By David E. Sharp
Plotters or pantsers. Or plantsers. Writers tend toward one camp or another. Plotters create structured outlines and fill them in. Pantsers start with an idea and throw themselves into the thick of things, trusting the story to guide them to its natural conclusion. My colleague, Katie Lewis, added the additional category of plantsers.
Actual pants or the wearing thereof are optional in all instances.
I like the stability of plotting. I enjoy marking the plot points of classic story structures like The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat. These tried-and-true methods synch with our innate understanding of the story and make a narrative accessible to readers. This method offers scaffolding for our storytelling process while still offering plenty of opportunity for creativity
I often start out with every intention of outlining my course. The idea of order and planning appeals to me. I never make it to the end, though.
As soon as I begin filling the outline in with dialogue and narrative, everything derails. Characters start making erratic choices that snowball into real complications for me. Because I couldn’t foresee a West Side Story-style dance brawl breaking out in chapter 6, my upcoming plot points are null and void. I rethink my outline, make adjustments, and try to get back on track. Then chapter 7 erupts in a karaoke interrogation scene that wrecks things all over again.
So, why not switch styles? Can I own my pantsing tendencies and stop worrying about the outline altogether? Nope. That never works for me either. I sit in front of a computer screen and watch the cursor blink on a blank document. My creative mind goes on strike.
Me: Think of something extraordinary!
My Brain: Eleven.
Me: Eleven what?
My Brain: …Numbers.
Fantastic. That’s a bestseller in the works. Thanks for nothing ol’ gray matter!
I need the plotting, so my creative side has something to undermine. But as soon as I have a blueprint, I must concede that nothing will follow it. It’s not plotting. It’s not pantsing. It’s train-wrecking! And it works for me.
But I know I can’t be the only one. How many other train-wreckers are out there? Or have you fallen into a writing routine that follows none of these methods? Whatever you use, the end goal is to get one word after another until your story is told. If you need to go off the rails to make it happen, then do it.