Wiley Wednesday: Pantsing vs. Plotting

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? ~Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

To paraphrase Hamlet, to plot or to pants, that is the question. I bet Hamlet quotes are the last thing you ever though you would hear in a discussion of plotting vs. pantsing. First, let’s define these two terms, then we will take a closer look at each.

First up: pantsing. This is the abbreviated form of ‘flying by the seat of your pants’ or in this case writing by the same. To follow our Hamlet theme – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Basically, it involves getting an idea, sitting down to write and seeing where it takes you and what pops up in the story as you go along.

There are as many forms of pantsing as there are pantsers. Some start with no planning whatsoever. They see the idea and dive right in on the blank page, letting the story take them where it will. Some, like me, get an idea, write down the high points like a sightseeing map, then let the characters and story dictate the rest as it comes. There are, of course, vary degrees of pantsing all along the spectrum.

The point is that a minimum of pre-planning and plotting are done ahead of time. These writers tend to view writing more organically and are willing to test the waters to see what floats and what doesn’t. Devotees of pantsing cite the flexibility, lack of restraint, the freedom to go wherever the story takes them. These are the writers who love a good surprise, an unexpected plot twist, when writing. I’ll admit it’s a rush when something awesome suddenly pops out of nowhere that adds just the perfect touch to the story, when something I never saw coming happens and it is just what the story needed. That’s when we feel like the characters are real, living and breathing beings who want their story to be told. After all, they should know better than anyone what happens in their lives, right?

This method is not without its problems, however. Sometimes, characters can have a conflicting view of events. Sometimes those great surprises can derail your plot and lead you down a blind alley, forcing re-writes. Last but not least, without a clear mental vision, it can lead to looser plot and pacing issues. Again, this can be tightened up in editing. But then again, it can also lead to a brilliant idea that takes the ordinary into the realms of extraordinary, a spark fed from the story itself that no amount of planning could ever foresee.

Now the plot thickens. Or rather, the plotting does. Here’s where writers take arms against a sea of troubles…also known as disorganization. Plotters are some of the most organized people I know. At any given moment, they know how the story will go, who is in it, what they are doing in every scene and how it all will end. They know everything there is to know about their characters and setting. Moving from point A to point B comes in well-ordered fashion. These writers also have a much easier time writing scenes out of sequence. If one scene is hanging them up, they can skip to another easily, without fear of going off in a wrong direction and having to scrap the scene later.

The tools of the plotter are impressive. Outlines are a staple, and can range from general to extremely detailed, running several pages. Storyboards are often used, which give a great visual layout of scenes and chapters. It’s a great way to keep track of who is where at any given time. Timelines make sure you don’t have time and date conflicts and that everything does not happen in a single day. The synopsis is another great tool. This is a summary of the story, start to finish, that outlines the major characters, plot points, and outcome. Some do the synopsis beforehand as a sort of road map, some after. Altogether, though, these tools serve to keep the writing process smooth and hopefully trouble free, to avoid blind alleys and deleting useless scenes.

The downside? Sometimes it can lead to too much organization – more time spent organizing than writing. The more flexible thinkers feel all this outlining can stifle the joy and creativity of writing the story, that by the time they are done with all this organizing, they are already tired of the story and don’t have the urge to do what feels like ‘rewriting’. As in all things, your mileage may vary.

Each method has its devotees and both styles work. Those who excel at plotting can whip out a great draft with speed and what appears to be minimal effort. Pantsers often come across as more creative, more inspired. I don’t agree. I think it’s all in the perception and when the inspiration and creative phases are done. Plotters are every bit as inspired but I think the creative burst comes more at the beginning, when they are outlining the whole plot. After all, you have to be hugely inspired to know what will happen start to finish, it just may not be as apparent as it is with pantsers.

It’s all a matter of where in the process it happens. We all have to dream up characters and ideas, form plots and conflict, pace the action and emotion in order to have an interesting readable, gripping story. And whatever method gets you there, inspires you to get the words on the page day after day, is the one that works.

To pants or to plot…yes that is the question. Enjoy the journey!

3 Replies to “Wiley Wednesday: Pantsing vs. Plotting”

  1. Do we have to WEAR pants when plotting? 😛

    I really appreciate your point of view here, because you give a very clear explanation of each method of working. I like your description of plotting, too, because I don't ordinarily DO plotting. But your description of it being a range from very simple things, like timelines (which I do use) to more extensive things (which I do not use) was helpful to me in terms of understanding my own way of working.

    Thanks for taking the time to write such a helpful essay!

  2. Very good read! I'm grateful for this, too. I need to find a balance from my current full-on organic approach. A big incentive is to be able to keep working on a WIP. Every time I switch to a different project, I risk never finishing the previous one. Being ablt to just switch scenes would be nice. Great food for thought!

  3. Very good read! I'm grateful for this, too. I need to find a balance from my current full-on organic approach. A big incentive is to be able to keep working on a WIP. Every time I switch to a different project, I risk never finishing the previous one. Being ablt to just switch scenes would be nice. Great food for thought!

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