My Take on Plotting versus Pantsing
A common writers’ conference workshop topic is “Pantsing versus Plotting,” a reflection of the fact that many writers struggle with how to plot out their stories. If that’s you, perhaps my breaking down this issue will help you gain some insights into how to avoid some of the pitfalls of poor plotting.
Very few writers are pure pantsers. Pantsing––writing a story without any pre-conceived notions of where it is going or how it’s going to end––may work for very experienced, highly skilled authors in certain genres. It certainly doesn’t make sense to try to write a mystery that way, not to mention science fiction, suspense, or thriller stories. In fact, any story that is plot-driven begs for plotting.
I had never heard the term, but I was a pantser before I got serious about my writing. That resulted in a folder full of starts, but no finishes. I’d get a great story idea, start writing and before long I’d written myself into a corner unable to see where the story was going or how it ended.
When I retired and decided to see if I could finish one of those stories, I picked the one whose ending seemed logical. After drafting that ending, I plotted out the rest of the novel and was able to complete The Expendable Man, a novel many readers tell me is my best story.
That’s a formula that I’ve used for all of my subsequent novels. I start with a story idea, draft the initial chapters, stop to write the ending, and then plot out the middle part of the story.
Plotting is not preparing an outline like you had to do in high school English, nor does plotting take the creativity out of the writing process, as some have charged. It’s a process that helps you identify where you are going and how you’re going to get there. Because it’s a process, not a one-time activity, expect to make changes from time to time.
Here are my recommendations for the elements of good plotting.
1) Early on, once you think you have a story concept you want to develop into a novel, write a one-page synopsis. A synopsis tells the entire story, ending included, on one page (or under 500 words).
2) Write the climactic/ending scene early on. Don’t worry, you can always change it.
3) Expand your synopsis into a several page story summary, including all the major turning points in the story. Revise your synopsis, summary and ending scene as necessary as you write.
4) To help keep track of where I am as I’m writing, I use a spreadsheet broken down into chapters and scenes. My categories include date and time, point of view character (because I write in third person all my stories are told from more than one point of view), location, action/theme, word count, and status (version1, version 2, etc.).
You are free to borrow my tools or work out your own, but the key to good plotting in my humble opinion is staying focused on reaching the climactic story scene. That will eliminate scenes that wander, which will cost you reader attention, dead-ends, and writers’ block, which is a function in many cases of not knowing where your story is going. The bonus: not only will your writing be smoother, you’ll be able to skip the plotting versus pantser workshop at your next writers’ conference.