Friday, April 6, 2012

Common Myths about Plots and Pants: Plotting Talk for Writers, Pt 2

Last week, I gave you a little window into the madness of the Chipper Muse's mind when it comes to planning a writing project. As discussed, I am more disorganized than I care to admit, but I'm growing to appreciate plotting more than I used to. I suspect all writers wrestle with this issue at some point in their career.
Image from the blog of Rob, a writer. 

Today, let's look at some common myths about plotting versus pantsing, and why we should jettison them.

Myth #1: Plotting is hard. Pantsing is easy.

Some people have the idea that writing by the seat of your pants is far easier than taking the time to craft an outline. I don't know why they think this. Perhaps it comes from too many painful outline assignments in high school history class, but the thought of organizing before writing scares the hell out of many writers.

Now, I agree that outlining can be tedious. And it certainly is hard work. But pantsing is not any easier. You're still putting forth the effort to get words on paper, in the right order, revealing the right thing, and leading inexorably to the climax of your story. The difference between plotting or pantsing comes not from how hard you work, but where and when the hard work happens. For the plotter, a lot of effort gets expended before they write, as they figure out how details and logic lead from scene to scene. For the pantser, much of the effort is expended during and after they write, when they have a draft to shape.

It's like the difference between being the architect of a building, who draws his plans in detail before laying brick upon brick, verses the pottery artist, who throws the clay on the potter's wheel and makes corrections to what he's throwing as he works. Both methods produce something beautiful in the end, when done well. And both take hard work and thought before the product is finished.

Myth #2: You're either a plotter or a pantser. Can't be both.

As I said last week, I don't believe this is true, because I am a hybrid writer, both plotter and pantser. I do some plotting before I begin writing. The outline is never fully fleshed out, but it's not totally absent either. It's simply incomplete. I fill in plot notes as I write, because that's often when ideas come to me. (They also arrive when I'm driving or when I'm ready to fall asleep at night. Oh, those sneaky ideas...)

And I'm not the only one. Many writers talk about how they have morphed from pantser into plotter. Or even plotter into pantser, though that's a bit rarer. Many writers describe doing both. They outline and then are willing to go off the outline if the rabbit trail looks good enough. Or they start out as a pantser only to get lost and have to outline to map their way ahead.

This is why it's so important to write and write until you know what works best for you. There are no hard and fast rules to art. Find what works for you. Don't be afraid to mix both plotting and pantsing as needed.

Myth #3: Plotting sucks all the life out of your creativity.

Yeah, I've heard people express this idea. And it's ridiculous. The creativity comes from making that outline, which is dry and factual, come to life through how you write your story, which is art. Plenty of well-known, successful, powerful writers plot the crap out of their stuff before they actually start writing. So this myth can't be true.

However, if you overplot, or worry the details too much ahead of time, you may start to feel frustrated and bored, and thus end up lacking enthusiasm. A lack of passion definitely saps our creativity. So, maybe this myth has a tiny root in truth, which is that at some point, you have to move from thinking to doing. Plot just enough to protect your passion for your idea, and then start writing it while the passion is still hot and while there's still some exploring to do.

In fact, a decent plan can help you stay on track and avoid writer's block, which can happen when you've pantsed yourself right into a corner with no way out. Plotting's not the work of the devil; it's useful. Don't give it a bad rap.

(By the way, I think this relates to another myth, raised by my friend Lissa Clousser on Facebook, that if you plot, you lose the element of surprise as you write. That may be true if you plot to death, cataloguing every tiny detail to every scene. It certainly kills my enthusiasm when I overplot. But if you create a general plot outline that lists the most important scenes in big picture view and then start writing, I think you end up with plenty of surprises as you write.)

Myth #4: Pantsing is a total sign of chaos in your mind. If you pants, you're just a mess.

No, you're not a mess. Lots of people start off writing without a clear, narrow goal in mind. It's called freewriting, and the students of my college writing classes often find it a helpful technique to get them moving. In fact, I have had students say to me that they never have good ideas and can't write more than one or two pages, only to become prolific after I teach them to use freewriting as a technique.

Look, the reality is that sometimes, you don't know exactly what you think before you start writing. This is one reason why we write in the first place: to discover. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as you recognize that if you pants, or freewrite, you're going to have to do some heavy revising, because you will end up with some rabbit trails that sound great but that don't add to your overall point.

(Remember, by the way, that you may not know what that overall point is until you start writing. Maybe it's only after you get 30-50 pages written that you realize the story isn't about Esmerelda the fairy godmother but about this Cinderella chick whose life is a wreck. Now that you know what your story is, you can shape it like that potter shapes clay on the wheel. You have to cut out all the stuff that has nothing to do with what you want to say and flesh out the stuff that's good. You cut out the three pigs, but you add in the prince. That's all revision is: adding what is missing, and cutting out what is not needed.)

The point I'm making (and yes, I planned to make it ahead of time in this case) is that pantsing has a genuine correlation in the world of composition educational theory, and that it can be a useful tool to helping a person communicate. So if pantsing is what gets words onto the paper for you, go for it. Just know what you'll have to edit later. And so do the plotters.

For next week, I have asked a Twitter buddy, @renesears, to share her journey from pantsing to plotting. And the week after that, some resources to help you with planning your stories. And who knows what else? As I said, I plot and pants. Which means this blog series is sort of planned, but open to the unexpected at any moment.

If you have questions you'd like me to address, or thoughts on writing myths, or anything else, share your thoughts below. And by the way, the Chipper Muse is on Facebook. Finally. If you get a chance, like me there. Really, really like me. (Sally Fields, eat your heart out.)

See you next week!

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


  1. "Perhaps it comes from too many painful outline assignments in high school history class"

    Yeah... I think I still haven't fully gotten over this...

    1. I think a lot of people haven't gotten over it. :) Thanks for stopping by!

  2. This is a fantastic series you're working on. Thank you for posting about it! I'm glad to some objective discussion instead of the one vs. the other like you mention. =)

  3. Thanks, Lissa! I'm glad you're enjoying this series. I had your suggestion in mind as I wrote this... Sometimes it seems like plotting gets a bad rap, and it shouldn't. I admire people who are more skilled at outlining than I am!

  4. I don't agree with #4. Every time I hear someone say this, my first thought is that they've never had this happen. I'm a pantser, but I did try an outline for a new project because I was really frustrated with all the problems I kept having. I thought it would fix them. Instead, it sucked the life out of the project and made it a fingernails on chalkboard experience -- probably because it went the opposite against how I write.


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