Writing without a plan

On this blog and others you will often encounter discussions about different writing approaches, the general idea being that writers are either “pantsers” or “planners.” That is, some of us prefer to let our fingers lead us into the unknown (flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak), while others like to map out the story ahead of time so we can fill in the details systematically and let the tale fall into place as we go.

Each method has upsides and downsides. Pantsers are likely to get their projects up and running much faster, and, unbound by a preplanned route, they may find themselves going in unexpected, creative directions. On the other hand, they can write themselves into a hole and end up deleting a lot of promising material simply because it’s in the wrong story. Pantsers are at greater risk of continuity mistakes as well.

Planners are less likely to lose track of the story, and they can build more comprehensive, multidimensional worlds. They can also write with less anxiety, knowing that they are executing a sound game plan. But they might be oblivious to exciting story opportunities because their maps only show one road. If a planner is also a procrastinator, she can put chapter one on hold forever while she creates character bios, histories, and so on.

Rather than being two distinct extremes that exist in mutually exclusive worlds, though, these writing approaches lie on each end of a scale. I suspect most of us employ a method somewhere closer to one than the other, but with elements of both.

The only difference between his starting place as a writer and mine is technology.

The only difference between his starting place as a writer and mine is technology.

As I’ve mentioned here in the past, I consider myself a pantser, though I prefer the term “blank pager,” which makes me sound less like a sexual deviant. I also reported recently that I have begun composing a novel based on a three-word phrase that randomly appeared in my mind.

Of all the fiction I’ve ever written, this project is turning out to be the blank pagiest. What I mean is that I have no plan whatsoever. I just started by typing that three-word phrase and hit the gas pedal. Now ideas are spilling out from the fog of my subconscious faster than I can record them. Events are unfolding on my monitor screen as if I am merely a spectator detached from the hands that type the words. The unbridled spontaneity is invigorating my –

→ INSERT “TURNTABLE NEEDLE SCREECHING ACROSS A RECORD” SOUND EFFECT HERE ←

Have you ever taken a wrong turn and come face to face with a “road closed” sign? It’s happened to me twice: Once in Philadelphia (what’s with the bad street markings in that town?), and again this week when I introduced a bunch of new characters and a scenario into my novel that, I admit upon reflection, ran the whole thing into a ditch.

Days one and two of writing went swimmingly (if one considers the limited amount of time I have to write). Then, on day three, I was reminded of the pitfalls of blank-page writing when I took that wrong turn. For the rest of last week, I couldn’t get enthused enough to work on my project, but I didn’t yet realize why.

Sometimes you need to ruminate on things. Like when you think you’re mad at someone for a one reason, until a few days pass and then you have that “a-ha” moment, discovering you are actually upset about something entirely different (typically, your anger says more about you than about the person who pissed you off). A similar thing happened here, only I wasn’t mad, just uninspired… Until my a-ha jumped out and told me I had taken a wrong story turn.

So on Friday night, I opened my laptop, highlighted the offending pages without even looking at the words contained therein, and hit backspace… Goodbye new characters and events. Enjoy oblivion. No, you will not be paid if you do not appear in the finished novel. Get a better agent if you don’t like it.

Then I picked up where I’d left off, whacked away at the keys for several hours, and ended up improving my existing characters and storyline and giving everyone more depth and motivation. I’ll probably make more mistakes as I go, but at least I’ve got my mojo back, and I’m on the right road this time. I think. Such are the risks you take as a pantser.

Other than getting arrested on the subway for public indecency.

So how about you? Whether you are a “pantser” of a “planner,” or, as I prefer, a “blank pager” or an “outliner,” do you have any horror stories or tragedies about characters you had to fire or painful rewrites you had to make? Do share.

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Today I talked about an “a-ha” moment I had with my current writing project. Here was another A-Ha moment, way back in 1985:

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42 responses to “Writing without a plan

  • jessmittens

    Awesome post! I think I’m a mixture of both these types: sometimes I’m a blank pager but I’ll plot a rough climax. Sometimes I’m a planner but I get stuck wondering if it should go other places.
    Thanks for the post, and definitely enjoy the a-ha ending.

    • ericjbaker

      I can never think of an ending until I get there, which is probably a big reason I don’t plot things out.

      That A-ha video has something like 32 million YouTube views. If anything, they should stick my blog post at the end of their video!

  • nrhatch

    I definitely write without a plan . . . letting the path unfold before me. Sometimes I hit “pay dirt” and other times I run into a “dead end” and have to make a U-Turn.

    Outlines have always felt far too constraining . . . like a too tight girdle. 😉

    Glad you got your groove back.

