Plotting and pantsing

When it comes to fiction, there are two basic kinds of writers: plotters and pantsers. Knowing which one you are can make a big difference to your writing.

Plotters are writers who need an outline before they start the first chapter. This can be as simple as a few paragraphs or as elaborate as a whole synopsis with research. Pantsers, on the other hand, simply sit down and write by the seat of their pants. There’s also a mixture of both, which I found works best for me, but it took me some time to learn that.

I was about ten when I started writing my first novel. After discovering that Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie got some short fiction published through regional contests, I decided it was time to write my own murder mystery. What could be easier? I borrowed my Mum’s typewriter and started typing away. I made stuff up as I went along, generously sprinkling the pages with clues, only to discover half way through that I’d not only forgotten half of them were there, but there were no dead bodies in my story. All I’d done was get tangled with no idea how to move on. Those thirty or so pages are still stored somewhere in my parents’ cellar and will hopefully never see the light of day.

My next attempt was a few years later. Living in a small town, where hard drugs were a reality for many young people (and probably inspired by ‘We Children from Bahnhof Zoo’), I decided it was time to bring this issue to light. Since pantsing hadn’t worked out last time, I gave plotting a try. Before writing anything down, I read a couple of books about addiction and drugs, did my research, looked into the characters and outlined the details of the story. That’s pretty much where I left it. A few months later, after doing everything I possibly could, the story just wouldn’t come up. By spending too much time thinking what would or should happen, I hadn’t left the story any space to breathe. As it turned out, the story didn’t want to be forced into the suit I’d made for it.

The third time, I went with my gut feeling. There was a rough idea of a story about friendship I really wanted to tell. I knew my characters, mostly because they presented themselves and created the setting for the story. I knew how the story would end. Everything else was pure improvisation. Though I made all the rookie writers’ mistakes, that story eventually became my first novel, ‘A perfect flaw’. I learned something about my own writing.

These days, I go for the middle way. I have a rough idea of the plot, but once I start writing it down, I let the characters tell their story. While I’m writing, I have ideas on how to advance the plot, but don’t follow them religiously. If no ideas come up, I try to lure them out, usually in a swimming pool or in a nearby park. No kidding. Physical exercise can do wonders for your plotting. For me, it’s swimming or jogging, though anything that doesn’t involve a lot of concentration (or a ball) can probably work. Whatever ideas come, I write them down and let them find their way into the plot. If they don’t, I bin them.

The best part is that even if I know where I’m going, the plot and the characters often surprise me. So, by plotting most of the time with some pantsing here and there, I try to get the best of both worlds.

How about you? Are you a plotter or a pantser?