In the world of writers who compete against each other to see who is the best one-upping one another in pure pretentiousness, there is one constant debate that always rages on: Which is better, planning or pantsing?
To elaborate, planning and pantsing are typically seen as two different, informal techniques to novel writing. Plotting is the act of outlining the entirety of your novel, from characters to locations to plot-points, beginning to end, although this can often vary in detail between writers.
Pantsing, also known as ‘writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’, is the antithesis of plotting. You want to write a book, you have a vague idea of what it is you want to write about, maybe some characters or a specific event, but you don’t have a structure in your head, so you just go for it. This allows you to create character personalities on the fly, and you essentially become an observer to your own story, because even you aren’t sure where it’s going to go.
Just to clarify, this post is not about the debate as a whole, I won’t be going into what I think is the ultimate choice, although if you speak to someone who claims to be a writer and they taken a stance on either side, if you don’t agree with them, then you’re dead wrong. This article will be about the merits of both, and how you can utilise different techniques to your advantage.
Plotting a story is pure organisation. It can vary from person to person of course, some people have a rough skeleton of an idea-an beginning to the end-that they can work on, others simply have to work out every little detail, fill out books and spreadsheets with chapter guides and characters.
The advantages here are obvious; once you have the idea formatted and either written down of in your head, you can focus on the fun of the story. If you already know how certain events play-out, then its easier to link them all together before you start writing. A common tactic is to write down the story, chapter by chapter, with a brief synopsis for each. This gives you an advantage as you’re able to see the story in it’s entirety. Sometimes when we write, we get so stuck within a microcosm of a few pages or chapters, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. Having everything laid out and organised can erase that tunnel-vision and help us keep focus on the true intent of what we write.
If we know what the beginning and end is, and the events in between, then our intention can go solely into great writing. We no longer have to worry about to link A-Z, we can just focus on beautiful descriptions and engaging dialogue.
Lastly, another great advantage is that it helps tremendously with foreshadowing and setting-up future events that can take place at the end of the book, or even in later instalments. A great twist can benefit from having its seeds planted early on. Often a twist without this kind of pre-planning, a twist that exists solely to be a twist, will appear as tacked-on and lazy by your audience. Knowing what happens in the future also greatly affects how you write your characters. Characters you know have a shock-death or twist can be built up for a further engagement with your readers, or you can have them fall tot he side and focus on characters you know are going to survive.
The main problem with plotting out your story is that it is incredibly rigid. If, as you are writing, you find you connect with a character or just think of something cool along the way, you might find that you will now have to re-structure your entire plan, depending on how detailed the structure is.
Another problem many people have is that it takes away the essence of what writing is for them. Many people believe it should be free-flowing, a form of pure expression. Locking it in place with a guide and structure can make it feel more like work than it should. Writing is an art and a craft, and everyone can, and should, experience in their own way, and occasionally that can be just letting your words flow and see what is coming out. Some people have minds which just don’t suit this method and need to let themselves loose.
Characters also have a tendency to suffer through plotting. When writing a story where certain events are supposed to happen, the plot can take precedence, including the conclusions and how we get there. This division of focus can leave the characters feeling dry and one-dimensional, suddenly plot-conduits or exposition machines. A story needs engaging stories and relationships to mean a damn to your audience. Making a story entirely plot focused can be dull or exhausting, but its a habit that is easy to fall in when you have a specific ending in sight.
Pantsing is writing in its purest form. You start with the semblance of an idea, perhaps even a beginning and ending. Many stories begin as well plotted and structured, but simply take a mind of their own when the writer begins. A famous example (of many) would be George R R Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire series was initially only planned to be a certain amount of volumes long, but suddenly spiral into one massive epic (with no ending in sight, I might add). This lead to a direct contrast against the TV series, which, by it’s own nature, has to be planned out in a certain way. However, by doing this, characters like Bronn who were only meant to serve a purpose and vanish afterwards ended up having a unique and engaging personality, and became one of the best parts of Tyrions chapters. Pantsing your story allows the story to change and move in ways you never would have expected. The characters, the worlds, something can begin life in your stories with a single purpose, and that purpose can change wildly by the time we reach the finishing line.
