If you’ve ever attempted to write a fictional story, you’ve probably heard or seen something of the “pantsers versus plotters” debate. If you haven’t, it’s the discussion around writing by the seat of your pants (I’d love to know where that expression came from) and planning out your story ahead of time. Which is better? Does one method produce better stories than the other? Does being a pantser mean you’re disorganized? Does being a plotter mean you’re neurotic?
Most people who take on this subject come to the happy conclusion that writers should do whatever feels right to them. “Whatever is comfortable for you,” they say. “Whatever helps your creative juices flow. There’s no right way to tell a story.”
Now, I’m a pantser. My best friend is a plotter. I work from the inside out, starting with one detail or one moment and building a world around it as I go along. She works from the outside in, building her world and then filling in the details. One of these methods is obviously more logical (hint: it’s not mine), but I was pleased with the idea that we were both right so I wasn’t going to mess with it. Until now.
I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2011 and that was the ultimate “pantsing” experience. I had the barest thread of a story line and one vivid image in my mind, but I was determined to get a novel out of it. I had never written a novel before (apparently all the cop-offs of The Black Stallion I wrote when I was eight years old don’t count) or anything of length, for that matter. I was convinced I could overcome my experience handicap with talent and determination.
When I finished, I had 81,284 words of…something. It had a beginning, middle, and end, some characters and some conflict, but to call it a novel would be akin to ranking Twilight up with The Lord of the Rings. I told myself it wasn’t anything some good editing couldn’t fix.
“You just have to get organized,” I murmured feverishly, trying to imagine how character A got from point B to what I thought was point J but couldn’t know for sure because, as a pantser, I didn’t plot points. “Maybe it’s time to try an outline. Just a rough outline.”
This was the result.
Yes, I know that’s a small, low-quality image and you can’t see what’s actually written there. Even if you could read it, it wouldn’t make any sense, and even without reading individual words you can see that looks nothing like an outline. It doesn’t look like a chart. It doesn’t look like anything.
I was overwhelmed. To say it was like herding cats would be an understatement. It was like herding cats, turtles, and bald eagles at the same time. It was like dropping a zoo into a vat of toxic waste and trying to fit the product into Noah’s Ark.
“I am the writer!” I shouted, frantically scooping up plot points as they tried to slip under the door. “This is my world! I control everything! I am in charge!”
“Sure you are,” said character D, who was swinging from my mother’s hanging potted geranium. “Have you figured out my motivation? What’s my back story?”
“Excuse me,” said character arc Q, who was sitting in the corner and trying to be good. “Do you know what makes me happen yet?”
I’m not going to make any blanket statements like “it’s fine to be a pantser but if someone threatens to burn down your house if you don’t write an outline, you ought to be able to do it.” There are people who are good at pantsing. There are smart people who write character-driven stories rather than mutant plot-monstrosities via the pantsing method. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had pantsed Harry Potter? Wait…that’s not what I mean…
Anyway. The lesson I learned from this is that I am not a good pantser. If I had planned that first novel, I might’ve realized the story had too many legs and tails and not enough eyes. I might’ve realized my secondary characters were doing all the work and my protagonist was reclining on a bed of lilies. But I did learn my lesson.
I’m starting a new project and I am plotting the pants off it. Every character has a physical description, back story, socioeconomic status, internal and external conflicts, and favorite ice cream flavor (that last one is a lie). My outline even has Roman numerals. It’s slow going, but I’d rather get it all down now than read the draft later and discover character B’s brother is long dead, dying slowly, and alive all in the same week. I’d rather not send the draft to my friends to read only to realize I never put in the really important thing that makes all that stuff happen. I feel much more confident and surprisingly comfortable now that I’m plotting. Maybe it’s not my first instinct, but I think it will be good for me.
Are you a pantser? Are you a plotter? Are you some combination of the two (which most of us probably are)? Have you ever had mutinous plots and characters rampaging through your house? I’d love to hear about it.