Why (and how) I went from pantsing to plotting
Nearly every writer I’ve ever met is a ‘pantser,’ preferring to plot by the seat of their pants, rather than a ‘plotter’ who knows how their story will shape up well before they write it. I pantsed my way through all four revisions of Driving by Starlight, but came out the other end a convert to plotting.
At least from the second draft onward.
I still leave myself the freedom of the first draft, when I don’t know what might come up as characters come into their own. When I don’t yet know who these people really are, constraining them artificially to a plot makes them one-dimensional, unrealistic. The first draft is like cocktail hour at a party; serendipitous connections, a few pearls of wisdom, and a whole lot of boredom and blather.
What converted me to plotting? Honestly it was producing a webcomic, The Night Wolves, that forced me to think about having to foreshadow future events in early episodes that would be published and couldn’t be taken back. The medium doesn’t lend itself to second drafts, and every revision is painful and expensive.
But one does not just become a plotter overnight. I’ve tried to have a minimal structure within which I can improvise. Sometimes, that minimal structure is exactly what I need to get over the kind of writer’s block that affects me sometimes—too many ideas are exciting and possible, so I can’t settle down to execute on any one.
Creating a few reasonable constraints actually freed me to write better and faster, because they acted as a funnel directing the flood of my imagination.
Here are some of the kinds of ‘plotting’ constraints that have saved me from myself recently:
Write a synopsis: Most agents will ask for a 1-page synopsis of your story. If you cannot summarize your story’s plot in 1 page, the plot probably needs to change. Wikipedia summarizes the entirety of the Odyssey in < 1,700 words. You can always add subplots to your story, or even change the plot, but when you do, rewrite the synopsis to ensure that the story still makes sense.
Know your payoffs: Most novels are written for a single scene that is the payoff, just as every TV series is written to build up to the season’s finale. You may have more than one payoff, e.g. a climactic battle scene and a more emotional resolution scene, but knowing (and ideally writing) those scenes first allows you to filter what you’re currently writing through the lens of ‘Does this build tension to my payoff, steal thunder from my payoff, or distract from my payoff?’ Obviously you only want to keep scenes and plotlines that do the first.
Target a word count: Knowing ahead of time that your short story must be < 5000 words or that your novel below 80,000, means you know early when you’re off-track. In one case, my multi-POV novel had reached 30,000 words before the stakes were fully introduced. That’s bad pacing; nobody is going to wait that long to get to the point. Having a deadline like ‘I must get to this key scene within the first 15,000 words’ can help focus the plot.
While editing more final drafts of a novel, I use Aeon Timeline to ensure events are properly connected and to ensure every character arc and scene makes sense, but that’s usually overkill for most writers. Especially those who, like me, are still recovering pantsers.
Below: I don’t recommend pantsing your way through a multi-day horse ride either. The chafing is awful, and jodhpurs are a miracle. I had to burn these pants. The novel I was pantsing through at the time didn’t make it either.