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Pantsing vs Plotting: Which is ‘The Way’?

The official battle line of the writing community: pantsers vs plotters. 'Plotters' is fairly self-explanatory; those of us who plot a story before writing it. 'Panters' are the free spirits among us who write by the seat of our pants, with no real clue about where their story is going. So, which is 'The Way'?

Bit of a loaded question! I certainly don’t sit down and methodically structure a narrative, build a world, carefully compile reams of esoteric lore, political history, multiple brand new languages and fictional ground surveys for eighteen months upwards before I start writing. It’s a real passion killer. Don’t get me wrong, I know that works for other people; I also know plenty more people who do a fantastic job of never actually writing anything because they’re so busy planning.

The early stages of a new project are a bit like a whirlwind romance - or sometimes a sordid affair, if I’m supposed to be working on something else. I enjoy the process of getting to know who my characters are and letting them tell me their story. I usually see the places I create for the very first time as the words go down on the page, and I love that. I get sucked in and seduced by a new narrative as it starts to unfold. Most importantly, I develop an understanding of how the prose is going to sound and what the narrative voice is going to be which, certainly for me, can be influential in how I go about telling the story.

With flash fiction, even a short story, you can pretty much pants your way all the way to the finish line with nothing but ardour and the notes in your head. Unfortunately, the relationship starts going south as soon as you get into novella territory upwards. You know how it is; it doesn’t feel spontaneous anymore, you start thinking about whether you might not be better off seeing other stories. And worst of all, you realise that you need to start thinking about what’s coming next and it all looks really, really murky and undefined.

I’m fairly envious of the writers who can pants their way all the way through a full length novel and be fine with it. Apparently first drafts done in this way tend to err on the crap side and really pull together in the edit. I’ve never been able to go the distance based on passion alone. I tend to enjoy writing crime or mysteries or quests and there inevitably comes a point where I have to make the decision to get serious about the relationship or move on.

When the inevitable planning begins somewhere a little further down the line, I like to do it scene by scene. I don’t tend to do much more than writing bullet points. If I’m designing a complex mystery then I’ll quite often bullet all the clues and plot points and then divvy them up, again going scene by scene. The great thing about doing it this way is that you don’t end up with any scenes where nothing happens. I might split my scenes into narrative acts if it feels like the right move, but I don’t usually plan chapters ahead of writing them, the reason being that I prefer to work in scenes and chapters can (and often should) bisect scenes. I deal with the chapters later.

The idea of having to fix an entire narrative which is extremely broken after you’ve written it just seems like a mammoth task to me. It gives me the cold horrors. It’s like trying to count the chickens after you’ve let them out of the henhouse. I would rather get the structure and narrative at least largely right in draft one than have to painstakingly pick through everything I’ve done and try to find and impose some order. It feels to me like the far lesser of two evils.

So there you have it. I propose that the answer is not as simple as whether you are a panster or a plotter, but, in fact, where on a pants to plot spectrum you sit. I think I’m probably somewhere in the middle.

For me, there is no one way - it really depends upon what I’m writing. Longer pieces do require some planning, otherwise I have an unfortunate tendency to go so far off track that I can’t find my way back, which has led to far too many unfinished novels littering my laptop.

That said, the one time I did try to plan chapter by chapter, I found it far too restrictive and ended up going off-piste anyway...but for long-form fiction, I think it’s a good idea to at least create a skeleton of your book, so that you can put the meat on the bones as you write. That’s all theoretical, of course - after four years, I’m yet to finish the first draft of my full-length manuscript, so please take this advice with a hefty pinch of salt.

My approach to short stories and poems is very different. They seem to appear in my head fully formed, if a little nebulous, and the writing process is a case of trying to capture them and pin them to the paper. Much of the process is editing; getting rid of extraneous detail to reveal the true story within, like releasing a sculpture from a big piece of marble. I often have no real idea what I’m going to write when I sit down at the laptop; there’s just a feeling, a vague idea, a notion...and then boom. Three thousand words later, the real writing begins. It’s suddenly becoming very clear why I tend to stick to short-form’s a much happier process!

I'd love to pretend I'm a planner. It just feels smarter and more organised but I'm definitely just not one of those people. I'm a ‘go with your gut, write when the feeling strikes and let it take you wherever it's going’ kind of person.

Don't get me wrong, sometimes I'll plan aspects of my writing, like a character's backstory because it makes writing them easier, or I'll plan to put in a certain plot device to keep things interesting, but overall I do just follow the narratives as they come.

For poetry, it's even less structured. It's a flash in the pan moment of inspiration that pours out of me. I don't think I could plan it if I tried. In fact, I have tried and the results have been some of my least favourite works. I can decide a topic, but that is literally the maximum planning I can do, otherwise I quite often end up with a bad case of writer's block!

To those of you that are planning gurus: I'm eternally jealous and to those of you who are less structured like me: don't fix things that aren't broken!


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Cover image by 192635 via Pixabay


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