Plotting, pantsing, and everything in between

I used to think I was a plotter. I’m a pretty organised person in general, I always outlined my essays at university, and I’ve always struggled to write without having an idea of where the story’s going.

No matter what kind of outlining method I tried, however, I’d get partway through and then find I had simply no idea where the story would go. I threw my hands in the air and admitted defeat. I was a pantser, and I discovered my story by writing.

Except that’s not really true, either. I tried to pants a novel for NaNoWriMo one year and got all of a chapter in before I totally lost steam. Susan Dennard claims that most writers seem to fall somewhere in between, and since incorporating her advice on magical cookies and scene screenplays I’ve seen vast improvements in my writing.

And yet.

Every story I’ve worked on follows the same pattern, from the novel I wrote 10k words of in a week and haven’t looked at since to the one I’ve got a 40k-ish draft of and have been working on for years. As I daydream about my book, my mind bounces from idea to idea and my mind fills with ALL THE THINGS I want to include in my story. At the same time, though I tend to struggle with giving the necessary depth to the storylines already in place. For every WIP I have, I already have ideas for the second, third book in the series before I’ve written more than a chapter or two of the first. I know I want my protagonist to end up at point X, but gloss over getting her from point D to E.

In essence, my stories are full of ideas but lack structure. The obvious solution is more outlining, but every time I’ve tried it in the past I’ve only managed the most bare-bones outline before giving up in frustration because I have no clue what happens next. My most recent attempt was after downloading Libbie Hawker’s Take off Your Pants! Even though I couldn’t create a full outline with her method, though, it’s stuck in my mind. More than other outlining methods I’ve read in the past, it seems like what I need for my particular problems.

Last week the lightbulb went off in my mind. I already plan to an extent, with magical cookies, scene screenplays, and general daydreaming. Yet while this method isn’t offering quite enough structure, Hawker’s method (indeed, every method I’ve tried) requires too much too soon. The obvious solution, then is to meet somewhere in the middle. Armed with my magical cookies, I can create a basic outline to start with, and as I write and learn more about the story, I can fill it in further and tweak it as needed.

I think it’ll be easiest to try this with a completely fresh story, and coincidentally there is a story kernel that came to me last week and that I’ve been brainstorming these past few days. I’m really excited about this story, but beyond the magical cookies and a few other vague ideas, I know nothing about where I want it to go, so it’s a perfect candidate for outlining.

I’ll keep you updated on how this new venture turns out for me 🙂

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7 thoughts on “Plotting, pantsing, and everything in between

  1. That’s how I do things. I get a basic outline written and then add onto it as I write. The point is to just get all your notes down; even if you break the fourth wall a couple of times to figure things out. That’s the point of a first draft–just get the idea down. Good luck!

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    1. You know, the getting the notes written down bit may be my biggest challenge. I have a really bad habit of doing all my planning (such as it is) in my head, which is probably why I’ve had problems with structure in the past 😉

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  2. I seem to have a really similar writing process to the one you’ve described. I sometimes change the story mid-draft to incorporate the new ideas (especially when they take the story in an exciting new direction) and trust myself to fix the issues in revision. Or if I need to get a character between scenes, I’ll write a note to myself, like “Figure out how she gets here!” and just write the scenes I know about. Good luck with your new strategy–I’ll be interested to hear how it turns out!

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    1. I do that, too! I figure that 90% of the time if I can’t later work out a way to get the character from A to B either B shouldn’t happen or the transition doesn’t need to be there.

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  3. I’m the same. I’ll outline as much as the back story and current plot as I can. And just write on the fly, letting my imagination taking me wherever it wants to go. Then add any light bulb ideas that might turn on as I write, revise, edit, rewrite. I’m what’s called a ‘plantser.’ Good luck with your draft strategy!

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