On Plotting and Pantsing

    There are two kinds of people in this world… How often have you heard that? As people, we like to categorize, and writers are no different. One of the fancy new “writing terms”

On Plotting and Pantsing... an explanation and exploration of various writing styles
(Top photo by Pexels from Pixabay                                                             Bottom photo by snicky2290 from Pixabay)

 

 

There are two kinds of people in this world…

How often have you heard that? As people, we like to categorize, and writers are no different.

One of the fancy new “writing terms” I threw out in my last post was plotters and pantsers. It describes a basic writing style. Plotters plan their novels before beginning to write, while pantsers don’t. They fly by the seat of their pants, if you will ; )

 

Pantsers

Also called discovery writers, pantsers like to “discover” their story as they write. They begin with an idea and follow where it leads. It could start with a character, a setting, an event, or even a first line. Plot bunnies, sidetracks, and forks in the road all help these writers find their story and, eventually, their conclusion. Then they revise or even rewrite portions to create a smooth story with a clear through-line.

Probably the most famous example of a pantser is Stephen King. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he compared the process to unearthing a fossil- the story is already there, but he must uncover it.

I can’t speak much (yet) to pantsers, as I’m an extreme plotter myself. But I have heard of one technique that may be of interest to you discovery writers out there. As I learn more, I’ll pass it on.

The Zero Draft

As in, before the 1st draft. The pantser can begin writing their story as usual, but with the option to gloss over trouble spots to keep momentum. They can simply write [they escape the tower somehow] and continue with the story. The result is a much shorter draft (possibly 1/3 the length) with which to find their story and begin shaping, before going back to fill in the gaps.

Not being a pantser, I don’t know if this would be useful or defeat the purpose. But there it is, all the same. Use or disregard it at will.

Plotters

Also called planners or outliners, these authors prefer to have an idea of where the story is headed before beginning. This can range from a very basic overview (two or three key events and an ending) to a detailed blueprint of each scene. While it can add considerable time to the process in the beginning, it often results in less rewriting at the end.

The most well-known example of a plotter is probably J.K. Rowling, who famously planned the entire Harry Potter series over 5 years before beginning to write the first book. She has said that the final chapter of The Deathly Hallows was the first thing she wrote.

If you think plotting is more your cup of tea, here is an overview of several plotting methods I’ve encountered.

The Snowflake Method

With this method, you begin with broad strokes and refine and add detail at each step. Start with a single sentence summary. Then expand it to a paragraph, detailing the starting point, important events along the way, and the ending. Then brainstorm information about each of your characters. From this point you alternate between plot and characters, adding detail and depth at each level. You should end with a paragraph description of every scene, and a thorough breakdown for each character.

The Hero’s Journey

Based on Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” it describes a 12-point cycle beginning in the Ordinary World at status quo. The hero then receives a call to adventure, assistance (from a mentor figure), and leaves the Ordinary World for the Special World. Once in the Special World, they face trials and a crisis (their darkest hour) before recouping and receiving their reward. They then return to the Ordinary World and a new life. Everything is the same, and yet everything is different.

Three-Act Structure

Every story is made up of three parts- the beginning, the middle, and the end 😉 This structure breaks a story up into these three sections (though the middle is twice as long as the others), each with specific aspects, separated by turning points at the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks.

The first act sets up the story and leads the hero to the first turning point (aka. the point of no return). The hero spends the next quarter of the story reacting to events. But the midpoint changes them, making them more proactive, driving toward the climax. The last act begins with the hero’s darkest moment, from which they must recover to head straight into the climax.

The Dramatica Theory

A philosophical look at storytelling, this theory focuses on integrating the various aspects of story to make a unified whole. It looks at situations/themes/ideas from four different perspectives to develop a complex, realistic view of the problem. On the more practical, plotting level, it describes eight different elements necessary for a story, beginning with a goal and consequences (if the goal isn’t met). These are followed with related elements, such as the steps necessary to achieve the goal, and the signs of impending consequences.

The Nine Box Method

This method begins with dividing a piece of paper into nine numbered boxes. Each box represents part of the story, and the relation of one box to another is reflected in the plot. For example, box #1 borders #2 (to the right) and #4 (below), so the events and ideas in that box will directly relate to and affect the events in the others.

Drawing Battle Lines

So… plotters and pantsers- what side are you on?

I jest, of course. In reality this dichotomy represents a spectrum. Even the most meticulous plotter can’t plan everything- there will always be discoveries as they write. And in the end, the most inveterate pantser will need to impose structure on their stories.

I’ve read numerous articles, sometimes quite adversarial, championing one or the other of these methods. Pantsers think their way is more organic and can tend to view plotting as stilted and unoriginal, following a fill-in-the-blank formula.

“Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice.”- Stephen King, On Writing

Plotters, on the other hand, can defend their cause with a force that implies theirs is the only way, or at least the superior one. They can tend to see pantsers’ writing as chaotic and aimless.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned through years of living overseas, it’s this: It’s not wrong, it’s just different.

There isn’t one correct way to write. The right way is whatever works best for each author. It’s a combination of personality and growth. Your personality affects which end of the spectrum you gravitate towards. But a willingness to explore the merits of the other side and see what aspects you can embrace as your own is the key to growing as a writer.

And hey… J.K. Rowling reads Stephen King’s books and he loved the Harry Potter saga. So maybe there can be peace in this war-torn land after all!

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I hope this brief overview is helpful to you in your writing endeavors, and interesting to those who are curious about the process. But what about you? Are you more of a plotter or a pantser? If you’re a plotter, do you have your own method? Or if you’re a pantser, I would love to hear about your process! Please share in the comments, and we can get a dialogue going!

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