One of the never-ending discussions about how to write is whether it’s better to be a plotter (who plans the plot ahead of time) or a “pantser,” one who writes by the seat of their pants. I have to admit it always sounds wild and creative to be a pantser, and I envy them their daring. But I am irrevocably a plotter, sometimes going as far as using index cards to lay out my story. I comfort myself by remembering I don’t find being a plotter to be as confining and paint-by-number as descriptions sometimes imply.
No pure plotters or pantsers
First I doubt if anyone is pure pantser or plotter. At some point, pantsers must have to figure out the best way to get from point A to point B, where they’re going to write that wonderful scene that popped into their head as they worked. And I’ve never finished a book that looked exactly like the plan I had ahead of time. I get ideas as I work. No matter how much character analysis I do beforehand, for instance, I get to know my characters only as I see them in action.
Planner rather than plotter
Also, I think the word “plotter” is too limiting. I prefer “planner,” because thinking about a book ahead of time involves more than thinking of a plot. I usually start a book by thinking about a character, not a plot. Also, for me it’s impossible to separate a book’s outer arc (its plot) from the characters’ inner arcs. The interaction of plot and characters is, for me, the heart of a story and what I think both planners and pantsers must come to terms with at some point.
Alicia Rasley argues that plot and characters are two sides of the same coin. The plot happens the way it does because the characters drive it in that direction. In turn, the characters need the plot to push them to change the way their inner arc demands. She suggests laying out the way the two work together in two columns to be sure that interaction is one the page.
When a writer is trying to be sure that inner and outer arcs work together, sometimes you wind up “planning” backwards. J.K. Rowling created a chart (pictured at the link) while writing Order of the Phoenix, to help herself keep track of her own story. I see this as a kind of crossover between planning and pantsing: the writer can let the story unspool itself but then go back to be sure it’s working as desired.
Planning to improve ideas
Planning can also involve assessing (and improving) an idea before starting to write so you don’t waste months or years on a story you eventually decide isn’t going to work. It pays to take time to brainstorm about ways to make your story unique, through characters, plot, or a novel setting. For me, it also pays to think of ways to make the story bigger with higher stakes for the characters. My first ideas tend to be small, often concerned only with the character’s inner arc, and that doesn’t work well with fantasy novels.
So I’m a planner/plotter. Let a million flowers bloom, as the saying goes, but plotting works for me. How about you?
When, the daughter of a would-be rebel and the son of the king wind up living in the same household, her secrets are threatened by his need for revenge. Murder, magic, and underground tomb mazes.