Apr 1, 2013 Posted by: Daniel

Do you fly by the seat of your pants when you write, or do you map out your journey in intricate detail before you've even written a word? This post discusses my take on this old question.

First let us look at what I am talking about when I say “Plotter” and “Pantser”. The terms come from NaNoWriMo which is an annual contest to write 50 000 words in a mere 30 days.

A plotter is a person who will sit down and map out every aspect of their story before they write. There are people known to create whole languages and draw detailed maps of their fantasy worlds before writing a single word.

At the other end of the spectrum sits the pantser. A pantser will have only the vaguest of ideas before they start to write. A pantser fully trust that the story will take them to where it needs to go. They fly by the seat of their pants, thus 'pantser'.

I don't think it is quite that simple. In the binary split above I am a pantser. Yet it does not fit quite with what I do when I sit down and write. To remedy this people propose it is a sliding scale suggesting you sit somewhere between the extremes.

I indicated my position in the above graph, but still it is not quite right is it? It is not that simple, and really we are all very different. Perhaps it is a two dimensional scale?

Hmm, no that does not quite work? Can you be a plotter AND a pantser at the same time. What does the top right corner then represent? No that does not work. Let me introduce my idea.

As you can see it is a sliding scale on three axis. I am a total pantser when it comes to landscape, and less of a pantser, but still quite the pantser on character and less pantser still on the plot side.

But really the important thing when writing is that the story comes alive. If you need a strong plan to make the story come alive then plot! If you are like me and let the story take you new and interesting places then do that!

A friend of mine recently told a story which I found amusing and also highlighting what I talk about here. He is a plotter, he plots every detail of a story before actually sitting down and writing. On this particular instance he had a plan to make his character get in debt, and in order to do so his character, lets call him Steve, was going to attend a dating course.

As my friend wrote, Steve started to think that this dating course was a bit fishy and did not want to attend it! So the story had come alive and Steve was now deviating from the previously plotted path. As a pantser I find this really interesting and encouraging. I don't know how it is for a plotter.

So how do I do my story planning then?

I often have a rudimentary idea of my story goal. I never start when I just have the seed of a story, or an idea. I always let those ideas grow at the back of my mind until ready to be taken out, ever so carefully, and examined.

I know of a number of story structures, there is Dramatica that a friend of mine swears by. I have not yet taken a liking to Dramatica as it require me to plan more, or really go through my story afterwards and map things out. It does not fit with my pantser writing style. Rather I go with the more classical Aristotle technique and start with a beginning, what is happening and why? I then think about a mid point to drive the first half or so story towards. Perhaps my protagonist needs a certain skill or a weapon or some such. I then think of the end. Where does the plot end?

Note that neither of these points are exact. After the plot ends there is always some clearing up that is needed.

After I have my three points I feel how much I want to plan, and how much I need to plan to carry the story. Some stories are larger than others. I wrote a short story Tomahawk in which I just had the end ready. Other stories grow beyond your initial goal and idea. Like  Battle of light I thought I could tell that story in about 50 000 words. That story grew, and came in around a healthy 210 000 words. It all depends on the size of the idea, the requirements the plot put around movement (plot, or geographical, I may write a post on this subject later).  Battle of light was simply to large a story to tell in my initial goal.

So if I have an idea that has the three parts, the beginning, the middle and the end and require me to plan more how do I do it? I have one method and two ways of working with it. I will outline the old way I used to do it, and then I will outline my new way of doing it.

I start with my notebook and sit down with a blank page. I always date the page and write the working title of the story there. I find it amusing to view these notes when the story is done and I can compare how things went and how well I followed the plan. Plus I figure it is also good if you ever end up in some sort of dispute over a plot element or idea to be able to say “look I did this on the ..”. Anyway I digress.

I start by drawing the inciting event. This may be the confused noble arriving at the gates of a castle. Note it is not necessarily the first paragraph of your story, it is rather the event which you will later flesh out and make interesting.

From there I draw little boxes for every significant event that needs to happen to make me get to the middle. Perhaps our confused noble must attempt to murder the queen, and then get arrested and end up in the dungeon where he meets the magician.

I put the middle event in as an event like any other and then progress until I reach the end.

Now, notebooks are nice, they give you a freedom very few digital tools give. On the other hand, if you are like me and always writing on the move, or indeed only writing on the move it is annoying because the notebook is bound to be where you are not. To this extent I've found a program by way of a friend of mine. It is called Visual Understanding Environment or VUE for short. It allows me to draw the graphs I used to draw by hand. It also brings the ease of editing with it. I will not cover how to use VUE in this post, as this post is long enough as it is. Instead I just show one story plan. I have blurred the details as   this story is still in progress and I'm not ready to share the details of it just yet.

There you have it. That is how I do it, and I am a plotter and a pantser, all at the same time. If you want to share your way of writing and planning do let me know, via any of the usual means.

Category: Writing | Inspiration


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