Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Do you Plot It, or Pants It?

Book ButterflyA plotter is someone who makes some sort of an outline of their story before he or she sits down to write it. Sometimes this is an exhaustive document, sometimes it’s just a list of scenes or major plot points.

A “pantser” is someone who gets an idea and runs with it: no idea where he’s going, but eventually, he’ll get to the end of the story. (This is writing by the seat of the pants, hence the name.)

I’m a plotter…usually. I like to know where I’m going. It saves me tons of re-writes and I never get writer’s block.

I say “usually” because I’ve just started a novel which I’m pantsing. And it’s killing me. I can’t stand not having an outline. (I don’t know how you pantsers do it.)

The reason I’m pantsing it this time around is because I’m writing a story which is a bit outside of my comfort zone: a contemporary urban fantasy which takes place in Baltimore. I’ve got (what I think is) a fantastic idea…and I’m running with it.

What I need to do is let the idea percolate in my mind for a while before I start to write, but I’m too excited about it. I just want to get it all down on paper…but I don’t know where it’s going to end.

And that’s the problem: if I don’t know how it’s going to end, I can’t plot it out.

I’ve recently signed up for an on-line plot class to see if that could help. Unfortunately, lesson one included writing the beginning of the story (no problem!) and the end (um, problem). The class is designed to fill in the middle.

Well, I could do that on my own…

I’m toying with S. Andrew Swann’s method right now:

A four step exercise in Plot development:

1. Create a character.
2. Give this character a problem to deal with.
3. Imagine at least three different ways this particular character might possibly deal with this particular problem.
4. Pick one (or more) of these options, and imagine at least three different ways it a) wouldn’t work, and b) would make the character’s situation worse. (Short of killing off the protagonist and ending the story.)

It’s promising, and might help me out with lesson one of my online class. With some luck, I’ll have an outline by this weekend.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Once you get an idea for a story, how do you manage the plotting through to the end? What do you do if you’re not quite sure how it will end? What are some strategies or exercises you employ to form a cohesive story?

Here are some fantastic resources on plotting I’ve found while trying to hammer out my plot:

* The Butterfly Story Plot Graphic is from Scholastic. It appears it’s no longer available for download from their sight. (Alas.) If anyone has the pdf, I’d love to have a copy!

12 comments to Do you Plot It, or Pants It?

  • Hi Kelly:
    Wonderful post. I’m neither a plotter or pantser. I’m character-er. Not in the sense mentioned above. I do indepth biopsychosocial and spiritual evaluations of my characters, then I just let them tell me their story. It runs like a movie in my head.
    Thanks for the references. I always love hearing how people write. As a creativity trainer, I think it’s important for people to know that creativity can be controlled.

    • Hi Mary! I’m “interviewing” my characters right now. I’m hoping that knowing them better will flesh out some of the plot points I’m missing. Are biopsychosocial and spiritual evaluations done in a similar manner…interview? I’d love to hear more.

  • Sue

    I’m excited about this different approach to your writing. I am thinking it will bring a freshness to your story which might surprise you and that’s a good thing. I’m not a writer, but my family story came to me as I wrote it and just flowed from my pencil. It was amazing and what I thought was going to be a story about my mother actually turned into a story about my grandparents. I’m anxious to hear more about this new story!

    • Hi Sue- Thanks for the vote of confidence! I have a feeling this novel will take me longer to produce than the last few…the idea is burning away, but I don’t know which direction to take it in. I’ll probably write three times as many scenes as I need and then whittle back. As for your story… Congrats on writing down some family history! You know I definitely want to read it!

  • I definitely Pants it! I always have an idea in my mind, but when I start writing, the characters take on a life of their own and I let them have their way. I just follow along!

    • Hi Maggie! I’m definitely having a good time following my characters along right now…but I can see a little roadblock in the future. What do you do when they stump you? Do you wait it out, or is there some method you use to generate the “next scenes” in your novel?

  • I’m a panster. I NEVER plan out what will happen. I know, I’m a bad bad author lol But to sit there and outline it all would bore me to death.
    Great tips to bear in mind,kelly.

  • I’m a bit of both all in one, Kelly. I have a story guideline and then I just run with it and it usually turns out but sometimes i reach about 27000 words and i could wrap it all up- so i have to fix it. PAIN!
    Any way, good luck

    • Hi Kerri! Thanks for dropping by. How detailed is your outline? What kind of steps do you take to avoid ending it beforehand?

      (Check out Kerri’s blog for info on her upcoming release: Taking Back His Widow – February 2011).

  • Devona Bosson

    thanks for this article

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