There seems to be no end to the debate, both online and in person at conferences or anywhere else that writers may gather, about whether it is better to be a plotter or a pantser. I see the merits of both approaches and, truth be told, combine them depending on the situation. While I’m certainly not expecting to go above and beyond what many other people have to say on the debate, I figured I would add my voice to the conversation.
I am a project manager by trade, so my natural inclination is to have a plan for just about anything. Even if it’s just the barest of bones, I need to know (or have a strong opinion about) at least three things before I begin a draft:
- Midpoint where main character is at their lowest moment
Those are the things I must know in order to get a start. Seems pretty basic, I know, but I like to keep things as simple as I can (at least at the beginning of the process). Just like when I manage a project – if I can get away with using Post-it® notes on a wall vs. drafting a list of tasks in Microsoft Project, I’m going to do it!
How deep I go on the outline depends upon how complex I think the story is or may become. Some theories say that a writer should start with the end in mind, then work backwards to the beginning of the story. I’ve tried this and it works just fine, but I prefer to start at the beginning. I tend to write the first line or paragraph as I am thinking of the other two must-haves. The ending is usually the next thing to come to mind, once I have a clear(er) picture of the beginning and have had a bit of time to think about the opening inciting incident and/or the arc on which I want my character to travel. I like to have an idea of what event/scene/image is going to mark the end of this particular story. Typical for any project manager, I need to know what “done” looks like. I need to at least have a general idea on what the end product is supposed to look like.
Once I know how I’m starting and where I’m going, I’m free to either outline the rest to an appropriate level of detail, or to just start writing and see where it goes. Even if I am just going with the flow and full-on pantsing it, I still need to have an idea of where I start and end, but beyond that, it’s up to whatever spills out of my hands. Just about any time I go down this path, though, I end up pausing and doing a little outlining to give myself more of a roadmap – I draw the cities on the map, but no direct path drawn in. I will try to give myself the freedom to go with whatever comes out because, in this situation, I’m not outlining every single beat.
I naturally lean towards having things planned out (but appreciate the freedom of being able to go with the flow), I end up frustrating people when they ask if I am a plotter or a pantser. My answer is, simply, “Yes.” I plan as much as I can, or few like at the moment, and then fill in gaps with whatever comes to mind once I’m into the work itself. I don’t want to limit myself to one method or the other and don’t believe that there’s any one correct approach to writing.
I’ve read a few really good books on the subject of outlining/plotting. As for pantsing, well, just take a look at the Nike slogan and you have everything you need to know right there.
The books I recommend for outlining* are (in no particular order):
- “Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story”, James Scott Bell
- “Write Your Novel From the Middle”, James Scott Bell
- “Take Off Your Pants”, Libbie Hawker
- “Outlining Your Novel – Map Your Way to Success”, K.M. Weiland
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend one over another, as they all have something good to offer, but I do recommend reading more than one book on the topic. It’s always good to have more than one methodology or framework in your toolkit. You may even decide to combine them in some way(s) that makes your writing life easier.
* I am not affiliated with any of these writers and do not benefit from mentioning them here or linking to them.