Writer’s Insights: The Challenge of Plotting

“Are you a pantser or a plotter?”

It might seem like an odd question, especially to those who aren’t writers. Even novice writers might be left scratching their heads.

Pantsers are those who fly by the seat of their pants when it comes to laying out their next work. They don’t use outlines. They don’t use plot diagrams. The plan is to write and see what happens.

Plotters, by contrast, prefer a much more orderly approach. They sit down prior to writing and outline their novel. They might jot some notes about various chapters. Plotting tools like graphs, diagrams, are a plotter’s best friends.

A Stupid Question

Which are you? It’s probably a silly question for most writers. The answer is usually “somewhere in between.” Very few people are pure plotters, just as very few people are pure pantsers.

Why the mixed bag? Basically, every good writer knows the value of having at least a few jot notes about where they want the book to go, or which major plot points they’re going to hit. Almost no one sits down, cracks their knuckles, and starts writing without any idea of the plot they’re going to take up.

Very few people go to the extreme lengths of most plotters, either. Why? The answer’s simple: It’s time-consuming. Since most writers are strapped for time, sitting down and writing meticulously organized notes, plot descriptions, and notes about their plots eats up time they could use writing instead.

Is One Better?

Not really, no. As mentioned, most writers end up using some mix of the two methods. The real difference is the extent to which you use notes to help you.

Some writers prefer the “pantser” method, arguing it allows them greater creative freedom. They just write what comes to mind and worry about whether or not it fits later.

Plotters, on the other hand, prefer the structure their notes and outlines give them. They argue they end up wasting less time, because they can refer to their notes when they feel they’re getting stuck.

Both Have Issues

The issues in either method might be apparent to you now. For pantsers, there’s a great danger you’ll write yourself into a corner. If the ideas suddenly stop flowing, you have no road map for getting to the next plot point (if you even know what it is). The trade-off for complete freedom when it comes to writing is a serious chance of getting lost.

For plotters, the issue becomes being too beholden to the outlines. If a good idea comes along, do you grasp it or let it go because it’s not in the plan? An inflexible plan sometimes sees writers hitting a wall.

An Evolving Method

I used to be a panster, whole-heartedly. I rarely made any notes, because I had a good idea of where I wanted to go, but no real road map.

That changed when I got to university and then into the working world. Suddenly, I didn’t have time to write. I’d end up letting manuscripts sit for months, and by the time I picked them up, I’d lost the thread. I had no idea where I was going–and I had no notes to help me figure out what I’d intended.

Jot notes, quick ones, even a one line sentence describing what I thought was going to happen in the chapter, were my saviors.

Finding Balance

Obviously, it’s important not to be too beholden to either method. They both have their inherent problems. I used to be too beholden to the panster method, and it got me in trouble on more than one occasion.

At the same point I realized the value of using the plotter method, I’ve never understood the value of spending inordinate amounts of time plotting. I’m much more interested in getting words on a page. As much as I’m a planner, I’m also a do-er.

So my plotting notes are usual jot notes. They’re not very complete; they’re usually a one or two line summary of where I think the story will end up going, or what I want to happen in the chapter. I might create a “summary” or synopsis for a story.

No Prescriptions

Why am I so careful about plotting too much? Not only is it a drain on effort, it can become a double-edged sword. What if I decree the plot is going to go one way, but while I’m writing, we veer wildly off-course? Am I going to try to haul the story back “on-track,” or am I going to let it explore this new direction?

It was one of the things I liked best about “pantsing”: I was free to let the story unfold however it wanted. There were no expectations. And I’m the kind of writer who often has epiphanies and ideas while I’m writing–a great plot twist crops up not while I’m actively contemplating the plot or story structure, but while I’m in the middle of a sentence.

A less strict approach to plotting allows me to maintain that freedom.

The Writer’s Notebook

Since I don’t actively plot very much, it’s somewhat difficult to illustrate what I do. Here, I offer up a few pictures of my process.

Here’s a screenshot from the working file of Slapshot! You can see I’ve got the next few chapters listed, by number (titles almost always come after), and I have a few jot notes about the plot points that should come up.

Often, while I’m writing, those plot points get moved out. Slapshot! is an interesting experiment, in that each chapter is supposed to measure out at a certain length. So if a scene takes longer or demands more space, plot points get moved.

New Stories

This picture’s from inside my handwritten notebook, where I keep ideas for new stories. Some of them end up with a chapter-by-chapter outline, again one or two-line long summaries indicating the general progression of the story.

Others end up with a couple of sentences about the story, its general direction, and the major plot points. Maybe there’s a few subsequent points underneath it, giving a little more direction. Some of these ideas end up in the story; some of them don’t.

Creating an Effective Plot

There’s one more problem we haven’t addressed yet: How do you know your plot is effective? One of the things writers struggle with is creating a cohesive, effective plot. Obviously, a road map or outline is one step toward this.

But it’s no guarantee.

So how can you ensure you have an effective plot? The answer is you can’t. All the plotting in the world can’t save a bad idea. Yet something that sounds like a bad idea–a cliche or trope or stereotype–could be brilliant when executed correctly by the right author.

The only way to make sure you have an effective plot is to write it, read it, and edit it.


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