The Plotting Pantser

There is no one way to perform the work of creating a novel just as there is no one way to bake a cake. Two writers who claim to be plotters will each have very different ways of creating and working with plot. Some pantsers plan more than others. Some writers of either type edit as they go, or edit the previous day’s work before starting the next, while others may wait weeks or months to look again.

The best kind of writing advice makes clear there is no one way to do anything and is not advice as much as it is a series of examples which have worked for some writers, like showing you a set of tools and you need to select just the ones you are comfortable with.

It has taken me the time and process of writing six novels to become comfortable with a method for planning. My method is constantly evolving and is made from a great deal of both plotting and pantsing. Again, this is only what works for one writer.

Once I know who my characters are, in general, and what themes I’m working with, I can usually figure out where the story should end. Notice I said where, not how. From this point I can start an iterative process of getting the characters to that ending place. Detail some characters, interact with each other and the world, discover key plot elements, build more plot, then repeat. Once I have a fairly detailed plot I usually need to work out a general timeline. I need to know when everything is happening so I can get the seasons and weather right. That’s the plotting part. I have fairly detailed characters and their wants, even some of their arcs, and an outline sketch.

This is where the pantsing comes in. I can never really outline a scene or dialogue until I’m actually ready to write it, so there’s a few minutes blocking the scene, finding some key words, and noting the point of the scene. Then it is time to free write.

Free writing unlocks more about the characters and the plot than I previously knew. Sometimes the writing doesn’t yet fit in the plot and that gets saved for later. The plot, the characters, their arcs, all change as the free writing continues. The process is iterative. Eventually, and this has not failed me yet, everyone is where they need to be physically and emotionally at the end. This is when I can see, usually quite clearly, how the story ends. I have written my way through to the end, and usually everything feels like it should and the ending satisfies me. Sometimes I feel like a plodding pantser but after writing through six novels it is the way which works best for me. Trying to force characters, who should have changed over the course of the story, to predetermined actions at the end always fails me.

Plan, plot, write to discover, repeat.

If there are any takeaways here they are: do what works for you, realize it may take you a long time and many projects to figure out what works for you, and stay willing to alter and refine that process. The way I work now is very different than the way I worked a decade ago and I’m sure my methods will be just as different a decade from now.