  • Dave

    Definitely a pantser, all the way (now that you mention it, that does sound rather sexually deviant … perhaps I should adopt blank pager). I always begin with an idea for an opening scene and then some very vague notion of where it should go. Then I take off. I love the spontaneity and the feeling of letting the story take over, of watching the story unfold. Nothing like being in that groove and allowing the words to flow.

    I’ve written myself into a wall a time or two. My current work in progress has wandered around a bit, and I’ve yet to figure out what to do. I kind of have that feeling you talked about … a bit of apathy. I suspect a wrong turn has gotten me stuck somewhere and I need to figure out how to unclog it. It will likely involve losing some good stuff that doesn’t really belong. Oh well.

    Great post. Nice to know I’m not the only one who likes to dive in and go (despite the potential pit falls, it’s just way to fun)

    • ericjbaker

      I’m worried about wandering a bit too. In the course of working this way, ideas and choices appear before me (as I’m sure they do for you as well), but I don’t know the destination yet, so I have to choose wisely. I also don’t have the slightest idea what is going to happen 20 pages from now, so have I have to trust my subconscious and absorb the things going on around me, hoping something well emerge as useful later.

  • jdhoward

    I’m a planner first, but just a basic framework. I plan the characters, the major events, the climax and the ending. I don’t have much typing time, so most of the details are created in my mind while I’m up doing mundane things. Plus, typing slows me down. So when I type, I’m essentially unraveling the story out of my head.
    If I had to type out my ideas as they come . . . oh lord, I’d need twenty hands.

    • ericjbaker

      I guess I just don’t have that ability to see the ending. That’s why I can’t write mysteries, as much as I love them. When I read a good one and all the puzzle pieces fit, I just stand back and applaud the author.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    “I prefer the term “blank pager,” which makes me sound less like a sexual deviant.

    One more advantage to not being a pantser; yes! 😉

    Really great post, Eric, and good summary of the pros and cons of both plotting and pantsing/blank paging. But I’m sure you already knew that I lean very far towards the plotter camp.

    I’ve never had a story run of the rails on me the way you describe (that would have already happened during the outlining stage), but that’s not to say there are no surprises in store for me. I often run into inconsistencies within my logic (aka, the classic would-that-really-happen moment) or a character that demands more screen time. And in my current project, there are places where all the dots comprising the plot are not so well connected – where the space between some of them is mighty wide and blank page worthy indeed.

    • ericjbaker

      A few years back, I had a couple of novel ideas and outlined them. They ended up looking like a bullet pointed synopsis of a Law and Order episode (only from the PoV of the suspect). I’m not knocking that show; it’s well made. But I dont’ want my novel to seem like one of 22 episodes in any given season of a cop show.

      For whatever reason, I just can’t unlock my creativity through plotting. Maybe it’s the songwriter in me: I’ll know which melody works when I sing it.

  • nmartinez1938

    I’ll have some of that too!

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Although I need structure in all other areas of my life, I’m a pantser when it comes to writing which is why I enjoy participating in NaNoWriMo. Usually I end up with some bad stuff, but I always find the good and work from there. BTW, I love the monkey photo! I always wanted a monkey when I young. 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      Interesting about the “need structure” comment. I’m considering a follow up to this post, and that comment plays into it.

      Do you mean you “need structure” as in you are disorganized without it, or that you can’t stand disorganization because you are so naturally structured?

  • Richard Leonard

    Geez, man, don’t put up an Aha video with my wife around! Nearly 30 years has gone by and she still gets excited by them!
    I think I’m a bit of all three. Pantser, Planner and blank pager. The respective ratios are probably 1:7:39
    Your three word phrase thing sounds interesting. I once considered writing a story based on single word sentences alternating through nouns, verbs and adjectives. Another idea was simply to use two word phrases, adjective/noun or adverb/verb. I think those ideas were nearly as stupid as my plan to do a cycling trip to my parents’ place 400 kms away. Both the destination and the distance were sure signs of insanity.

    • Richard Leonard

      When I say stupid I mean it was going to be a purely pantsing effort. I had absolutely no idea for a plot or anything. Just the word type combos. If I had have thought it out more carefully it might have been semi half decent.

      • ericjbaker

        The thing with the three-word phrase is not that I intentially used it as a writing exercise. I was just minding my own business when it showed up in my head. It seemed like something that belonged in a story, so began writing totally cold and the concept just unfolded. As I documented in a previous post, I meant it as a short story but realized there is much more there than a short piece, so I’m turning into a novel.

        The difference between writing your story based on a mental word game and biking 400 kms is that the story can’t kill you! Either way, drink lots of fluids… though not necessarily the same ones.

