Plotting for Pantsters

There are a lot of heated opinions about whether plotting or pantsing is the best way to write a story. As an avid plotter myself, I was curious to hear about Dario Ciriello’s process, which contains a little of both. If you find yourself stuck on either end of the spectrum, today’s post might be just what you need to hear.

The subject of plotting vs. pantsing is one which, for reasons I don’t fully understand, generates a lot of heat in writing circles. I’ve seen discussions on the topic explode into flame wars in authors’ forums as experienced writers who really ought to know better try to browbeat others into seeing that their way is the right way.

I believe the only right method is the one that works for you. Anyone who tells you their way is the way is more invested in being correct than in helping you to write.

I’ve always been a pantser. And yet I’ve written two novels that, on the surface, appear extremely tightly plotted. One author I admire enormously told me he wished he could plot like me. We had a good laugh about that, because I don’t plot at all.

Let me be very clear: I think plotting is great if it works for you; if, on the other hand, the notion of outlining scenes and structure in advance makes you break out in a cold sweat, there’s another, and equally valid approach.

Let’s take a moment to define what plot is. Multiple award-winning science fiction and fantasy author C.J. Cherryh has a particularly luminous sentence on plot in her blog: “I think of [plot] not as anything like a sequence of events, but as a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one—and one yank moves several characters. It’s not events. It’s tensions.”

So what creates these tensions? Characters do; characters and setup. For me, plot develops organically as the writer’s living, breathing characters set out to win or lose their battle against each other, themselves, or nature as they try to reverse that flaw in the universe which is the story’s central conflict. Plot, to me, is not a verb but a noun which describes a story whose events are linked by causality.

Still, it’s wise to begin work with at least a rough idea of what you’re about. I speak from hard experience: having more than once written myself into a corner, I now make sure I have a few things down on paper before I embark on a long work such as a novel. These include:

  • Detailed bios and backstory of my main characters
  • A good setup and a rough outline of the first two or three scenes to serve as a launch ramp
  • An understanding of the “flaw in the universe,” the core conflict that drives the plot
  • A vague notion of the development of the story; though I don’t know where the story will lead, I think in terms of having guide rails to bounce off, a vague direction I’m aiming for
  • An idea of the possible ending (this can, and very likely will, change)

Here’s how I proceed; I stress this is only one way to write, the one that works for me. As with critique, take what resonates and ditch the rest.

I begin with a setup, the sort of one-sentence thing that Hollywood likes to hear in an elevator pitch. Something like, the captain of a whaling ship becomes obsessed by his quest for revenge on the white whale that bit off his leg. Or perhaps, a proud young musician tempted by the devil gambles his soul to win a golden fiddle. The best setups are often the simplest.

Next, I think long and hard—for weeks—about my characters, taking notes as I go. I write bios and backstory for them; most important of all, I work at understanding their conscious and subconscious goals and motivations, their hopes and fears, and the relationships between them.

Finally, I jot down not an outline but a very loose framework of the first few scenes, with a hazy notion of one or two waypoints and where the story might end up. And then I turn everyone loose.

One benefit of this technique—and Stephen King describes a very similar process in his wonderful book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft—is that you tend not to telegraph your intentions to the reader. If you’ve built your characters well enough, they’ll act spontaneously and surprise you with their resourcefulness and ingenuity. Of course, they’ll develop as the story progresses, and this will probably require some adjustments to early chapters during the rewrite, but if you’ve done your work well, that’s no big deal—you’re going to do several revision passes anyway.

Working this way is, for me, wonderfully liberating. Sometimes a subplot or secondary character may need reining in, but I’ve never had any problems with the stars getting out of control. If I’ve built my characters to be real, living people, they’re going to do a better job of working themselves free of whatever mess they’re in than I could ever plan for them as an outsider. By working this way, it’s possible to craft novels as complex and textured as any plotter can.

There’s one simple tool I do find useful in the process of writing: an Excel spreadsheet that helps me track where my characters are at any time and keep things in sync. With rows for each character and columns for dates, it’s much easier to make sure things don’t get out of step. Not being a plotter, I fill this in as I write, but of course you can use it any way you like, even colour-coding for each character or good/bad events.

