The InScribe Blog on Writing would like to welcome our newest bloggers: Tracy Krauss and Violet Nesdoly. Enjoy the following post by Tracy on plotting vs. pantsing.
Plotting vs. Pantsing
There is much debate among authors over which works best. There is certainly merit to both methods. Plotting ensures continuity while pantsing keeps it fresh. It’s really a matter of personal preference. As long as the final outcome is solid, the methodology really doesn’t matter.
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no true purists either way. Even diehard plotters admit that their characters sometimes surprise them with unexpected actions, and at some point, the “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” writer needs to readjust the storyline to make sure it flows. My mode of operation is definitely a mixture of the two, often switching back and forth between them.
First Things First
I usually start with a shorthand telling version of the storyline as I know it thus far. This will change, but I like to just get it out of my head and onto the computer without too much over-analysis. I don’t worry about grammar, sentence structure, or whether it even makes sense. I leave out any descriptions or dialogue unless a really brilliant line pops into my head. Obviously, logistical issues or huge gaps in the action pop up during this process. I go back and change what I can, but I don’t stress too much about it since I know the details will likely change anyway once I actually get to the writing process. This basic outline becomes a framework that will evolve with the story.
I am big on creating detailed character sheets. These become very useful during the writing process. It prevents a sudden change in eye colour in the middle of the book—among other things. Besides a physical description, some background information about family, etc. helps to establish what motivates each character. I’ve even found it helpful to ask interview questions of the key characters and then respond in his or her voice. It’s a great way to get inside the character’s head and some of these responses can even become dialogue.
I also like to write a description of each specific location. I picture it in my mind and then list as many details as possible, including sounds, smells, and any other sensory information beyond the visual. This becomes another useful tool during the writing process.
With these first basic plotting steps in place, I switch gears and become more of a pantser. Without exception I have found that once I actually start writing, the story my original ideas change. Trying to figure out too many details in advance just doesn’t work for me. Characters say and do unexpected things. Fresh ideas come to mind. Well thought out scenes can come off contrived and wooden. Allowing the creative process to take over for this first draft brings life to the story.
Somewhere around one-third to one-half way through the first draft, I get the urge to go back and plot out the story in a more thorough way. By that time I have a better sense of what the problems are with my original idea, and the characters have had time to speak. At this point I create a few helpful documents. I have found that Scrivener, a popular organizational software for writers, is excellent in this regard.
First, I make a list of each specific scene so I can get a sense of the ebb and flow of the story. I note the location, the main action, and whether there is a change in point of view. If you are using Scrivener, you can even note the word count for each scene. This list of scenes is especially necessary if your story contains multiple subplots. It highlights any imbalances at a glance, preventing too much weight on one subplot at the expense of others.
Next, I take the information from the scene lists and translate it into a plot diagram. The English teacher in me rises up and I usually just do a handwritten copy using the good old triangular shaped model. I look to make sure I have a clear inciting force, rising action, climax, and so forth. Multiple subplots mean there will be multiple climaxes, but there should be one overarching goal that is achieved by the end of the story, as well as character growth. Ask yourself how the main character will change or grow over the course of the story.
Plotting and Revising
I also create a timeline as a final document, again using old fashioned pen and paper. Making a timeline is a brilliant idea I found in Rachel Aaron’s book 2k to 10k – Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. Plot out what all the characters are doing on the timeline even if they are off-camera. Sometimes we leave our characters to twiddle their thumbs when they would probably be doing something important. I have found this to be an excellent way to work out all those logistical problems that crop up.
After this, I go back and forth between writing and adjusting my plotting documents. Sometime during the writing and revising process, I analyze each separate scene as well. Each scene needs to serve a purpose. It must advance the story, pull the reader forward, and reveal new information. Some writers even go so far as to create mini plot diagrams for each scene. I don’t bother with that, but if the scene doesn’t serve a purpose, cut it, no matter how eloquently written it might be. Keep the story moving.
Angela Hunt’s book The Plot Skeleton is another wonderful resource for those writers looking to hone their plotting skills. Most of what I have outlined here is directly related to writing fiction, but I use a similar back and forth system for nonfiction as well. In the end, don’t be intimidated by what the so-called experts say. Do what feels natural and what works best for you. The final product will hopefully be something worth marketing and certainly something to be proud of.
Tracy Krauss is a multi-published author and playwright of several Amazon best-selling and award winning novels, stage plays, and short stories as well as two devotional books and an illustrated children’s book. She teaches secondary school English, Art, and Drama in Tumbler Ridge, BC, where she and her husband also serve as pastors in their local church.