Plotting v Pantsing

In What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1, I talked about arguably the most contentious issues amongst writers, the Oxford comma. This post is about another issue that, bizarrely, seems to cause friction between writers—not every writer, by any means, but enough that discussions on this topic often descend into conflict.

Since this piece is more likely to be of interest to writers, apologies to any readers looking in, but it may be worth you reading on to give you an idea of the sort of things writers argue about between themselves, things that seem inconsequential to non-writers (and, indeed, to many writers).

So what are we talking about? In general terms, a ‘plotter’ is a writer who, before he (or she, but we’ll take that as read) embarks on writing a novel, plans it in detail so that he knows every character and every turn and twist of the plot before writing one word of the novel itself. A ‘panster’, by contrast, sits down and starts writing the novel with no or little idea of who the characters are or how the story will pan out—flying by the seat of his pants.

Those are the extremes, but there’s a broad spectrum in between. Most writers are likely to fall somewhere along that spectrum, hybrids of panster and plotter who may have planned certain aspects of the novel, but perhaps not all.

I’m very much towards the panster end of the spectrum. I embarked on a 300,000-word trilogy (though, in true panster style, I didn’t know it would be a trilogy when I started out) without knowing anything other than it would be about an apocalypse caused by a virus manufactured and deliberately spread by beings who wanted this planet for themselves. I had no idea who the characters would be, what situations they would find themselves in (other than the broader scenario of facing the eradication of almost the entire human species) and how the story would pan out.

How does a writer even begin writing a novel with only the vaguest notion to go on? In my case, I began by describing the effects of the virus on the human body. That scene subsequently formed the opening of chapter 6 of The Cleansing. Having set pen to paper (rather, finger to keyboard), I was then able to begin writing the opening scene proper in which a woman sits gazing out over Central Park before setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to the destruction of humanity.

This is how I’ve always worked, literally making it up as I go along. On occasion I’ll have a final scene in mind, or perhaps one or two key scenes along the way. It then becomes a case of navigating the characters through the uncharted waters in between (provided they want to play ball—my work might begin as plot-driven, but the characters quickly take over). More often, I have nothing to go on except a vague scenario that usually begins, ‘What if…?’

When I first began self-publishing, having written two novels and umpteen short stories back in the days when the e-book didn’t exist, I joined various writing forums. These forums were full of advice as to the ‘best’ way to carry out the writing and publishing process. Most of it was opinion presented as fact. One ‘fact’ I saw often was that the best way to write a novel was to plan it out in detail before starting to write it. The implication was often only thinly veiled: real writers plotted; if you didn’t, you must belong to some sort of Mickey Mouse club of pretend writers.

I have tried plotting a story and found that I simply can’t do it, that my brain doesn’t work that way. I might be able to vaguely sketch out a couple of chapters, but for the life of me cannot go any further until I have written the opening chapters and have begun to get to know the characters—until then, I have no idea how they are going to react to the circumstances in which they find themselves. There have been times when I’ve had to abandon potential plot strands upon realising that the characters would not react in the way required to realise them.

But that’s just me. There are many writers who couldn’t write like that, who have to know the route a story is going to follow, the stops along the way and the destination, before writing one word of it. And that’s perfectly fine—that’s the way their brains work. We’re all different, right? (Altogether now: yes, we are all different—sorry, just having a Monty Python moment.)

The point is, and this needs to be emphasised:

There is no right or wrong way—there’s only what works best for the individual.

Seems pretty obvious, you’d think. Yet—and it’s no good asking me why because I haven’t the foggiest—some writers adopt a polarised stance. These are examples of some of the comments that appear with eye-rolling predictability whenever the topic is raised:

‘Plotting kills creativity’
‘Pantsing stifles creativity’
‘Every book being written must follow a plan’
‘Plotting makes writing the book boring’
‘Pantsing means that most of the story will have to be discarded or rewritten’
‘Plotting allows no scope for characters to develop naturally’
‘Pantsing results in incoherent, rambling storylines’

It’s the absolute nature of these opinions-masquerading-as-fact that bugs me. ‘Every book being written must follow a plan.’ Nope, they don’t. Maybe that’s how it works for you, mate, but you’re not me.

What each statement amounts to is, in effect, ‘I plot/pants, so plotting/pantsing must be the best way to write a book and I’m going to sneer at anyone who employs an alternative method’. Sigh.

Despite the title of this piece, writing fiction isn’t a contest between plotting and pantsing. There is plotting, there is pantsing, and there is a wide range of methods employing a mix of the two. Each writer needs to find what works best for them. No writer should hold out their method as being the only or right way. Seriously, there’s no such thing.

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