A (Mostly) Pantser Tries Plotting

Sometimes, it feels like a scene from West Side Story where two rival gangs meet in the dark alley and – after dancing around for a little while – square off for the fight. Who is the better gang? The bigger gang? The victorious gang?

Jets vs. Sharks, West Side Story

Instead of Sharks vs. Jets, however, I’m talking Plotters vs. Pantsers. Plotters consider themselves superior with their colored post-it notes on the wall or their beat sheets filled out to perfection before a word of the novel reaches the page. Whereas Pantsers believe themselves to be better because they follow their muse wherever it guides as words glide freely across the page.

Which gang do I belong to?

Well, once I learned these terms, I decided I was more of a pantser (writing by the seat-of-my-pants) than a plotter. Something like this:

Plotter <——————————————-X———> Pantser

I definitely had an overview of my mystery novel and a basic plot, but it was maybe a page long. Moreover, as I wrote, plans changed. The whodunnit had no longer done it, and the main protagonist had a different romantic ending than originally intended. Then I wrote a second manuscript (a middle grade novel) and pantsed my way through that one with a general theme and plot in my head.

After my total pantsing experience made me want to slam my head repeatedly against the tile floor, I decided I’d better learn more about this elusive concept of plotting. I read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. These authors outlined logline, category, characterization, beat sheet, and much more. Now I had a better sense of the underlying structure of a storyline.

Yet I was having a hard time translating Brooks’s story structure to my novel, so I put together a flow chart for myself. In case it helps anyone else, here’s what I drafted:

Of course, this doesn’t make sense unless you read the book! You can also find more information from these writing gurus at their blogs: Blake Snyder and Larry Brooks.

Getting closer now . . . but I didn’t have tools to apply what I had learned and found my word processing software lacking and the idea of writing stuff down on note cards brain-numbing. Then I downloaded Scrivener for Windows. I started plugging my middle grade manuscript into the software, scene by scene. I wrote synopses for those scenes. A virtual cork board helped me to see how I had laid everything out and where plot gaps occur.

Tony & Maria

With my new found perspective and better tools at hand, I am shifting on that Plotter vs. Pantser continuum. I likely won’t end up on the extreme side of plotting, but I might be in the middle somewhere. In fact, I feel an affinity for both gangs – pantsers and plotters. Why not? If Maria and Tony can find love, why can’t the disparate sides of our own writing selves get along?

Not a happy ending for West Side Story, but a happy ending for this writer!

Writers: Where are you on the plotting/pantsing continuum? Have you shifted? Which tool has been the most helpful to your writing?

All: Are you a planner or an ad-libber? Do you like the Jets or the Sharks? What’s your favorite West Side Story song?

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13 thoughts on “A (Mostly) Pantser Tries Plotting

  1. Nice blog, Julie! I always like to read about a writer's journey and whether they're a plotter or a pantser. I'm definitely a pantser although it's not like I don't have some sort of outline in mind about how the book will start and end and who's involved. I've read some posts by the people you mention and I walk away from that with no idea what they're talking about. It simply doesn't resonate with me and I don't "feel it" at all. I take away from it what I feel might help me in my writing but so far my "pantsing" has worked well for me.

  2. I use Scrivener, but probably not the right way. I like the way your whole document is open. If you want to check something from Chapter 2, you don't have wait for it open. Like you, I write mysteries. The way I was taught is to plan my murder in excruciating detail. I have each suspect and their story sketched out. I have the murderer, along his his or her backstory ready to go. Then, I get together some turning points. I use Jennifer Cruisie's plan for this. It is similar to Michael Hague's plan. It's sort of liking driving in the dark. You can only see as far as your headlights will let you.

  3. Your graphs leave me with a mean case of envy. I love all of it, all of the structure, but I always just write until it's done, then go back and yank out and cram back in until it's right. Terrible! Messy!Oooh, and who doesn't love EVERY song in West Side Story?! Immigrant goes to America, Many hellos in America; Nobody knows in America Puerto Rico's in America! Sorry for bursting into song right in your comment section, but you totally asked for it!

  4. Doesn't Scrivener convince many pantsers to try some plotting techniques? I'm an avid Scrivener user myself.I confess to being a full-fledged plotter. I like to post-it plot, character sketch, research excessively, and outline, then revise an outline several times before writing that first official page. Save the Cat is a favorite of mine. I've yet to read beyond the sample of Larry Brooks' book. I'll get there.

  5. I'm still trying to figure out which I am. I love the idea of plotting, but most of the time I find myself pantsing. Surely there is a haapy balance.Wonderful post. 🙂

  6. Plotter here, and not ashamed to admit it. I could never sit down and write without knowing where I am going.Harlan Coben once quoted someone (and he didn't remember who) who likens writing to a journey from Chicago to New York, driving in the dark. While you can only see the few feet in front of you that the headlights illuminate as you drive along, you can get to your ultimate destination that way.I like that visual!

  7. That X is very close to "Plotter" on my chart – I tried not plotting, and learned that for me, it's asking for writers' block. So I plot. I totally respect those who can write without planning everything out, because I can't imagine how the heck they do it!

  8. I love to hear about writers' processes! I am more of a plotter than a pantser. I write (too) long, so I figured I'd plot more and avoid the twenty thousands words I usually overwrite. Jury's still out on that one! But I do feel more focused, so that has to count for something!

  9. Scrivener is a wonderful program. Like Catie, I really like being able to jump back and forth between files. I'm a pantser that forces myself to plot – to an extent. I know the end game and the suspects, and I'm going to take a page from Catie's book and plot my murders in detail. But I can't plan everything out ahead of time. I need to write to figure out some elements of the story. I think every writer is different, and while the craft books are great, the key is figuring out what works for you.Great post, Julie!

  10. GREAT post. I'm a plotter. A crazy outliner. A planner. Monk. See, I think it's all related. Don't get me wrong, I will definitely swing to a pantser once the actual writing begins, but that can also be described as the characters taking on a life of their own. I still can't help but going back to my story arc when this happens and making changes. 🙂

  11. Hi Julie,Thanks for the post. You have perfect timing, as I'm in the plotting stages of my second book. For my first book, I was a complete pantser. I believe that's why I had to revise so many times! I was pleased with the end-result but I vowed never to struggle through writing a synopsis post-story again–if I can help it. At RWA11, I attended Christie Ridgeway's one-page plotting workshop and that's what I'm using to organize this next book. I still think many details will unfold as I write, and I may change the plot as I go, but at least I have a game plan this time.In answer to your question, I'd consider myself leaning toward the plotter side of the continuum now. Thanks for the book recs. I've been meaning to read Saved By the Cat. I think I'll go order it!

  12. I have loved reading your processes as well. There's a lot to learn from how others succeed in writing their novels. I would like to attend a plotting class at my next writers' conference to hear what someone else has to say. Thanks for your two-cents, which in my book is worth at least $10!

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