels. It read:

Subject: Pantser or Plotter

Two links for you:

http://jilljames.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/plotter-or-pantser/

http://jnduncan.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/panters-and-plotters-the-core-difference/

I’m a pantser. My guess is that you’re a plotter.

Image of Mr. Fancypants

Mr. Fancypants

The links were interesting. From Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I knew he was a pantser. Now I knew my brother was a pantser as well.

But, was my brother right about me?  That’s not a simple answer. Let me explain.

One day, while half-asleep on a plane, I got an idea for a story. After that, every time I flew, the story in my brain grew.

Like a true pantser, I started writing at the beginning and kept moving forward.

Originally, I planned to write a short story. Before long, I had a novel in my head. Since I couldn’t write as fast as I could dream, I made notes on anything handy. When that became unwieldy, I organized my notes into a mind map.  Eventually, I reorganized everything into a spreadsheet.

When my short story evolved to a novel, my pantser approach became strained. I pressed ahead, even though my new chapters contained subplots that needed support in earlier chapters. I handled this by inserting notes in the manuscript to fix these problems in the first re-write – and didn’t look back.

Two things happened that forced me to change my ways.

  1. One day, as I pantsered along, one of my characters did something unexpected. The action took the entire story in a new and more exciting direction. It also made about a month’s worth of earlier work obsolete.
  2. I realized, based on my notes, that my novel was on pace to finish at over 200,000 words.

At that point, I considered keeping the original content and disposing of my new, brilliant idea; but it made the story so much better, I couldn’t.

I’d also been aware of being over-budget on words for a while. At first, I ignored the problem. Then, I told myself I’d cut a lot during the first re-write. But when I calculated 200,000+ words, I knew I had to deal with the issue.

That was the day I became a plotter.

I spent a week transforming my loosely formatted spreadsheet into a formal plan to write a novel. With a column for each major character across the top, I listed the scenes in chronological order under the character who controlled the point-of-view.

Once I had inserted every scene, I calculated the average number of words per scene in my manuscript.

With a goal of finishing under 100,000 words, I took a cleaver to my spreadsheet. I stripped out a couple of major characters and lopped off several subplots.Emotionally, I had so much invested, it took days to gather the courage to make the needed changes.

When I finished, I had a plan that would guide me to delivering a finished product at or under my word target. As an extra benefit, I would no longer be discarding months of work.

Now fully converted to a plotter, I resumed writing. I expected, with all the prep work now complete, the words would roll off my fingertips. Not so. Every time I sat down to write, my creative self raged, constantly howling and shaking the cage. I found it impossible to focus.

I eventually made peace with my creative spirit. I agreed to set him free, if he would agree not to change anything already written. Then I locked in the ending by writing the final chapter. He’s free to change anything in between, as long as the number of scenes stays the same.

So, my brother was correct, I am a plotter; but with the soul of a pantser.

Which are you?

Update: Terri Giuliano Long has posted an article titled “To Plot or Not to Plot“on her blog that covers this issue in greater depth. She explains that pantsering works well with some types of stories while others need some degree of plotting. Jump over and get educated by a master.


If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the book mentioned in this article: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, please click on the link below. (Full disclosure: If you do so, I earn a commission. Thank you.)

“Long live the King” hailed Entertainment Weekly upon publication of Stephen King’s On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.
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10 Comments

  1. I’m an incurable pantser. Especially when I already know how the story will go (how it starts, what happens in the middle, how it ends), because I’d be lulled into a feeling of security, “Whatever ideas I’ll come up with, the ending is already fixed!” When I don’t know how the story will go, I’d still refuse to plot. So far this has brought me little to no trouble. Hey, if Stephen King can do it – not that I’m implying I write a third as well s he does.

    Reply
  2. Eve,

    If my story fit a different genre I think I could fall back on my pantser ways. But this novel is an action/suspense story with many moving parts that need to be choreographed to tell the story properly.

    What genre do you write?

    Reply
    • In the stories I write, the characters usually have an adventure of some sort – doesn’t have to be a physical adventure – and while I know what the stakes are, how the journey will end, etc. I leave the details unplanned. Sometimes these details unexpectedly change the direction of the story. When that happens, I tend to go along, as long as the new direction is better or more challenging.

      Reply
      • I took a quick look at you website, which is pretty — and interesting. I had to Google “wuxia.”

        I’ve got a deadline today, so I can’t spend much time. But I’ll stop back later and look around. Have you posted some of your work there?

        Reply
        • Thank you! WordPress provides the theme, I just installed it.

          I posted some of my short stories here:
          http://riverslakes.wordpress.com/
          The longer stories are still in my hard drive, since they still need a lot of polishing.

          Reply
  3. Pantser here. I sometimes wish I was a plotter…it seems so nice and organized and like it prevents some edits and cuts later.

    But when I try to plan, I end up getting nothing done in the way of actual writing. Even in outline, the story ends up feeling forced and stale.

    Reply
    • Amber,

      I still find myself at war internally over this issue. I’m just finishing a book now by Larry Brooks titled Story Engineering. Larry argues that until you understand proper story structure, your efforts to plan are wasted.

      I’m about to apply the concepts he teaches to my manuscript. If successful, I’ll write an article. Or, if the results aren’t good, I’ll probably write about that, too. Stay tuned.

      Thanks for stopping by and especially for commenting.

      Reply
  4. “…as I pantsered along…” Haha, I love that!

    I’m a combo pantser/plotter. I know a lot about what will happen, I know the start and end, but there are enough holes to fill to make it interesting.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

    Reply
  5. I used to be a die-hard pantser but I realized that approach didn’t quite work for me with a project that was novel length. I still resisted becoming a plotter because I assumed it would constrain my creativity and because I still have to freewrite to figure some things out. I started reading Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering and converted on the spot. :D He points out that pantsing IS story planning but just a different method than plotting. There’s plenty of room for creativity even when a story is thoroughly plotted. When a new idea sneaks up…rewrite the plan. I don’t think of my plotting as a cage now. I think of it as a scaffold. If I end up having to rebuild part of the scaffold later, so be it. It’s still more efficient for me to plot than to rewrite a couple dozen times. :D

    Reply
  6. Sonia,

    I missed this comment until now. My personal life is chaos and my email box overflows with Google+ notifications. (I’ve turned many of them off now.)

    I found Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering concepts to be enlightening and uplifting. Like you , I worried about caging my creative energies. But, you’re right, it’s just the reverse — it makes my creative time more effective.

    Thanks for taking time to visit and comment.

    Reply

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