Plotting by the seat of your pants
There are so many ways to write, and I have yet to meet two writers who do it the same way. Writing is a personal journey after all, and we are each comfortable with different things and motivated in different ways. Generally, though, most writers will fall within the spectrum of two kinds of writers, plotters and so-called ‘pantsers’. Depending on how new you are to the craft, you may not have even heard of the latter, and yet most writers I’ve met are exactly that. Each method of writing is equally valid, and there should be no animosity between the two kinds, or for anything in between. So don’t let anyone tell you that the way you write is ‘wrong’. But what are the differences, the advantages and disadvantages of each?
A plotter is, as you probably guessed, someone who plans their entire book out before they begin writing. They have their beginning, end and all the points in between all pegged out on their story map before they star their journey. Perhaps not every single detail, but they’ll have most of it and as such will have a consistent direction 90% of the time. If you’ve spent more time worldbuilding and jotting down scenes and putting them in order, then chances are you are a plotter.
Plotting is in and of itself its own art. There’s a million and one ways to plot your book, and you’ll find that each plotter type will generally do things at least slightly differently. There’s plenty of resources out there from people giving advice on how to plot their books, so immerse yourself in all the info you can find and see what feels best for you. I also highly recommend checking The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne. It’s a book, a podcast, and a website full of information on how to plan.
Pros and Cons
· Plotters find themselves suffering from writers block a lot less. For two reasons. First, it is of course hard to be stuck on something when you’ve already planned ahead. Secondly, if writers block still does strike, it’s easy enough to move on to a different section, which brings me to…
· Being able to write what you want and when. I go through phases where I just don’t have the energy to write a fight scene that needs doing. Or I may be excited to write a dialogue piece I thought up. When you’ve plotted ahead, it’s easy to move back and forward over the parts you feel like writing at any given time.
· Assuming you don’t get too bogged down in the details and spend too much time plotting, plotters generally write their books faster once they actually start. I say generally, but some pantsers like Stephen King can just write non-stop until the book is done. But for us mere mortals, writers block is going to slow you down without the clear direction plotting gives you.
· Contrary to the last ‘pro’, if you DO get bogged down, plotting can become a tedious exercise. Worldbuilding is a lot of fun, but it can distract from actually writing anything.
· Wanting to change things mid-way is like pulling a loose thread sometimes. The bigger the change you want to make, the more of your outline that gets pulled apart along with it. This can sometimes lead to plot holes and inconsistencies forming, depending on how far into writing you are and how extensive your outline is.
Pantsers are so-called because they “fly the seat of their pants” when writing. Meaning they don’t plot. They just sit down and write and let the story be almost as surprising to them as it will be for the readers. I would consider pantsing the more emotional style of the two. Where plotting is logical and analytical, pantsers just immerse themselves in the story in their head and go for it, which can be a great way to feel creative and productive.
This method does not mean that there is no planning involved, because that would be impossible, but generally people who write this way only have a vague idea of their outline in their mind and very rarely write more than just notes, if even that. They allow the autonomy of their characters take them where the story naturally leads, and simply gives them nudges toward the places the writer wants them to end up.
Pros and Cons
· Flexibility. Plotting may give you the freedom to write what you want and when, but pantsing allows you to easily change the direction of your story at a moment’s notice, allowing you more creative freedom and flexibility in your narrative.
· Heightened motivation can stem from diving into the writing side of your book. Having something to show for your work faster means you’ll likely find yourself more motivated to keep going.
· Some essential elements of narrative will come naturally. As I said before, pantsers rely heavily on the autonomy of their characters. This usually makes characters easier to write in a realistic way, especially with character development.
· It’s easy to run out of steam. If you slow down, it’s much more likely you’ll go longer without writing, or stop altogether. When I was younger I had about a dozen stories started that never got past the first few chapters.
· With so much room between point A and point B in your story, there’s a lot of areas where it can become hard to fill in. I’m willing to bet that most of the writers who say they struggle with the middle of a book, are pantsers. Subplots are harder to layer, and so ‘filler’ content can often throw off the pace of your book without properly plotting it in.
· Editing is a nightmare, especially structural editing, which if you are going through a professional editor, will literally cost you. The proper placement of subplots, conventions, and major turns, can leave you spending far more time editing than you’d like.
Like I said, there is no right or wrong way to write, just your way. Very few of us will be just one or the other. Most will fall somewhere in between. I myself wrote The Order of Elysium as a pantser successfully, but I am enjoying being much more of a plotter for the second book, though I still ‘pants’ most of it, just in a more orderly fashion. Either way, make it your own. We all have at least one story in us waiting to get out. The route it takes is irrelevant so long as it arrives at its destination. Happy writing!
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway