plotting

Plotter versus pantser

I don’t know how standard these terms are outside of my writing network, but for those who don’t know, a plotter is someone who plans or outlines their story ahead of time and a pantser flies by the seat of their pants, so to speak, and makes things up as they go along.

Some people are die-hard plotters or die-hard pantsers, but in my experience most writers are some parts each.

I’m probably one-third plotter and two-thirds pantser. I’m working on my third novel now, and although I’ve approached the actual execution of my ideas differently in each case, my creative process is still pretty much the same. I plan a little and then let the rest come as it comes.

For example, in my first novel, I knew the main character would be a young man in a Moses situationhe was born on the side that lost a war and without his knowledge was raised to be the elite of the side that won. I knew he had to have a Jean Valjean story of remarkable redemption. I knew that his planet’s population would be descendants of a space-travel accident, and that they would, one thousand years later, have split themselves into three societies of distinctly different moral codes.

I did not know at first the true nature of my character’s special sci-fi ability (what? you’d say, if you read the novel, his secret ability is the central concern of the story), or the circumstances of his family members he lost because of the war (what? the whole story is about reuniting them). I did not know of the existence of the secret societies or admiralty intrigue or extra-terrestrial beings that basically drive the entire plot. I did not know the ending or how to get there, only the nature of the choice the character would have to make.

With the basics of the characters and world-building fairly set, I come up with an inciting incident, and from there start writing. As I get a little ways into the story, it’s like turning a casual acquaintance into a dear friend. Spending time with my story brings us closer, and plot twists present themselves. So, basically, I begin plotting my story in earnest after I’ve written chapter two or three, and by this time I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the ending. I’m always planning several steps ahead, but I’m hesitant to chart a firm course all the way through because I know that most of my best ideas come with timein the shower, in the carand only as I think through the consequences of the chapter I’ve just finished writing.

The consequence of pantsing much of the plot is that I have to do major revisions. A story must build to its climax, and since I never know exactly where I’m going to end up, I have to go back to the beginning and make sure the road is clear from page one. I do at least as much work revising as I do the original draft, and that works for me.

So, are you a plotter or a pantser? Has anything worked for you that might help another writer like me?

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There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

— Nelson Mandela