A long time ago in a galaxy, well, actually this galaxy, but that’s a lot less snappy than the original… Wait. I probably should have thought that out before I wrote it down. Ahh, never mind. I’ll edit it later.
So anyway, once upon a time there were two writers – let’s call them Sarah and Jo because those are their names. Sarah was a dyed in the wool planner, planning out her stories to the nth degree before she even began. Jo was more of a pantser (noun: someone who writes ‘by the seat of their pants’), meandering her way through her stories with no real idea of where they was going. They were both fiercely defensive of their respective approaches, both believing their way to be superior. But… they were both stuck. Sarah was struggling to push forward when parts of her plan didn’t quite fit. And Jo was writing herself into endless tangential knots instead of focusing on the central plot.
Luckily, they were friends, and both extremely opinionated. And so, they began to offer snippets of advice to one another – a little planning suggestion here, a loosey-goosey approach there – until BAM! Their powers combined. And Plotstormers was born.
But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s examine both sides of the coin to look at the positives and pitfalls of each one…
Chances are you fall into one or other camp. Some of us are natural planners and crave structure and roadmaps, while others feel strangled by outlines and just wanna be free, man.
Mr Game of Thrones himself, George R. R. Martin, believes there are two types of writers: ‘architects‘ and ‘gardeners‘, which is basically a nice, pretty, analogous way of describing planners and pantsers:
“The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.
The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.
I’m much more a gardener than an architect. In my Hollywood years when everything does work on outlines, I had to put on my architect’s clothes and pretend to be an architect. But my natural inclinations, the way I work, is to give my characters the head and to follow them.”
– George R. R. Martin
But even the most pantsy writer still has to start with some kind of plan, no matter how loose or wobbly. And even the most planny writer can’t figure everything out before they start – at some point they still have to succumb to the unknown and let the story sweep them along. The sweet spot seems to be somewhere in the middle and most writers do a combination of the two (aka Plotstorming – more on that in a minute).
Margaret Atwood says she tends to start with “an image, scene, or voice… I couldn’t write the other way round with structure first. It would be too much like paint-by-numbers.” Others lay out as much detail as possible before they jump in – for example, check out Joseph Heller’s hand-written outline for Catch-22, detailing each subplot and thread and character as they progress through the multilayered mind-fuck of the story (you may need to pause for a moment to allow your brain to explode):
And some writers aren’t really even sure what kind they are – they just write the way that feels right. We asked Costa Award-winning author Emma Healey whether she’s a planner or a pantser (and accidentally induced a tiny literary crisis – sorry, Emma):
Truth is, it doesn’t really matter HOW you write, so long as you’re able to keep moving forward. No way is inherently ‘better’ than the other. And both have their pros and cons. The trick is to pick the best bits from both camps and tailor your approach to suit your strong points:
LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE PLANNERS!
PROS: Why planning kicks thine arse
- With a solid plan in hand, your first draft is likely to come along much faster than your garden-variety pantser, purely because you have a better idea of where you’re going and how to pace your story.
- Planning helps you stay focused on your plot and helps you to nip tangential wanderings in the bud.
- Outlining can make you feel more confident about your story since you can see the whole thing from start to finish, highlight parts that aren’t working so well, and make sure your story has the right balance.
- Good planning can reduce the amount of editing you need to do later. (Take it from someone who spent three years redrafting, restructuring and rewriting a novel that she pantsed the hell out of and listen when I tell you that I wish I’d done more planning beforehand…)
- Spending time to get to know your world and characters while outlining your plot can add a load of extra layers of realism that you’d otherwise have to work out on the job if you were pantsing.
- Planning fights fear! Knowing where you’re going- even on a broad and basic level – is a great antidote to writer’s block and feeling overwhelmed.
CONS: Why over-planning can sometimes hold you back
- Getting too bogged down with the outlining process can leave you feeling tied to your plan and scared to make adjustments or try new avenues because tinkering might spoil your ‘perfect’ plot.
- Overplanning can end up with you trying to fit in EVERY SINGLE DETAIL of your research, backstory and preparatory writing. Which means a helluva lot of editing later on.
- When you adhere too rigidly to your outline you might find yourself feeling stuck when you hit a point that might actually benefit from a bit of pantsing or brainstorming and let your story lead the way.
- An inflexible plan means that any small change inevitably leads to MASSIVE alterations, which feel waaaay too daunting and so you ignore them or abandon your project and bury your head in the sand…
- Obsessing over getting your outline ‘perfect’ can even stop you from actually writing the bloody thing. If you wait and wait and wait until you have everything in order (which, let’s face it, is never gonna happen) before you start, you’ll never feel ready to begin.
