When I read about the differences between planners and pantsers in the writing community, I often see it put down as if a writer could only be one or the other. Which is like saying that there is only a way to be a writer, at least for any single writer.
That’s not my experience. I’m not the same writer that I was ten years ago. Or twenty years ago. And certainly I’m not the writer that I was thirty years ago. We change. We learn. We try and find new ways.
We change. We learn. We try and find new ways.
While I think nobody can teach us what’s the right way to write since writing is such a personal process, I do think that we can always learn from other, as we learn new things from them.
Like most writers, I was first a pantser. I was a pantser for most of my writing carrier. But then, circumstances forced me to reconsider my process, and I learned that I do prefer to plan some parts of the process.
I’ll tell you how it works for me and hope some of this may be of use to you.
How planning and pantsing can work together
Writing is a very complex process comprised of different stages. While totally pantsing a story or totally planning a story may work wonderfully for some of us, I think that mixing things up works better, especially when applying one or the other at different stages.
Even pantsers will have to plot, at least while organising the story in the revision, and even plotter will have to take liberties and go on unexpected adventures even while following their outline. Because writing is both an intuitive and an acquired skill, we should let those skill express themselves when they may serve the story best.
This, at least, is how I feel about it.
And this is how I go about it.
Plotting before drafting
Ideas are not stories. Plots are stories. Yet, what first come to us are usually ideas.
So what we first need to do is turning those ideas into plots.
Sure, we can of course just go off, and write the plot into the story as we go. That’s how I’ve done it for a long time and what I still occasionally do. But normally this process takes up so much time and efforts in revisions and rewrites that I finally tried a different approach.
Today, before I get down to write the first draft, I first write the idea into the story structure.
This helps me see whether there’s a story in the idea. Whether I can turn that idea into a plot. Whether I have all elements I need to call it a story and whether I have any chance at finishing that story once I start it.
How Do We Know We Have a Story to Tell Before We Write It?
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There are many different story structures out there, though if we look hard, they all arc back to the 3-Act Story Structure.
I use the 7-Point Story Structure and the Embryo Circle, most of all.
The 7-Point Story Structure is a detail version of the 3-Act Story Structure, if you will. Its seven plot points pin down all the places where the story moves from one stage to the next. If I can write my idea into those seven plot points, it means that I indeed have a story. Once I’ve written down the seven points, I’ll know — sometimes only vaguely, some other more clearly — where the story starts, where it ends, and how it moves from one point to the other.
This is actually all I need to know at the beginning of the writing process.
I know some writers plan the story chapter by chapter. I do that too, but not at this stage. At this stage, all I need is knowing where the story heads, what the outcome will be, and what is the logical chain of movements that will bring it there.
If I can’t cover all the seven plot points, it may mean the idea is not strong enough to sustain a story, or I need more work in strengthening the structure. Not having the seven plot points pinned down is one of the surest ways to lose the story at a certain point, precisely when I hit the point that I miss in the structure, and I won’t know how to move from there.
If instead, I have all the seven plot points pinned down, at least I’ll know where I need to end up on the next point, and finding a way to get there, won’t be as hard as figuring out half of the story.
At this point, I can start writing. And as I do that, I seldom consult the outline. It is, after all, more about direction than following a plan. My initial outlines are so loosely put down that they still leave a lot of manoeuvring room.
This is why I don’t think writing down an outline stifles our creativity, as I often hear pantsers complain it would. If I know that my character stars from point A and needs to end up in point B before something major happens, there are usually many different ways in which this may happen, most of which I can’t even figure out while outlining.
Why Templates Are More Effective Than Outlines When We Plan Our Novel
Templates are liquid tools that allow much more flexibility in the very early stages of planning a novel
For example, in my (unpublished) trilogy, one of my main characters, Sinéad, is an Irish woman who’s grown up in a traditionally ‘magical’ family. She is a healer and a midwife who can connect to the spirit world. Before the story starts, she renounces this life to adhere to a more modern lifestyle, which seems more acceptable to all the people around her. After all, this is the 1920s. But I knew that at a certain point, she would discover her gift again.
When I first drafted the story, Sinéad would use runes to connect to the spirit world. She promises to a friend on her deathbed to find her daughter, but because she is unable to do it with conventional ways, she resolves to use her gift. She destroyed her runes on the ship to America from Ireland, but acting secretly, she fashions a new set.
Now, discussing this idea with some friends, I was pointed out that runes were not ‘traditional’ at all in Ireland, especially for a woman from the countryside (they mostly belonged to an intellectual idea of tradition popular in the 1800s). Someone suggested that bone reading might be more the case for Sinéad. I then embrace this idea, but I hit an unexpected problem. While fashioning runes would only require that she find the appropriate kind of tree — and I was confident she could indeed do it even in Chicago — how on earth would she find the appropriate animal bones?
In the attempt to still bring Sinéad from point A (refusal of using her gift) to point B (embracing her gift again) which passed through fashioning her ‘magical’ tools anew, I had to introduce new characters, new situations, new problems, and I ended up ‘accidentally’ adding a totally unforeseen thread to the story, one that strengthened Sinèad’s journey of self-rediscovery.
I still followed my 7-point story structure, I still brought Sinéad from point A to B, passing through the same process, but from a totally different path, one I had never foreseen before I started writing.
Plotting after the first draft
Once the first draft is done (though I would call this a draft zero), I’ll have the entire story before me, beginning to end, with all its elements. There won’t be anything vague about it. The whole story will be there, though probably (in my case, certainly) it will be totally messed up.
It’s the normal thing to happen when we write on the flight, even with an outline to guide us. We’ll change mind when we see that an idea doesn’t work, we’ll write dialogue when they occur to us, we’ll follow intuition when they emerge.
It doesn’t mean the order ideas come to us is the most effective order to make the story meaningful for the readers. In my experience, usually it isn’t.
Planner or Pantser? What Type of Author Are You?
My way of being both a Planner and a Panster… at different stages in the writing process
So at this point, I plot the story again, in a far more detailed way (now I can do it), rearranging all the elements in a way that makes more sense, it’s helpful to the reader and most efficiently helps the themes come to the fore.
I like doing this chapter-by-chapter rather than following the story structure. I find working with chapter synopses a lot more handy than working with the actual chapters. Also, writing a one-line synopsis for every chapter helps me focus on the role of every single chapter in the story. In this way, I can see whether every chapter has a point, or if maybe I can combine two chapters because they don’t have a strong enough role. Or if on the contrary, I’d better split one chapter into two because it is too dense. I move chapters around a lot, looking for that most efficient order to both make the story easy to read and express the themes at their best.
Once I’m happy with this new outline… I write the thing again beginning to end.
I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But the more work I do at the early stages, the less I need to do in the later stages, especially with regard to structure and logic. Realising that I have a plot hole later in the process will not only require a lot of rethinking but also, very likely, a huge amount of rewriting, in many places of the story, with the risk to miss one or more inconsistencies.
The main goal of the two outlines I write is to ensure that I don’t have plot holes anywhere and that less obvious pieces of the story aren’t missing.
The second outline always gives me a firm impression of the story, which very seldom changes again during revision.
Once I have rewritten the story on the base of the second outline, I do have a first draft that I can start revising. I enter then a totally different stage in the writing process.
Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently.
She writes about all her passions on her blog https://theoldshelter.com/