Friday, March 30, 2012

To Pants or Not to Pants: Plotting Talk for Writers, Pt 1

Courtesy Google Images/
You've been asked the question a million times: Are you a plotter or a pantser? It sounds ominous, doesn't it? As though you might be plotting a revolution, or you might be planning to pants the unpopular kid in your class. But no, it's actually an important question about how you craft the plot and action of a story. And it's something we all have to understand about ourselves and our craft if we want to be better writers.

Before I get too deep into this blog series, let me give you some background that informs my approach to this question. I'm a fiction writer, working on my first official novel for the market. As a teen I wrote a novel too derivative to sell, though I did write it from start to finish. (This is big. You have to finish your stuff, to paraphrase Chuck Wendig.) I've worked for the past 8 years as a full-time copywriter and editor for nonprofit organizations, doing all kinds of magazine articles, fundraising letters, and PR. I've taught college writing courses since 1997, and tutored writing students one-on-one for even longer than that.

I say all this to set this series into context, because I come at plotting (and pantsing) from the viewpoint of someone who has not only spent years figuring out her own method to writing, but who has also worked hard with a lot of people to help them figure out the method that works for them. And that's the first thing I want to emphasize: We need to figure out what works for us as individual writers, because we each have a unique way of approaching our writing that is going to work for us. Our part is to find it.

It's important to remember that you—yes, you—have a unique way of planning your novel from start to finish that is going to work for you. Why? Because let's face it... The question of plotting vs. pantsing often comes across as an all-or-none proposition; one side is right, the other wrong. On the other hand, it's not impossible to find people who talk as though the issue is completely irrelevant, and it doesn't matter what you do

The truth, however, is that the issue does matter. We shouldn't blow it off. But it's not an all-or-nothing, right-wrong issue either. Both approaches can be effective, and you can use them both as it suits you, on the same project even.

That's right, I'm saying it right here in living color. You can plot and pants. And if you can learn to be flexible enough to do both, as needed, it may help your writing exponentially.

Proof that I don't pants:
Notes for my current novel
I plot and pants all the time, and I have for years. It's an approach that has worked for me since I was a teen in high school, just wetting my feet in research projects (non-fiction) and story-telling (fiction). In true confessional style, I'll tell you that I never have and probably never will outline anything in great details. Once I have to use Roman numerals, I'm out. I will never be a pure, 100% plotter. I'll always be a hybrid.

 But I don't completely pants to the point of having no direction or sense at all of where I want to go. Instead, I write things down as they occur to me. As you can see, I like to use 3 x 5 cards because I can physically hold them. As new ideas come, I add them to my file.

For me, new ideas often come as I'm writing a scene or thinking about a scene I'm going to write. That's why I say I'm a hybrid. Those ideas float up from my subconscious so often during the act of writing that I've learned it's a part of my process. So, I include it. It would be foolish not to. I'm finding what works for me. And I think all writers should do that for themselves. Try different things, and find what works for you. It will help you grow as a writer, and isn't that the goal?
More of my personal notes for
my urban fantasy WIP

Next week, I'll talk a little more about why you can't totally throw plotting out the window, as well as why pantsing on a good day is a lot like freewriting. In the meantime, tell me about how you plot or pants, as well as the plotting/pantsing questions you've faced. I'd like to address them in this series, if I can. And share this post with friends who might be interested, because I'd love to hear from a wide spectrum of writers on this topic. I think it'll provide interesting insights and tips for all of us.

See you next week!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. I don't write much in the way of novels. I mostly write novelettes and novellas. I have to say that any planning I try to do gets thrown out the window and I usually end up pantsing most of my work. I start with a basic idea but by the time I finish then go back a couple of times and rework, I normally end up with something only slightly akin to my original idea. I generally take a seed of an idea, let it grow while keeping structure and plot rules in mind as guidelines then end up with something either good or bad. If I try to abide by a strict outline I usually get bored before I finish. That's how my mind works best so I guess I could be called a pantser.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, J! I know how you feel about being bored. I think there may be a middle ground between overplanning and no planning at all. which is what I'm trying to find. It's probably easier to plot less when the piece is short, but for a trilogy or series of novels like I'm writing, I think more planning is needed. Not easy!

  3. Hello! I'm a new writer, working on my first book. I am so glad to see the actual definition for my style: HYBRID! In the beginning I planned (ironic, I know) to never plot or outline, then I read a fabulous book about the writing process and it was very outline heavy but gave several ways to do it. I see the wisdom in it, and I adopted some of the suggestions but I still find most of my ideas come to me the just as you said, and I just go with it.

    Thanks for the blog!

  4. I love meeting new writers! Glad you stopped by and found this post useful. I can't say hybrid is a technical definition... I made it up. But there are so many writers that do a mixture of planning and winging it that it seems a hybrid style has to be part of any discussion of plotting.


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