A Plotter Pantsing: what I’ve learned, and what I’m still trying to figure out

In Twitter’s #WritingCommunity, the discussion of plotting and pantsing our stories is a common thread. Plotting, the careful outlining of a story before writing, and pantsing, the seat-of-our-pants, unplanned, accepting-what-comes creation of a story, each draws a crowd of strong adherents.

Out foraging for mushrooms this week, we came across this beautiful chanterelle, late for the season, brilliantly bright.

I call myself a plotter. My norm is to mull over an idea, outlining the core action of each scene before I begin to write. When I was planning my novel, I used a pared-down version of the Snowflake Method; for short stories, I typically journal stream-of-consciousness style as I work to refine my initial ideas, then craft a brief outline, a sentence for each scene.

But this summer, I wrote a number of short stories, and three of the six I pantsed. Today I’ll write about this experience, what I’ve learned from pantsing, and how we might usefully hybridize the two methods of story creation. I find genuine value in both strategies, although I’m still a plotter in the end. I’ll try to give them each their justice.

Plotting: a focus on structure

When I taught creative writing to high schoolers in Minnesota, the culmination of our fiction unit was a short story. At 3000-4000 words, it was long by the students’ standards, for many of them the longest single text they had yet written. Undoubtedly daunting, it brought many students pride by the end: “Wow,” they sometimes said, “I wrote that!”

I required my students to plan their short stories, carefully mapping out initial conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, character, and theme, certainly more detail than I myself typically plan. It was primarily structure I was teaching with this assignment, and though many a student (in particular those that already considered themselves writers) resisted the planning, preferring to just start writing and see where their stories took them, I asked them to humor me. Just this once, to try the plan. I think I would still require this today, a teachable moment if nothing else.

In my own experience, it is undoubtedly the carefully plotted stories that excel in structure. When I plot, I identify the contours of each scene, then arrange them in a way I anticipate will guide the reader through the experience I am designing. I consider the mood each scene will lead to, which information is revealed and withheld, and so which should come before which other. From the initial inspiration to the ready-to-write plan, my opening scene often changes, and I am more likely to end up with a non-chronological structure. Most importantly, the relationships between the scenes feel consciously determined in these plotted narratives. They are undoubtedly more structurally interesting, and with this often comes, I find, better reader engagement, clearer storytelling.

Mushrooms in the evening light.

Pantsing: trusting instinct

In contrast to the more planned-out narratives, my pantsed stories were much more likely to emerge chronologically. And I did appreciate the spontaneity not only of language, description, and detail, but of whole story elements.

The feeling was sometimes unwieldy, the uninitiate with power tools, and as X new character wormed their way into my story, I wasn’t sure what to do with them, what purpose they served, and this made describing or narrating them difficult. What should I emphasize? What should I omit? I think that this allowed at times a more unfiltered subconscious to pour out from me. The decisions were more instinctive. As I’ll elaborate on below, I’m not certain that this makes them more valid or valuable, but it is a difference.

One of the elements I most appreciated from the experience of pantsing was its reflection of the meaning-making process in life itself. We experience an event in all its detail, and only later do we overlay it with structured narrative, teasing out the harbingers from the red herrings, the telling detail from the data. There is something contemplative about this, even if the process can be messy. Life is messy. Perhaps our short stories should be too.

I found unchanged the stymie of self-judgment. Plan or no, critical thoughts assailed sentence and paragraph and scene and whole idea. Neither, for me, seems to be a solution for that.

One final observation on the experience of pantsing was that the experience, contrary perhaps to my expectation, was for me not necessarily freeing. I know that some people have described the tyrannical nature of a planned narrative, the boxed-in prescription of an outline. I find the reverse to be true. The plan to me is more a trellis, guiding the vines of narrative towards sunlight. Without it, I sometimes felt I was trailing aimlessly along the ground.

My husband sneaking up on an unsuspecting mushroom. These were the ones we’d come to the forest for, yellowfeet, tiny, unimpressive-looking, but delicious.

The results

Now, a few months distant, I look back at these coagulations of my mind–it feels significant to me how different is my attitude towards the stories: the stories that I planned, I feel even now more sure of than their pantsed compatriots. The planned stories’ revision process has been relatively smooth. The finished products–I think they are stronger work. They seem to say something. They move.

