Painting By Numbers? – Exploring the Advantages of Plotting and “Pantsing”

There’s an oft-described dichotomy between writers between “plotters” – those who assiduously and diligently plan their stories, sometimes with great precision, and “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants in seeing how the flow comes, and writing whatever comes to them in the glory of the moment. Dan Hook summarised these approaches well in his recent video, which inspired me to examine perhaps a little more closely how I’d define myself as a writer.

In the period of consideration that precipitated this post, I realised it was a journey.

But first, it’s important to examine both approaches. I think both embody a very different school of thought for writing, especially prose.

Plotters – sometimes referred to as planners or architects – aim to have the main beats of their stories down in some form before commencing the start of writing. And indeed there’s a variety of degrees to which this can be done – some writers choose to plan every moment of their stories, forming a skeleton of a plot onto which they hang the meat of the prose. Some simply sketch out a vague idea of what they want to happen in each chapter, or act, or part, and then let that act as a guide to their writing.

There’s a host of techniques – Save the Cat is a commonly referred to method in scriptwriting and increasingly, prose; indeed it’s a book I’m to read very soon – but the essence, I’ve inferred, from plotting a story, or using an outline to map out where that story needs to go, is that it can make it easy to check if the story has the elements of story – an inciting incident, conflict, the character journey, to name a few – and they’re in the correct narrative places relative to the work.

“Pantsers” – somewhat less crudely termed discovery writers – usually open with a blank page and start typing whatever the flow brings them. It’s a complete dichotomy to the planned, almost technical approach of planning: you go where the story takes you, and you discover that story – world, characters and plot – with your characters. Discovery writing can be extremely pure and cathartic as the words simply flow.

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However I think it’s reductive to simply put these approaches at odds to each other –  in very broad strokes, planning is technical; pantsing is artistic. These things do not seem to gel together at all! But crucially, despite some perceptions, there is no need for a writer to occupy one camp or the other.

These terms, despite a casual glance suggesting otherwise, are not mutually exclusive. I think Dan makes an excellent point in his video that an effective strategy is to harness the advantages of both approaches where the situation warrants. For example, in his upcoming novel Displaced, the first in a series, the idea came from a university assignment and grew organically from then, and on completing the first, rough, draft, came the plan to support that.

This is a good approach. Being a discovery writer doesn’t always mean going in blind. You can easily approach a work with a vague idea, flesh it out and then work a plan around it as it develops. In my own journey, I can definitely see the discovery writer I once was. In my NaNoWriMo 2010 novel The Last of the Steamers, I had no plan. I didn’t even break it up into chapters. I simply had an idea – perhaps a few extremely vague notes – and went with it. The resultant novel will likely never see the light of day for reasons I mentioned in my earlier post.

I think a blended approach is best. Here’s the start of the outline I used for the first act of my WIP post-apoc novel The Thaw:

(Be warned, some spoilers for this follow, if that’s important to you!)

This outline took a long time to devise. I didn’t use any specific schema besides the classic “three-act structure) for this; I even worked that down to a fairly granular level, breaking each act into three parts, of three subsequent chapters. indeed, I found this was just the right amount of depth to allow me to take a blended approach.

With this outline I strove to get the key, must-happen events of the story (the “bones”) codified. Then I simply wrote. My personal view is that having this level of detail in terms of key plot events allows for writing of the actual chapters to harness the power of discovery writing. Having that vague plot already there allows for the writing itself to take twists and turns, as long as it accomplishes those things.

This plan also strove to include a technique I admire from the Expanse books by James S. A. Corey, and indeed from A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – give each chapter a specific point-of-view. Visualising this on my plan through the use of coloured tags helped me distribute the “story” accordingly, and helped to make sure the point-of-view doesn’t linger in the hands of one character excessively.

This plan, however, doesn’t accurately represent the work as it’s gone through edits by me, and that’s fine. It worked well for the initial draft which it was designed for – the project’s evolution outside of that is fairly incidental to this document. It represents my overarching ideas for the story and I feel that working to this plan resulted in an excellent piece, which continues to evolve and tinker but the blueprint of this plan sits at the very heart of the 104,000 word draft.

Is this plan perfect, though? Absolutely not – I feel I could structure this far more efficiently now, and indeed on future novel projects I will iterate and improve this basic template.

But returning to perhaps the main point – this plan embodies roughly about the amount of detail I feel comfortable in having in my plans. Sure, there’s no reference to story beats or story components, but they’re in there in less obvious terms. The story does still contain all those elements – inciting incidents, character journeys, internal struggles, barriers to success – but I’d admit that this plan is v1.0 for me and I’ll always be happy to adapt, tweak and learn.

That said, this has led me to reflect on the initial first draft of The Thaw quite fondly as I found that blended approach seemed to work quite well. I’d admit to being a technical writer – my prose reflects, I feel, my approach: it’s precise, methodical but doesn’t lack that whisper of artistic flair. I don’t get preoccupied in writing flowery, gushing prose that could be argued as easily resultant from discovery writing; and if I did, it largely gets edited out!

I feel an over-planned story whose outline is totally inflexible becomes simply a painting-by-numbers exercise that simply isn’t fun to write. And if writing isn’t fun, why do we do it? Fiction that’s enjoyable to read needs to be enjoyable to write, and as a writer I consider myself less and artist but more a craftsman, taking that blended approach of precision and planning with a good dose of creating art.

By creating a loose structure onto which to hang your writing you give yourself guidelines that can be loose and flexible enough to allow for the natural journey and organic twists that can’t be foreseen and planned in advance to emerge during the actual writing. A plan should be a roadmap, not a straightjacket.

But wait, there’s more!

It might be easy to assume that for this entire post I’m referring to fiction writing. However, I think these tips and insights work for both fiction and non-fiction work, though fiction being the lens through which I’m making these observations. With non-fiction many of the same rules apply – plan out the arguments or points you want to make, structure out the research or key points to reference and the actual writing, as long as it hits those beats or makes those points can flow pretty much freeform.

To conclude, I think putting oneself in one camp or the other is facile and overly reductive, but finding a balance of both approaches, and knowing when each works best, and how one can complement the other, really reaches the sweet sauce between writing for the sheer fun of it and coming up with a rewarding, cohesive and engaging piece – whatever you’re writing!

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