I’ve been meaning to talk about planning a novel vs pantsing, but then Delphina2k on Tumblr summed it up so incredibly well in her comic:
You can reblog it here, if you’re so inclined.
Delphina’s comic talks about three ways to write stories, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll condense this down to two – mainly because, when I write, the Gardener and the Crocodile Hunter amount to the same thing.
For me, there are two methods: planning and pantsing.
Planning is pretty much what it sounds like: it’s the Architecht in Delphina’s comic, and it’s what I do. I plan out everything before I start writing a book, from the characters to the plot to the landscape. I fill up folders with sketches and mind maps. Every character will have a page dedicated to them. The entire plot will be written in bullet points, following Kat O’Keefe’s three-act structure.
So far, I’ve only ever met one person who planned in more detail than me, and that was my BA dissertation tutor. We got along remarkably well, as every time she said, ‘I want to see some character work for X,’ I’d pull four sheets of paper out my bag.
What’s good about it?
Planning makes your life easier, both as you’re writing and when you come to edit. You’ll never get writer’s block because you don’t know what happens next – you can just whip out a sheet with your plot written on it and see what the next chapter is. You’ll also find the editing less exhausting, because there shouldn’t be a need to swap whole scenes or chapters around, or remove entire characters, or work out how many storeys up your character’s office is. You’ll have done it all already, in your planning stage.
What sucks about it?
For me? Nothing. I love planning.
But other people – in fact, most of the other writers I’ve met – look at me in horror when I say I’m a planner. The trouble, for them, is that they get bored. One of my friends often said she can’t see the point in writing a story if it’s already written out in bullet points. I can understand this, even if I don’t agree with it. When you read a book, it’s fun to be surprised by the plot twists, so it stands to reason it’d be just as fun to be surprised by them when you’re writing.
The other problem with planning is that you have to add another chunky stage to your writing process: the planning stage. For the book I’m working on now, my planning stage lasted an entire month, and that was building on ideas I’d had for a few years. If you’re going from scratch, it could take much longer; weeks and weeks of itching to write and knowing you can’t because it isn’t all planned out yet.
The word ‘pantsing’ came from the phrase ‘writing by the seat of your pants’. It’s the style that’s encouraged in NaNoWriMo, and the style my aforementioned friend prefers. She likes to discover as she goes along: to just come up with an idea (‘evil plants from space!’) and, at most, do a bit of worldbuilding, draw a couple of characters, and go.
It means you need to be instinctive in your writing, and to have a very solid idea of how to drive a plot forward. That’s if you’re going to write it in order – my friend would pick any scene she thought was interesting, write that, and then skip on to another with no regard for plot order. Eventually, she said, they could all be rearranged to make a story.
What’s good about it?
Your story won’t be boring. If you feel bored with the scene you’re writing, you’ll stop writing or throw in something to drive your story forward and make it exciting again. This is where NaNoWriMo’s concept of ‘The Travelling Shovel of Death’ comes from – the site advised writers that, if they got bored, they should have someone kill a character with a shovel. So many writers followed the advice, you can find it in published novels.
You get to have that fun feeling of surprise and wonder when you reach a place for an excellent plot twist, and realise what that twist should be. Writing will feel more like a rollercoaster than a train ride.
What sucks about it?
You can get stuck. Really stuck. At least in my experience.
I once wrote a murder mystery story, all by the seat of my pants. It was very exciting for most of the plot, getting my heroine into more and more horrible danger, introducing her to all the people that could have been the murderer, watching her flounder and struggle. Then I got to the end – and had no idea who the murderer was.
The ending I wrote was terrible. I was forced to throw my hands up and pick someone, and no one was a great choice. No wonderful plot twist came to my head. I sat and stared blankly at the story for months, and finally wrote an ending I hated.
This can also happen in the first few chapters of your novel, or right in the middle. If you don’t have an instinct for keeping a plot running, and tying everything up at the end, you are going to struggle.
The other problem comes in when you’ve finished the whole novel and have to go back to edit. It’s inevitable that you’ll make decisions at the end of the book that affect the beginning, so you’ll need to whizz back and potentially change entire chapters. If you’ve written the way my friend does, you’ll have to take all those fragments you wrote and rearrange them into an actual story, like a jigsaw puzzle. Those weeks you saved by not planning will get tacked on here in the editing.
Which is better?
Short answer? Neither.
What’s good about planning is it doesn’t have the problems of pantsing. What’s good about pantsing is it doesn’t have the problems of planning. You have to decide what you find most helpful, or most frustrating. Most people don’t even stick to one group or the other, but use a mixture of both. Maybe they’ll plan their plot out, but not chapter-by-chapter, or they’ll plan their world but let the characters grow organically.
I call myself a planner, but even I sometimes think of something halfway through writing a book, something too good to leave out, and end up putting in that tiny bit by the seat of my pants. This character should have an accent. There should be a fight scene here. And so on.
So, curiosity calls! Which camp would you say you’re in? And are there any reasons I haven’t raised as to why you prefer it?