The pantsed stories, our relationship is more tenuous. Even now, I’m not sure I really understand them. And I say this partially in the way that lends them mystery and significance, that I have somehow channeled something significant without being fully aware of its deep meaning. Yet I mean simultaneously that I’m not sure there is really a depth to them that can be understood at all. They feel more surface-level to me, and flatter. The decisions that arise from instinct I don’t believe are more true than those that come from reasoned thought. If anything, they are more rash, more rote, more predictable. The revisions (and, I should say, in two cases I am still working with these stories) have been arduous, and I’m not convinced that I am greatly improving them.

To me, when I reread, the pantsed stories feel a wholly different animal from the planned, two spontaneous generations of life from the same primordial soup, whose mechanisms are alien to one another. I’m not sure if this is too dramatic a perspective, or if it’s not. And I wonder if this is only me, or if a reader would perceive the difference too.

None of this is to say that I don’t like the stories. I think they are important. I think there is something there too that is not in the planned-out narratives. Their more chronological structures are an important reminder of the way we really do experience time. And they are perhaps more psychological, embodying the kind of free association, the running and slowly-developing thought that I think is what I want for their topics. There is a place, of course, for trailing aimlessly along the ground. And lest this post end up too one-sided, let me affirm that I think pantsing has been the right path, at least for two of the three.


The Pantsing in Plotting

I don’t think I am changing my norm. But I think I can see more clearly the pantsing that is really a part of the plotted work I do. I can recognize, cultivate, and value it more. An idea exists that plotters are somehow less creative than pantsers, that the development of a plan, a kind of military precision, leaves the story dead.

When I plot, my brain is mulling idea to idea, playing out possibilities, considering how each element nudges at the story in terms of theme and feeling, reordering, shifting variables, imagining the finished piece and all the moving parts that will get me from one point to the next.

Invariably, the act of planning unveils elements or implications I had not considered. It is a cloud of creativity, and I think its strength is that the free-association happens when all of the parts are still changeable. Once I have started writing, pieces of the story ossify. The character becomes who they are. The setting takes on qualities that are difficult for me later to dislodge, even through revision–they become firmer in my mind, and thus less malleable.

When I sat down to pants short stories this summer, the experience was not actually so different from my norm. I recognized that even with what to me feels like a detailed plan, the act of writing demands creation at every turn. The details, the particular language, the mode of travel from moment A to B are generally not planned ahead of time, at least in my brand of plotting. I had an idea. I wanted to see where it took me. In one case, I tried to plan, but found that not much was coming. I decided to write, to follow my intuition, to see where the stories led.

The plan is a skeleton, a big picture, emotional thrust, but the particulars, the details, the dialogue, these are always pantsed, what feels right based on the structure I’ve developed. And undoubtedly, sometimes that skeleton changes as I write. Sometimes I find that it simply doesn’t work, and I write something different. Then I usually pause and return to the plan before continuing.

But this is all to say that the two extremes may not be so different from one another. They are part and parcel of the creative process we go through, simply, perhaps, in a different order, in a slightly different way.

Ready for drying!

Alongside teaching, I work as the Learning Support Coordinator at my school here in Norway, advising and counseling students facing academic challenges. During these three years, it has become clear to me that, while a lot of the study techniques I share with students are useful for most people, each student may find that something different works best for them, and I frequently find myself giving a few alternative suggestions and asking the student to spend one week experimenting with each.

Of course writing is the same. Our pantsing and plotting preferences are not cause for division, but they can be a point of discussion where we all might learn something. I appreciate the difference some more thorough pantsing has brought to my writing, even if my core method probably will not change. I’ll keep experimenting and keep writing different types of stories, keep evolving and keep trying. Incidentally, my blog posts here are almost always pantsed. I go back through later and hone the structure.

What do you think about plotting and pantsing? What are your preferences? Has your method changed over time? Where do you see the two overlapping? What do you see as the lessons to learn from each?

Best wishes for the week ahead. Thanks for stopping by.


4 thoughts on “A Plotter Pantsing: what I’ve learned, and what I’m still trying to figure out

Add yours

  1. I’m a pantster hybrid, and this struck a chord:

    ‘We experience an event in all its detail, and only later do we overlay it with structured narrative, teasing out the harbingers from the red herrings, the telling detail from the data.’

    I restructure after the story ends. Except when the story ends up being a series. There is still scope for discovery, but the second and third books are invariably harder to write because the ‘bones’ are already in place.

    We do what we have to do to tell the best story we can. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent ruminations. I’ve done everything from make out a storyboard to knock out a story in two hours on the fly. Sometimes one thing works, sometimes another thing. I love your insight that plotting just gives you a trellis, but writing is always organic.


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