Plotting v Pantsing.... by Debbie Bennett

So many blogs and facebook threads talk about plotting and planning – who does it and who doesn’t, and why….

So here’s my confession: I don’t plot. Ever.

Now you’ve recovered yourselves, I can hear you all shouting: What do you mean you don’t plot? All ‘proper’ writers plot. How do you know where you’re going?

Erm. I don’t. I have no idea where I am going. Maybe I’m not a proper writer then? Do I look like I care?

Look, I know a lot of people who plot their novels – hell, even short stories, I expect – to the nth degree. They outline each chapter, mark the high and low points, describe the story arc and the theme and the characters. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to these writers – I’m pleased they can work that way and I wish them every success. Sometimes I long for the comfort of a story-plan, of knowing where I am going with a plot-strand and how far this particular tale has to run.

But I just can’t work like that. For me, it’s all about the journey, the discovery of the story, the characters revealing themselves to me piece by piece. If I know what’s going to happen next, then what’s the point in writing it? I lose interest and momentum and simply get bored. I like to find out what’s happening as it happens, occasionally almost in real-time.

And sometimes it pays off in that my subconscious kicks in and does the work for me. It makes me plant seeds for no reason and then delivers me the pay-off much later on. I’ve learned to trust it over the years, trust that all will become clear in time. My best lightbulb moment was a throwaway comment and a look that passed between two people, and suddenly I knew this guy’s backstory and his entire character made sense. It’s awesome.

I’ve just finished a novella - Rat's Tale - that I hope to have out in the next month or so, when I’ve finished editing and sorted a cover. But I wasn’t done with my anti-hero. Where’s he going to be now? So – and no spoilers here – I simply wrote an opening scene yesterday. A conversation between two people and within a few hundred words, I had an inkling of what was going to trigger this next story. I don’t know where it’s going to take me; I don’t know where it’s going to end or how I’m going to get there. But I know I’m going to have fun finding out.

I’m a pantser. And proud of it!

Anybody who fancies trying one of my dark and gritty thrillers can get the first one Hamelin's Child for *FREE* as part of a smashwords promotion, running March 2nd - 8th. There are more reviews on amazon if you want to see what others have said - but it's not for the faint-hearted!


madwippitt said…
Goodness. I may not know how the plot is going to get there, and the beginning is always subject to change, but I always have to know the destination! I guess that makes me a control freak ... !
I suspect that pantsing is more successful for some than others though: GRR Martin would appear to be a case in point ..
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm definitely a pantster. I usually start with a dramatic scene and a character, or two or three. Then I play the 'what if' game until my characters take over and tell me what they are doing. That's why Bill Murphy is the lead detective in the Dundee Crime Series and not Sue Rogers as I initially intended. He muscled in and pushed her out of the way! Besides, how can I surprise the reader if I don't surprise myself!
Susan Price said…
I think I'm something of an in-betweener. I do leave a lot to the pants - I agree with Chris that I have to surprise myself if I'm to have a hope of surprising a reader! And Debbie's right about it all just being too boring if you know what's going to happen!
Sometimes, when I've written several scenes, I think: No, that's too obvious - or too neat - and I call on the great God Pantser for something a bit more out there...
But there's always a point, about half-way to three-parts through, when I'm in such a fog that I start making a plot-map... I sometimes wish I could get everything planned out. It would be a lot quicker and less exhausting.
Lydia Bennet said…
Fighting words, Debbie! we all have our methods. I'm a bit of a mix up like Sue, I know the sort of theme or situation, a one-line thing in my head, but as I write it it does take over and boss me about. My character Stacey Reed, a mouthy charva, was meant to be murdered early in The Rotting Spot, but she was having none of it, and she's barged into The Operator as well. Ann Cleeves too is a pantster, she starts with a scene and then finds out from there what happens. So you are not alone,and it's another good thing about small pub/self pub, as big publishers often insist on a detailed synopsis before an author writes the book - some of us find it hard enough to write synopses afterwards!
Dan Holloway said…
Wonderful to hear! I tend to sketch 5 chapters ahead so I can always get down and write without thinking, but rarely more than that.
The most famous pantser of all, Cesar Aira, never knew where anything was going and refused to let it worry him - he would always simply "write forward" from wherever he'd got to. I think sometimes if we know where we're going we can get there rather mechanically, even lumpenly. Not having a clue requires every paragraph to be fresh and original
JO said…
When will we grow out of this dichotomy and realise that there is no one 'right' way to write a book, but we all take advice where we can and then make it our own.
Dennis Hamley said…
I'm a pantster too. 'How do I know what I think till I see what I say' is my watchword. Though I do see a general shape I don't know my characters until I've lived their lives with them. 'character issues in action' said Aristotle and, as usual, he was right.
Nick Green said…
You sound almost defensive there - but by my reckoning, pantsters actually outnumber us plotters. Most writers I know don't plan - I feel like I'm the unusual one.

I think a lot of it is down to your Myers Briggs personality type. Judging types need to plan - they can't not plan. Perceiving types, on the other hand, hate to plan and often can't do it. As you say, the destination is all that really matters. We just have our own way to get there.

Nick (INTJ)
Tom said…
I'm very happy to read this. I do a lot of my work in an library populated by well known writers who seem determined that their way of writing is the one true way. 'If you don't know how it's going to end you shouldn't start!'
I haven't a clue most of the time. I have a fair idea which characters are likely to open the first chapter but after that it's up to them how things turn out.
Probably that's why the other writers are well known!
Susan Price said…
Tom - point those well-read ignorami to this blog! - The only right way to write creatively is the way that works for you. If that means wearing wellies filled with custard, so be it.

And Valerie - I'm so glad Stacey fought back! - I really enjoy her character, and she's the perfect foil to Erica. Her alter-ego.
Tom said…
'An library' - hangs head in shame. Must edit - if I try to edit while I'm writing I don't write ... maybe there's another way? (I did manage to correct ' - hangs head in sham. )
It's going to be one of those days.
I think pantsters probably do outnumber plotters - except sometimes on Facebook it looks as though the plotters are in a majority. I get a bit cross with people who think that their way is the only way. There is no single right way - it's only what works for you. I quite often know how something ends, but almost never how to get there. I write the book or story or play to find out. Sometimes, though, I just start out and see where it takes me. The only thing I would say is that occasionally, when something isn't going right and I don't know why, I've resorted to looking at those 'hero's journey' plans - Celia Brayfield has a particularly good one in her book Bestseller - and it has helped me to fix something, but I have to write the book first. Whenever I've had to write a synopsis first, I've fallen out of love with the project.

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