Authors sometimes bandy about buzzwords that may make no sense to novices but are useful shorthand for certain aspects of writing. Only when they are explained does it become apparent what a handy shorthand they are.
Perhaps the most perplexing of these buzzwords comes in the question “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” Pantsing doesn’t mean you write wearing pants (though surely plenty of authors do that too) – it refers to write as if flying by the seat of your pants, i.e. making it up as you go along.
Pantsing is the antonym of plotting i.e. planning in advance the shape of your story so that you know before you start writing the beginning, the middle and the end, and in varying degrees of detail what happens a long way.
Fifty Shades of Plotting
Some authors find plotting in detail an essential part of the process. The security of a complete roadmap provides them with a skeleton on which to place the detail of the story. This structure allows them then to focus on the development of character, place, and theme, etc, without worrying about the direction.
Perhaps the most extreme approach is to use Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method, as described in ALLi author Richard Denning’s guest post, to which you’ll find a link at the end of this article.
Not everyone goes into such detail, and some ignore the prospect of plotting altogether.
Pantsing, Lee Child Style
Lee Child, for example, makes no secret of starting some books with a single sentence, having no clue as to where it might lead until he starts writing. Writers like him enjoy the journey of discovering the story as it unravels along the way.
Some authors favour a mix of the two methods, plotting not to the end, but to the halfway point or two thirds, allowing the story to “tell itself” on the home strait. That way the denouement of the story evolves naturally and organically from what has gone before.
Plotting v Pantsing – Which is Best?
If you tend to get stuck part way through writing a story, the detailed plotting method can help you move forward, either because you already have a signpost as to where to go next, or because it allows you to jump a few chapters along, write the parts you more comfortable and confident with, before returning to fill in the gaps when you are ready. You can thus write more quickly and are likely to need fewer revisions and edits. On the other hand, such a rigid structure may become too much of a constraint, especially if you realise part way through that the story needs to go in a different direction from what you originally planned.
To the hardened plotter, pantsing may seem like self-imposing writer’s block, forcing yourself to face a blank page before you know where to go. But pantsers enjoy the lack of constraint. While wandering without a compass can result in becoming hopelessly lost, story development is more likely to feel smoother than something that has been forced to fit the pre-defined skeleton of a detailed plan.
But there are no rights and wrongs. It’s down to the individual author to decide which suits them best. The many authors, there’s a comfort zone halfway between the two methods, though there are pros and cons to both.
If you’d like to hear more on this topic from authors who are working both systems, tune in to the discussion held at the London IAF by ALLu authors Keith Dixon, Rosalind Mine David Penny and me, Debbie Young, still available via this link:
OVER TO YOU We can continue the conversation via the comments, and I look forward to hearing your views and experiences of the great plotter v pantser debate.
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