PROS: Why pantsing is the dog’s bollocks
- Freeeeedoooom! Pantsing lets your creative brain off the leash and allows you to conjure up unexpected and miraculous ideas from nothing.
- Allowing your plot to be as bendy and flexible as it likes means your writing will feel spontaneous and you’ll stumble across new story threads that you never could have planned.
- Pantsing your way through a story can help to keep things exciting – if you never know what’s coming next, you’ll constantly surprise yourself.
- When you come up against a block, pantsing lets you write your way through it, rather than getting too analytical about how your story ought to proceed.
- Freewriting is a great way to weasel out subconscious thoughts and connections that are hard to analyse in a plot outline – a bit of pantsing now and then can really help to root out the fundamental emotions at the core of what you’re writing about…
CONS: Why pantsing sometimes leaves you floundering
- Pantsers tend to abandon projects more frequently than planners because they dive in without enough preparation and end up feeling lost or uninspired when they reach a point where they can’t just wing it.
- It’s easy to get yourself twisted up in a big confusing mess of story when pantsing as you wander too far down the wrong tangent or waffle for too long on a subplot and lose track of your central plot.
- Pantsing breeds inconsistencies, plot holes, incohesive storylines, loose ends and undeveloped characterisation. These can all be fixed later, of course, but will involve some heavy editing and redrafting that could have been avoided with a bit more planning in the first place.
- Without a plan to hand, sometimes pantsers can get well and truly stuck, without a plot outline to help them move forward.
THE MIDDLE WAY
You can see where we’re going with this, can’t you? Too much planning can stymie your creative flow and feel too constrictive. Too much pantsing can leave your story looking more like an amorphous blob rather than something with a coherent plot. BOTH approaches, when taken to the extreme, can result in a sad, sorry, stuck writer.
So. We choose the middle way.
Structure exists for a reason. Every story has some sort of structure, whether it divides neatly into the classic three act format or breaks all the rules. BUT. When you’re planning out a story you still need to be flexible. Allow for unexpected pantsing gems. Allow for your outline to change. Allow for days when you’re in the mood for some analytical spreadsheet tinkering. Allow for days when you feel like throwing your plans out the window, switching character perspective and going off piste for a while. THIS IS WRITING. THIS IS WHAT WE DO. Incorporate both the practical, logistical side of writing AND the footloose and fancy-free side of writing into your work and you’ll begin to find the perfect balance for you.
This is pretty much why Plotstormers exists – a flexible approach to planning that still leaves you plenty of freedom to let your pantsing instincts thrive. Plotstorming (plotting + brainstorming) takes the best bits of both techniques and mashes them seamlessly together – a little bit of planning, a wee smidge of pantsing, and the wisdom to know which one is best suited to each stage of the writing process. Sarah discovered that her tendency to over-plan was actually stopping her from writing, and that a bit of freewriting can throw up fresh ideas along the way. Jo discovered that her pantsing ways were causing her more grief than freedom and meant that the editing stage became an utter hell, so gradually began to incorporate planning techniques into her writing approach.
See? Perfect harmony.
To those who self-identify as Planners, here’s what you need to do:
Accept that you’re not gonna be able to plot out everything before you start. Enjoy your outlining, but be prepared to revisit it, update it, and possibly even tear it up and start again as you make your way through your first draft. DO NOT FEAR CHANGE. Be flexible. Let yourself drift a little. Accept that there may be parts you don’t know. Look forward to them, and surprise yourself when you get there.
To those who self-identify as Pantsers, here’s what you need to do:
Find a method of planning that you really enjoy – index cards, spreadsheets, scribbles on a notebook, Scrivener, a massive white board, storyboarding, whatever – and do, at the very least, a bare outlining for your story. Beginning, midpoint, ending, a few spikes in between where all the conflict goes BOOM. Think about subplots and where they weave in and out. Consider structure and tone. Spend some time developing your characters and their emotional journey. Remember that you’re not tied to your plans. They can always be changed. But don’t go off half-cocked <snarf> and waste your energy on writing yourself into a corner.
I mean, seriously. Why constrain yourself to just one approach when you could have it ALL? So wherever you fall on the plot/pants spectrum, remember: it’s all a matter of balance. Find your own sweet spot between planning and free exploration and make that story work for you instead of fighting against it.