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?