If you’ve done any research on writing you may have heard the words plotters and pantsers. Plotters come in various shapes and sizes from those who need to have a 5000-word outline and know everything about a character’s backstory down to their ninth ancestors to those who use a loose outline. Pantsers, on the other hand, do as their name suggests and write by the seat of their pants.
When I first started writing, I found myself firmly in the pantsers camp. I found outlines restrictive. And boring. By the time I was done outlining the book, I didn’t want to write it anymore because the story was no longer exciting to me. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that I needed a better system. I needed to learn how to plot a novel.
3 Reasons Pantsers May Want to Try Plotting A Story
If you’re a pantser, you may wonder why on earth you’d want to plot a novel. I mean, isn’t part of the fun of writing discovering your story as you write it? Yes and no. After pantsing a couple of manuscripts here are some of the reasons I think pantsers should learn how to plot a novel:
1. Pantsed books are a pain to edit. If you’re a pantser you may already know this. When you don’t have a plan, you tend to write whatever comes to mind, allowing the characters to have their way (and I know how strange that sounds to a non-writer but I hope that since you’re reading this you have some idea of what I’m talking about).
And maybe you have something of a structure because your mind instinctively created one. I suggest putting your book down for a few days, or weeks and then revisiting it as a reader. When I did that with my pantsed manuscripts, I realized that there were some misplaced or missing beats. The dark moment was not dark enough and it wasn’t always in the right place. I spent months trying to edit that first manuscript and since editing is not something I enjoy, it felt like torture trying to move pieces of the story around so they fit.
When I finally decided to “kill my darlings” by deleting about 30 thousand words, the process became much lighter, especially when I gave myself an outline (more on that later).
2. Pantsed books may be missing key beats. I touched on some of this in the previous point but it bears repeating. When I took some time away from my manuscript and returned to it with fresh eyes, it was an okay story. It had potential. But there were things missing like I needed to make my characters suffer some more by taking away the thing they really wanted. I’d done some of that, but I was trying to be nice about it.
It was missing the part that made the reader want to sit up and root for the underdog. This is usually the part where I, as a reader, have to put down the book and walk away (but not for long because I have to know how it ends).
3. A pantsed book may not be the best book you can write. Don’t get me wrong, it may be a great book…after a number of rewrites. Now, I don’t know about you, but wouldn’t you rather be writing different books with shiny new ideas than rewriting the same old story? I would.
How to Plot A Novel As a Pantser
The first thing I want you to know is that you won’t lose your pantser status if you choose to work with an outline. Let’s think of plotting and pantsing as being on opposite ends of a scale, each of us falls somewhere on that scale. (I wish I could take credit for that idea but I can’t. I heard it somewhere but couldn’t tell you where.)
So how do you outline a book if you’re closer to the pantsing end of the scale? Here are some ideas you can try:
1. Write your blurb. Okay, so this will not be the sexy blurb that goes on the back of your book or on the sales page but it will be a start in the right direction. Knowing the premise of your story is a great way to stay on track.
2. Experiment. Read a couple of craft books, watch YouTube videos, and listen to podcasts. Listen to other writers speak about their process and jot down ideas that you think may work for you. Try each idea more than once because sometimes it takes a while for our brains to settle into doing something new.
Don’t think you have to do anything the same way every time. If it’s not working for you, stop and move on. And that’s my other point:
3. Know yourself. This may take time some time as you work on different projects but pay attention to what works for you. If you tried an outline and it felt too loose, add more structure. If it felt too restrictive, make it looser. It’s your process. Even if you were inspired by someone else, you have complete autonomy to change what doesn’t work while keeping what does.
4. Be flexible. Understand that what may have worked with one book may not work with another. No, you’re not weird. You’re a writer. Like, children, each book is different. Be flexible in your writing process and always be willing to try something new (remember step two? You need to be ready to experiment when things are not working.)
5. Use markers. Maybe you have clear ideas of what you want to happen at certain points in your story. Drop those into your outline and write toward those scenes or beats. You may even want to write those scenes first and then brainstorm what actions lead up to them or how your characters may react as a result.
6. Use a partial outline. You don’t have to plot the whole novel at once. Plot your story to a point and then start writing. It’s okay if you don’t know everything that’s going to happen in your story before you start writing. Write until you run out of steam and then pause to plot a little more.
7. Don’t be a slave to your outline. You may have written an outline but in the process of writing your book your character comes up with a better idea (or refuses to do what you want them to do). It happens. Remember that your outline is meant to be a guide, not a master. Write the scene or chapter and then pause to adjust your outline to make sure your story structure still works.
Look, I get it–writing stories are more fun when you get to discover the story for yourself along the way. But knowing key things about the story doesn’t mean you can’t pants huge chunks of it Besides, the time you spend plotting a story will save you lots of time when you sit down to edit. And that, my fellow pantser, is worth its weight in story gold.
Tell me in the comments: are you a pantser or a plotter? What’s your outlining process?