The headings in the date/time column will depend on the pacing of the story. In a book taking place over a span of just a few days, the date/time columns might be labeled by the day. If things get really complex near the climax, the columns can labeled by the hour or less (e.g., 2:30AM). Using a spreadsheet this way helps me know who’s where in the timeline—it’s really helpful to track everyone visually, especially in a novel with a lot of moving parts.

As regards structure, I don’t think about character arcs or plot or beats or scene goals at all. I trust my characters and setup to see to all that. But when I’m done with the first draft, I make a few notes—a sentence or two—about what happens in each scene so I can have an overview of the whole and make sure each scene is in its right place and has a point. So far, the process has worked beautifully for me, and I believe it can work for others, too.

To conclude then, I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong way to write—there’s only what works for you, and that may be very different than what works for me.

Ultimately, I suspect our choice of process comes down to personality types: I’m at core a feeling, intuitive sort (I repeatedly test as INFJ); plotters probably have a more analytical, rational, ENTJ bent. Both personality types are equally necessary to the human family, and both approaches are equally valid in our craft.

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and editor as well as the founder of Panverse Publishing. His fiction includes Sutherland’s Rules, Black Easter, and Free Verse and Other Stories. Dario’s 2011 nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real Mamma Mia! island), was an Amazon UK travel bestseller. Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules (Panverse, July 4 2017) is his second nonfiction work.

In addition to writing, Dario, who lives in the Los Angeles area, offers professional editing, copyediting, and mentoring services to indie authors. You can find him online at his blog.

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About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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28 Responses to Plotting for Pantsters

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 07-27-2017 | The Author Chronicles

  2. I’ve always been a pantster, but working on my first novel, I thought I should do some planning. I’m not entirely sure this process is filling me with enthusiasm for the project. It’s good th know that I’m not the only one writing this way. I may have to revert to type…

  3. This is great! I am a panster and always will be. Try as I might, I just can’t work with an outline. I would spend longer on creating an outline than I do writing my books. I have however started to create a mind map for each book which keeps things somewhat organized and on track. It is fun to do and I use lots of different colours etc. For someone like me, these are all good ideas. Thanks

    • Thank you, Darlene 🙂

      I love the idea of mind maps and think these are an absolutely wonderful tool, especially with colours. I love the visual representation of relationships, character dynamics, and concepts they allow. Thanks for bringing that up!

      For some reason, I can’t do them. I just end up with a very, very few basic obvious ideas/relationships and a mostly blank page…it’s almost like a block. It seems the only way I can work is through exploration by writing the actual story. I have no idea why. But I do envy people who can use them!

      Best,
      Dario

  4. Francis says:

    Hello!
    I really like your article, it made me smile several times.
    My current WIP is shaped by exactly the steps you outlined. The theme came first, the characters second and then I let it sit for half a year. I started writing, just one chapter, and then I couldn’t stop. My characters were not as developed as you described, they had some background, but not as much as they do now. They told me their story while I was writing, giving hints of their troubled pasts, and that’s what I enjoy most with my current project. My characters surprise me every time.
    They are very talkative so I guess I have to split their story up anytime soon.

    The only difference in our writing style seems to be that I enjoy writing scenes out of order for a while. I have a second doc and there I just write down sentences or scenes that will occur somewhere in the novel and my goal is to get there. Then they go in the main script. Sometimes the scene changes, sometimes it can stay the same or gets deeper, sometimes it needs to go, but this stair-hopping approach works well for me. I probably have to re-write a lot, but I am not there yet.
    With this project, I also used your excel “timetable”, because I have to cover one and a half years and wasn’t doing well juggling the dates. There came a point I just needed to make sure if I’m still in April or already in May. 😀

    Have a great day!

    Francis

    P.S. English isn’t my mothertongue, so please ignore any grammar errors ;D I’m an German-only grammarian.

    • Hi Francis ~ and thanks for your great comments!

      Writing scenes out of order sometimes is a terrific strategy sometimes — thanks for bringing it up. I’ve done that too, on occasions when I’ve known that an exciting scene was coming and was finding the one I was currently writing really difficult. It can really help with enthusiasm and drive, and you can then go back to the difficult scene refreshed. One really fine writer I know, though she’s more of a plotter, does this a lot. There’s no reason not to!

