When it comes to writing fiction, the subject of plotting vs. pantsing is forever being bandied about. And for good reason too. The question whether to plot or to pants your way through your manuscript is definitely one worth asking… of yourself. While it’s lovely to find out what approach works best for other writers (I should know – I do this a lot!) the answer ultimately doesn’t lie with others but internally within ourselves.
With so much advice out there about plotting vs. pantsing, it’s easy to become confused. And since confusion is a breeding ground for doubt and doubt is known for destroying instincts, I suggest taking any advice solely as an example of what’s worked for others. The truth is, neither way is right. As a writer it’s a really good idea to explore both ways to find out which works best for you. Or, as you’ll soon discover, maybe a bit of both is your preferred style. Here’s my experience on the subject of plotting vs. pantsing…
My plotting-pantsing experience:
For my first book, I pantsed my way through the first part of the first draft. Then when I got to the middle, also known as the dreaded middle, I hit a wall. Big time. Which caused me to fly into a panic over where the story was going and what the hell my characters were meant to do next. I figured it was time to give this plotting thing a crack. By stopping midway and spending a good few weeks to plot out the rest of the story, I suddenly had a clear vision for where the story was headed. Plotting helped me get my confidence back. But, most importantly, it helped me to reach The End. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to reach the end of a draft.
I knew after the first book that plotting was the best way forward for me. So for my second novel, which I started during NaNoWrimo last November, I knew I had to take my pants off, so to speak, and put my plotting hat on. As this was my first attempt at NaNo, I wanted to make sure I knew where the story was going upfront to have any chance of hitting the 50,000 word goal. I spent two weeks before NaNo outlining my novel as best that I could, getting to know the characters and their backgrounds. I also wrote a few scenes, or the beats of what those scenes would be, snippets of dialogue, basically anything and everything that flew into my mind.
The result? Success! I made it to the end of NaNo with 50k words written and half of my first draft completed. For me, this was clear proof of how plotting can greatly benefit my writing and help me to power forward. I discovered that when you’re challenging yourself to write nearly 1,700 words a day, having an outline is GOLD. Yes, things changed along the way as the characters sprung to life, but I know I couldn’t have made it to the end of November (sleep deprived and twitchy-eyed) with my 50k words if it wasn’t for spending those two weeks beforehand planning and plotting first.
Right now, my process is a little bit of pantsing mixed with a lot of plotting. I know that if I’m about to sit down to write a scene or a chapter and I’m completely stumped I have to stop, go back to my notes and start sketching out what needs to happen first. Being honest with yourself and knowing when it’s a good time to hit pause and take stock of your story doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, in fact, I believe it makes you a better one.
How do I plot?
Once again, I want to stress I can only offer what’s worked for me so far. To those for whom the idea of plotting is about as enjoyable as sticking needles in their eyes, I get it. If plotting sounds like more work on top of ALL the writing you already have to do it’s because it is. But from my experiences, I know that having some kind of an outline or direction before I sit down each writing session has helped me immensely. Side bonus: it also helps me writer faster too.
One of my favourite books for learning how to plot in a few easy steps is Rachel Aaron’s eBook, 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. A guide that demonstrates how Rachel boosted her writing from 2,000 words to 10,000 words per day. Now you’re paying attention, huh? Sounds like the dream! The key, she says, to accelerating your writing is – you guessed it – knowing what you’re writing before you write it. Here’s a few tips she shares on how to do this, which I’ve combined with my own…
Get down what you already know
I call this the “idea vomit stage” because for most writers they already have some idea what their book is about before putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper. Simply getting down all those ideas that have been whirling around your mind is a good starting point. It could be a character or suitation, it doesn’t matter. Whatever you know about your book already, even if it doesn’t end up in your story, make sure you get it down.
Lay down the basics
This is the part where you figure out the bare bones of the story, including the characters, plot and setting. Since characterisation is a huge focus for my books, during this phase, I’ll be exploring who they are, e.g. what their history is, how they’re connected to other characters in the story, what their roles are, etc. For the plot it’s a good idea to figure out the end and the beginning first. After you’ve got your starting point, you can fill in whatever twists/scenes/climaxes you’ve already thought up. It doesn’t matter how these scenes link together or what order they’re in, you’re simply jotting down the basics for now. This is a good time to decide what type of story you want to tell – is it a romance, a thriller or sci fi horror? It’s also a good time to think about whether it’s a standalone novel or part of a series.
Fill in the holes
This is the nitty gritty of how everything pieces together. Since you already know your start and your end, now it’s time to go back to the beginning and continually ask yourself – “what happens next?” This is usually where a lot of people get stuck, me included, and that’s okay. To counteract this, I simply keep jumping ahead to the bits I do know and work my way backwards. Usually if you don’t know something it’s because you need to discover it along the way. It could be something about a character or the world in which they live. Leaving a little breathing room is fine, in fact, for me it’s essential.
Write out a scene list
Taking each chapter and breaking it out into a series of scenes is really helpful in the early planning stages. Generally speaking, a chapter might contain three scenes or more each, but obviously it varies from book to book. If you want to drill down further, you can always jot down the beats of those scenes too, e.g. any dialogue, important character or setting descriptions, etc. I simply bullet-point each scene within a chapter using Word. Scrivener is also a great tool to help arrange your scene list.
Create a timeline
Another key tip, which I’m not quite so great at following, is to create a timeline. Usually, I’ll have a rough idea of how long my book spans and what happens when. For my genre, which is romantic comedy, a timeline is important but it can also be worked on more thoroughly during the editing phase. However for more complex books, such as historical fiction, making a timeline first is crucial, especially for keeping track of important dates and information.
The boredom check
This is when you really need to get honest and ask yourself some questions. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader and go through your plot to spot where things get slow or don’t make sense. Ask yourself – is there enough action in this chapter? Have I remembered to include the right amount of emotion? What’s my character’s motivation for doing that? Even if you haven’t got all answers up front, simply jotting down these questions as you go will help you to understand your character’s motivations.
Of course, there are many more plotting devices you can add into the mix before hitting the ground running on your manuscript. Usually, if I’ve spent a few weeks working on all of the above, I’m chomping at the bit to get started. Remember – plotting should be a fluid thing. You’re not bound by the rules that you set from the beginning. No matter how much planning you’ve done, chances are your story will change dramatically as you write it.
“No one has all their good ideas at once, so don’t be afraid to let go and just write. Plotting exists to make your life easier, not harder; to lift you up, not hold you back.”
– Rachel Aaron
Want to hear more?
Check out episode #027 of Your Creative Life podcast, where Vanessa and I discuss our experiences with plotting vs. pantsing and what works best for us.