Monday, December 3, 2012

Plotting for Pantsers - Can it be done?

Many true plotters, those hyperorganized, logical, step-by-step storytellers look askance at pantsers. Pantsers (those who write by the seats of their pants) live moment-to-moment, with surprises and dead ends available at every turn. The most confident plotters know their approach is correct because they see their pantser kin struggling with epic rewrites and piles of half-finished manuscripts.

And yet, I think that secretly many plotters envy the freedom, spontaneity, and fun that is part of the pantser's writing life. I know I did. After having completed innumerable short stories and two novels as an almost scientific plotter, I abandoned that approach in 2001. I discovered that 1) it was more fun for me and 2) to quote Tolkien, "Not all who wander are lost."

Of course, I have three big advantages over many pantsers. First, through years of practice, I've got story structure woven into my thinking. No matter how wild my imagination is, plot points pull me back in like gravity. Second, I proceed with confidence. I know from past experience that even crazy random scenes are likely to find a place in the manuscript. (I also know that, since they were written quickly, I can part with paragraphs, pages, and chapters without lamenting the time invested.) Third, I have all my plotting tools clean and sharpened for rewriting.

I've seen pantsers, frustrated with blocks, stalls, and loss of productive time, shift into the world of plotting. Some succeed, even discovering that they are natural plotters, but some sacrifice too much. A few even give up writing.

I've begun to wonder, as I live as a convert among the pantsers, if I can provide the benefits of plotting to pantsers without taking away the advantages. As I said, pantsers:
  • Seem to have more fun.
  • Surprise readers because they surprise themselves.
  • Give themselves permission to mess up, so they find happy accidents.
  • Listen more to the characters.
  • Contrive less.
  • Work more organically.
For me, moving to the life of a pantser was like going from a black and white world to color. I won't go back. So the trick is to build plotting skills without becoming a plotter. I'm hoping, I can help pantsers to:
  • Hear the beat of the plot.
  • Find alternate routes to the ending (scene, chapter, novel).
  • Avoid blocks and stalls.
  • Approach each writing session with confidence.
  • Be more choosy about the stories they commit to.
  • Demand more of their rewrites.
I don't know if this is possible, but I'm going to try in the next few posts. I'll let you tell me if I've had any success.


  1. Your headline caught my eye because last month I taught a workshop at a writer's conference with that very title. I was trying to get pantsers to feel less afraid of using an outline. But here you are, doing the opposite!

    I guess all roads lead to Rome.

  2. Hi, Margaret
    Wow! Maybe I can learn from you. I've been poking at this idea for several months, and I still don't know that I what I have to say will be helpful. We shall see.
    Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Wow, Peter, that is AWESOME. So you used to be a plotter, but you came over to the Dark Side ;). I'm naturally a pantser, but holy moly...the rewrites! If I try to force myself to plot too much, though, the idea just dies in my head. I've never been quite sure if it was my ADHD or just the nature of the beast/being a pantser, but it seemed like once the idea was completed, I lost interest. Why write it? I already know the end! So actually finishing that book or story would be torture if I plotted the whole thing out. I know that doesn't really make sense to some people. The way I work best is to get a whole story out, and then set it aside for a little while. Then, usually in the middle of the night, or some time when I least expect it, the most ingenious (well, in my mind) idea comes to me, something that I really don't think would have come had I not already gotten so many of the details out in the first draft. Sometimes I have to really heavily revise, or even rewrite a whole story, but wow, it's so exciting to have those ideas come. "Oh! So THAT'S why she's so mad!!" was the most recent idea I had, about a science fiction story. It was a completely new facet to the story, it raised the stakes to a new level, and made the whole thing make sense in a really visceral way. And it doesn't feel like a chore to rewrite it, because I'm so excited that I had this idea. I'm an INSTINCTIVE writer. :)