      And your English is just fine. 🙂

      Best, and good luck with the WiP,
      Dario

  5. Terri Benson says:

    Great post. I, too, am a hybrid. I’m a pantser until I get about half-way into the story, then I sit down and do a chapter by chapter timeline and 1-2 sentence recap of who did what to whom in the chapter up to that point, which helps me plan a bit for the second half. I also have a big story bible with main character details, most of which won’t get into the story, or will come in a later book of the series, but all of which helps me understand them better. By halfway, my characters have told me a lot about themselves and have made their inner goals more obvious, and it’s usually about time for a major blowup to occur and I can see what kind of event will have the most impact by then. Glad to know I’m in good company, no matter which direction I go.

    • Thanks, so much Terri.

      yeah, it sounds like we found our way to a very similar technique. You sound a little more organized than I, since I don’t do the recap until the end of the first draft.

      A character bible is the way to go. And how very true about the way the characters reveling themselves more and more; even if you thought you knew them well at the outset, it’s only once they get moving and interacting that you really get to see their depths.

      Best,
      Dario

  6. Shawn Bird says:

    I’m a pantser, and my process is quite similar to yours. I have a spreadsheet that grows. I have tried planning- at least with chapter outlines (using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat) but editors found the 2 novels I wrote that way too ‘plot driven’ and prefer the character driven stories that were pantsed! Oh- I’m an ENTJ. 🙂

    • Shawn, that’s pretty funny. My book “Drown the Cat” is in large part a direct rebuttal of the Snyder technique. Thank you for validating my feelings about the results of following his “write-by-numbers” approach. LOL! 😉

      Best,
      Dario

  7. :Donna says:

    I’m a big believer in plotting, but also enjoy writing the pantsing way when I’ve done short stuff like exercises. They both afford their own kind of “good work”, you know? Anything that helps with either/or is appreciated! 😀

  8. I have always broken into a cold sweat at the thought of outlining. Even in school, I did not do well with it. I hated to diagram sentences. I nearly always had the sentences right but I couldn’t tell you how or break it down. The strange thing is that I am one who writes copious notes and lists. You would think that would automatically make me a plotter. Although I make notes, they are random thoughts, nothing structured. I am a newbie, so I am still learning my method. I’m working on my first novel and have been trying for months to plot and find myself writing nothing because it doesn’t work for me. Thanks for writing this post that plotting isn’t for everyone. Oh, I would be interested in the personality testing. How do I test myself to find out?

    • I’m glad you found this post, Rebecca. I was exactly the same with grammar at school — it’s an *awfully& dry thing to try to teach kids — which is of course funny because I now work also as a freelance copyeditor and am teased by my close friends for being something of a grammarian. LOL!

      Sometimes the pieces just aren’t all there yet to begin writing the a particular story. As I said to Lisanne below, the subconscious keeps its own clock. Taking notes is good. For me, I know something’s gestating when a character comes to call, as it were, forming in my head and demanding attention. Give them that attention and ask questions. Make notes. Be receptive but don’t force the pieces. I find working in the same place at the same time every day helps a great deal. Even if all you have is a character, write something about them. Follow them through their day, maybe, or list their likes and dislikes.

      Here a couple of good links to Briggs-Meyers type personality testing. They’re generalizations, of course, but can be surprsisingly accurate and revealing.
      https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test
      http://www.humanmetrics.com/personality

      Warmest,
      Dario

  9. marcy says:

    This is pretty much how I go about it. Sometimes I outline a few chapters ahead – once I can see them – and I always have lots of character notes and questionnaires. I did once plot out a book and write it but I was never able to duplicate the process. This way feels right for me. Nice post!

    • Thank you so much, Marci. Interesting that you plotted out one book, then changed your approach. What do you think happened that led you to switch your M.O to a semi-pantsing one?

      Best,
      Dario

  10. Great article. My process is similar, as I “live” with my characters sometimes for months before I even write a word. Once they trust me enough to tell their story, I simply transcribe the events as they unfold. Then I hone on subsequent drafts, always with the characters’ input, of course!

    • Thank you, Lisanne 🙂 You know, it’s just really nice to know I’m not alone here…LOL.

      Another aspect of all this is the subconscious keeps its own clock. It’s like faery, time is different there. We can do a great deal of socnsious mulling over and refining, but we need those uploads from tbelow, and they come when they’re ready. Often that’s in the middle of the night, and I’d be willing to bet a fair sum that I’m also not the only author reading who wakes up at two or three AM with characters shaking him and saying, “Come on! Let’s *do* this!”