Also, pantsing is just fun. It’s anarchic, free-flowing and exciting. By throwing all of your focus into momentary sequences, taking the pages and paragraphs as they come, exciting and unique stories unfold. It’s almost like you’re a spectator to your own writing. If you have ever heard of someone going into “The Zone” while writing, and forgetting about the real world for a few hours and waking up in front of their monitor with a full chapter written, chances are it wasn’t a planned occurrence, and they just got swept up in the motion.
This can all be chalked up to speculation, but what part of art isn’t? Some people just need structure.
Starting a story without a structure can be over-whelming. You have a vague idea of what needs to happen, but how the hell do we get there? Point A is a happy villager living a sweet life, in point Z we just averted Armageddon, oh but also I want all of these characters and an animal sidekick, and a massive battle! The problem with trying to link all of these events up can result in what feels like an overly-long, meandering and bloated story full of information. It can be difficult to keep a concise and tight story while pantsing. If you fill a story with too many ideas, set-pieces, events, characters and locations, it’s going to be a mess for the reader, who often won’t be too interested in how great a single element of your story is, most audiences only react to something positively if it’s entirety can be considered great.
Endings are what a reader is going to remember the most. It’s a send off to the journey they have just gone through, and how they remember your writing will be based on the feeling they are left with after they have finished reading or watching your creation. Sometimes though, when pantsing, an ending can be tacked on. Even if you had a great initial idea, that can change. Suddenly the plot is where you thought it would be, and your characters ideals and how they are perceived by your audience has changed dramatically. This means you stop, panic, then desperately try to think of an ending in the shower before your deadline. Finding an ending that can satisfy the audience and give your characters the conclusion they deserve is suddenly that harder, especially if you begin to pressure yourself, and that can lead some writers to just settle on anything if it just barely works.
If you also plan on having mysteries, plot-twists or big-reveals, but you don’t have a clear idea of where it is going to go but you’ll just see what happens when you get there, it can come across as either out-of-left-field or lazy to your audience. Planting the seed of a big twist that will surprise you as much as your reader is exciting and interesting, but it’s easy to trap yourself. Suddenly you have a chose a character to be the secret murderer out of your roster in your previous 80,000 words can be a fatal choice if you haven’t prepared yourself, which can be jarring, confusing or, dare I say it, predictable.
Utilising the strengths of both
There is absolutely nothing wrong with letting yourself full onto a side of planning vs pantsing. Some people just work differently to others, and that’s something to celebrate. That means the world of stories we do have is always incredibly diverse and exciting. However, I think that finding a way to combine them both can be the way to improving your own writing.
First, try both of them consciously. More than once each, because hey, it’s free practice, and you might learn something from the repetition. If you fall into one camp, it’s important to find a way to see where they are coming from. You don’t need to disagree with anyone who writes differently to you, that can be regressive, but find out where they get their strengths from, and how your strengths differ.
It’s commonly known that a great way to combine them both is to plot out the general outline of the story, a beginning, end, everything in between and most of the characters, but pants your story in between. Use the outline as a skeleton and use the improvisational aspects of pantsing to fill that skeleton with muscles and a heart to make it move. As long as you leave yourself a little bit of wiggle-room in case things change and alter as you create, this is a fantastic way to write. Your choices seem well thought-out and interesting, and it’s exciting to watch as your story unfolds under your very own eyes.
Combing the organisation of plotting vs the improvisational elements of pantsing is not an easy process, but one that will result in interesting plots and interesting characters (In theory, anyway), but most of all, it will remind why you love to write and create.
Planning vs Pantsing is an eternal debate, so where do you stand on it? Do you have any personal advice for combing the two methods? Let’s talk about it!