Jan 30, 2015

Plotting and Pantsing: What I've Learned From My Experiences

Today I am going to talk about plotting, pantsing, and my experience with both. I've learned a lot, even as I was writing this blog post, and I hope you can gain some insight from it. Stories are, after all, one of the most ancient and enduring ways of teaching.

First, let me define what we're talking about here. Plotting and Pantsing are the two methods of story-planning (or in the case of pantsing, the lack thereof).

Plotting is exactly what it sounds like: before you start to write your story, you make plans. You come up with a storyline; you make an outline; you do any worldbuilding that's necessary; you fill out character profiles; you  may even have a collection of notes on as-of-yet-unwritten scenes.

Pantsing is writing  "by the seat of your pants"; i.e., it involves virtually no planning at all. Usually pantsers have a burst of inspiration before they sit down to write. Maybe they think of a character, a setting, a scene, or an inciting incident. From there, they sit down and start writing down this vague idea and basing a story around it.

Of course, there are many different levels in between those two ends of the spectrum. Plotters have pantsing episodes when their characters take the wheel or when a particular plot twist ends up turning in an unforeseen direction. It's all part of the creative process. And plenty of pantsers do take prewriting notes. One example of an in-between breed of writer is a pantser who plots as they write. They'll write the first few chapters, then have to take a short breather to plan the next few chapters, and so on.

I am, at heart, a pantser, but I find that I can never finish anything if I don't plot, so I end up bouncing back and forth between the two. I've had some interesting experiences, to say the least, wrestling with my pantsing spirit and trying to establish some plotting government over it.

Last year, I discovered NaNoWriMo, and determined to sign up and do it. Since I didn't have a specific story in mind, I sat down and started filling out a bunch of character profiles and coming up with a cast. One of the questions on the profile I used was "What is your character's deepest secret?", which ended up leading to my plot.

Once I came up with a plot and outlined it (which was one of the hardest things I'd yet done in my entire life, being used to pantsing everything), I completed NaNoWriMo and finished the rough draft of my first novel. It was a proud time. Then I read my book and reworked the plot over the next few months, planning to write Draft 2 over Camp NaNo in April. I deleted, morphed, and re-invented most of my characters, and changed quite a bit of the plot. I wrote Draft 2 and then read it over, and while it was far better than Draft 1, my story still wasn't working. So I spent the remaining time until NaNoWriMo 2014 planning Draft 3 and taking breaks.I wrote the first half of Draft 3 for NaNo 2014, and then gave up on my novel. I don't know if it will ever be finished, for countless reasons, but it was an invaluable learning experience. My third draft is completely different from my first draft--in fact, the inciting incident that I got from the character's deepest secret had been left far behind.  To be honest, I don't even remember what the incident was.

So, my point in relating this somewhat long and roundabout tale (but you like stories if you're here, of course!) is to illustrate how pantsing and plotting sort of cancel each other out in my writing life. By plotting, I was able to get to the end of my story. But I can only plot to a certain degree, and in the empty spaces, my pantser self took over and the story swerved off track little by little. Also, by only being able to plot to a certain degree, I can't "see" the story until I finish writing it, and only then can I see it well enough to tell if it's good enough or not.

In the past few days, I have been writing a short story. I had it completely planned out; I had quite a few scene fragments and bursts of dialogue/inner monologue in my head; and I had the main character's motivations and character arc mapped out beautifully.

But then I wrote the story, and when I finished, I reread my notes and realized my story really, really failed to do what I had planned. It's character-driven, and I had several points that I wanted to bring across to the reader through my protagonist, but I don't think any of them showed up.

How in the world did this happen? I was scratching my head at first, but then I realized it's my natural pantsing. No matter how thoroughly I plot, when I write, I kind of lose control over a lot of the nuances. My art looks different in reality than it does in my mind.

And it's a real pain. What if all my precious plot bunnies that are constantly floating around in my head don't look how they do in my head, once I put them on paper? I mean, what if they're rabbits instead? Or hares? Or worse, something like coyotes or mules or kangaroos?

It's really disheartening to think about, my visions becoming reality but not being my visions at all once they're real.

But what if it's not a problem? What if, if I really put my soul into my writing, it's truer to me and more honest and real? Even if what I planned doesn't come out? Maybe the plans I make are just me trying to change something about myself. Maybe I'm trying to bind and redefine myself. Maybe, if I write straight from the heart, and not try to make a specific impression, I'll actually write the truth, and my art will be fundamentally sincere. That is what makes the greatest writing, after all.

I hope, by sharing some pieces of my Plotting/Pantsing journey, you've been able to glean some knowledge or wisdom for your own writing. What is your experience with plotting and pantsing? Which is your preferred method? Have you ever written a story that revealed an unplanned message or spun out of control?

--E.C. Jaeger


  1. Great post! I really like what you said about things not turning out the way you originally planned. It's a great way of looking at it that I hadn't thought of before. :)

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it! It was quite a breakthrough for me when I realized that, so I wanted to put it out there and encourage the many other people who must struggle with the same problem. :)