      Am I right? 😉

      Best,
      Dario

  11. Talia says:

    I love this post!! I’m glad to see someone who understands that all writers write differently. I’m a wannabe plotter, but no matter how hard I try, I discover that I’m still a pantster. In fact, when I began my current WIP, I knew next to nothing. It worked out well at the time. I’m currently rewriting it, so we’ll see how that goes. I think that part of the reason I’m not a plotter is that I write for the same reason I read: to find out what happens. It’s not fun to read a book when you already know what happens, nor is it fun to write one, to me at least. Thanks again for the post!

    • Talia, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      You know, that a really great point about writing to find out what happens– I do too. I often feel like when I was child (I’m an only child, so I lived in my head and played alone a lot) making up stories for my toy car, toy soldiers, and all the rest. I think we all remember that.

      And perhaps hard plotters are doing that too, in a way: there’s obviously still creation and discovery involved. But to me, having, say, a 10-k word outline of my novel from start to finish would feel so rigid structured that I can’t imagine wanting to expand it. I’d feel the story’s out there and done at that point. But clearly others feel very differently.

      King talks about his M.O. in “On Writing.” It would be very interesting to see a real broad survey among name authors on their approach to this question.

      Best, and good luck with your writing!
      Dario

  12. I am an INFJ also, and a former Pantser. Now I plot more, but still pants a bit.

    This is very interesting, and I think you’ve hit on one important thing to do to be successful pantsing or plotting: do the brainstorming leg work. The more you know about who a character is and what motivates him, the better you can intrinsically steer them in the story toward their natural goals.

    I think the second piece is for pantsers is to realize structure is not the enemy. I believe that strong pantsing writers who understand structure because they have studied it often craft great fiction because they subconsciously are heeding it. Those who don’t understand structure as well still can create amazing fiction, but it usually requires a lot of revision first.

    Whatever method works best for someone is what they should do, as you’ve said. There’s room for all sorts of creative processes, IMO. 🙂

    • Angela, Thank you so much. I really do believe character, and digging way deep into that character before one begins writing, is the critical factor. I suspect that the really great writers probably find their way to this halfway-house between the two approaches (hard pantsing and hard plotting).

      I like that you mention the subconscious, because i think that’s where the magic happens. But the muse’s uploads need conscious shaping, and I think things can go wrong there if the writer isn’t, as it were, in tune with themselves. For me, this is where daily habits and regularity come in. Stephen King talks about that in “On Writing;” daily and regular work habits establish and widen that channel of communication between the subconscious and the conscious which must shape and make sense of the intuitive upload. And I think over the years, the process becomes reflex.

      The only thing I have issues with is people being dogmatic over the way they work being the only way. If I believed I had to outline a novel scene-by-scene before I wrote it, that would kill it for me before I could ever begin. It would be the same for a natural plotter who was told they weren’t allowed to plot.

      Nobody needs to be right. We just need to accept who we are and find what works best for us.

      Best, and thanks so much for having me on your blog!
      Dario

      • I agree so much with this, and especially the false idea that we must subscribe to one method. As we evolve as writers, we have to realize our writing methods may change and what was once worked may no longer be as effective. This is a good change (indicating inner growth), not a scary one, but most see it as the latter.

        The key to managing change is being open-minded. So if something works, awesome, keep doing it. If something doesn’t work the way it used to and you’re experiencing doubt and frustration, maybe it’s time to adjust your view and give a few different strategies a spin. This doesn’t just go for the plotting-pantsing ideologies either, but anything to do with writing (and marketing, and well, life). 🙂

  13. Pingback: Plotting for Pantsters | Author Don Massenzio

  14. Uncanny, and oh so strange. Fellow INFJ here. *raises hand* My process, which has evolved through stages of trying to do it this person’s way and that person’s way now looks quite similar to what you do.

    • *smiles and waves*
      Thanks for commenting, Christina. I’ve also tried to plot and outline, heaven knows I have, but I can only manage to “outline after the fact” (or first draft), as I explain above. And I think Angela totally nails the reasons in her post following yours. Our muse, subconsicious, whatever we want to call it, is perfectly capable of structuring a story, and well-created characters will act in believable ways. Perhaps pantsers or semi-pantsers are just more able to let go and trust the process?

      Incidentally, I’m always amazed at the number of writers I know that turn out to be INFJ, given that INFJs make up less than 1% of the population. Isn’t that interesting?

      Best,
      Dario

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