        • Richard Leonard

          Story ideas tend to do that. It’s like hey where the f–k did that come from? It’s not bad!
          400 km is nothing… not that I’ve done it in one go. That idea came from a Kiwi friend of mine who lived in London for a few years and decided to go home – by bike. London to Christchurch via Europe, Asia, Australia, on a pushy. Solo. She lived.

        • ericjbaker

          Wow. That’s pretty impressive. I haven’t biked to the corner store since I was 11.

  • Diane Henders

    I’m a bit of both. My novels are a series, so I have a detailed “story bible” – a list of every place, character, and technology that I’ve ever been mentioned and anything I’ve described about them, especially the personality traits and motivations of the characters.

    I always have a starting point for the story, and I usually know roughly how/where I want it to end (but it’s not set in stone). Often I have a few scenes in mind at the beginning, but basically I throw all my characters into a situation and watch what they do. They often surprise me, and I love the way the story twists when they do.

    Usually things start to get complicated around the middle of the novel, and then I do a brain-dump into a separate document to nail down my timeline, who knows what, what everybody’s feeling, and what their motivations are.

    Like you, the only time I get stalled is when my subconscious knows I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere earlier in the story. Then it takes me a while to root out the problem, and as soon as I do, I’m off and writing again.

    But don’t throw those “problem” scenes away! I pull them out and throw them into a catch-all file, and it’s surprising how often they fit in another place in the story… or sometimes even in a different book.

    • ericjbaker

      That must be quite a feat to keep track of events and characters going back over several novels. I only visited your blog for the first time today, so I apologize for not being familiar with your work (I did notice what looked like at least 5 or 6 covers). Is it a Sci-fi series? I ask because you mentioned keeping track of technology. I can definitely see the need for a lot of worldbuilding preparation. I’ve been trying to get started on a sci-fi project for a while now, but it will require much more research for plausibility, and that frightens me.

      • Diane Henders

        No need to apologize, and thanks for visiting! It’s actually an action/suspense series with the same sort of techno-geek inventions you see in the James Bond movies: plausible in today’s world, but not real. There’s no world-building per se, but if I describe a character’s home or a setting in my fictitious small town in one book, I want to make sure I keep it consistent in subsequent books. Also, as my character development progesses throughout the series, I have to make sure I’m not sending the character in a direction that would be unlikely/implausible given their backstory.

        • ericjbaker

          Sounds like a fun series.

          Keeping characters actions authentic can be tricky. A lot of writng instructors will say well-drawn characters don’t need dialog tags, because it should be clear who is saying what based on who they are. I’m not sure I’m 100% on board with that concept, but it’s a good thing to keepin the back of one’s mind.

  • M.L.Hall

    I find that I work it both ways. Depends on the project. But even my planed out projects take on a panster feeling sometimes (I like to get personal with my characters LOL) Short stories, I’m as likely to just start writing. Novel length, I start with a single sentence, expand to short synopsis, then long synopsis, then detailed outline. When I start writing the novel, the characters climb on my shoulders and the proverbial hits the fan. I wind up writing scenes I didn’t expect, but my general road map keeps my compass pointing north.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s cool that you can build enough flexibility into your framework to make alterations as you go. I know me well enough to know I’d get hung up on fleshing out my outline that it would end up being a text version of a paint-by-numbers picture.

      I’ll be following up on that thought in a future post, I’ve decided.

  • dederants

    I can say I’m definitely a “pantser”, and I tend to post my stories online after proofreading them once or twice. There are times where I regret it, when I think I could’ve added more or enhanced a scene/character more, but I tell myself it’s not a novel being pitched to publishers, nor are readers paying money for it, therefore it’s allowed to be a hot mess.

    But I now realize, just as I’m typing this (or maybe a day or two before, I’m not entirely sure), ANYTHING I write is a reflection of myself as a writer. I realize now that, although being a pantser can really take a writer’s story far while writing it, it also helps to be somewhat of a planner, and vice versa, and that will show in one’s work, further enhancing it and making it better than before.

    • ericjbaker

      I’m like that with my blog posts. I put it up with me liking it, but within an hour I decide it’s a train wreck. Then I remember I’m the only one who obsesses over what I write, so I leave it up, warts and all.

      I’ve said it on past posts, but I think planning vs. blank paging also depends on the type of story you write. Blank paging historical fiction is probably a dicey idea because of the need for authenticity. Same thing with a fantasy series… If you don’t world build, you’re going to end up with a bunch of characters running from castle to castle getting in swordfights, and not much else.

      Thanks for commenting, DeDe, and thank you for reblogging.

  • dederants

    Reblogged this on From Slacker To Scribe and commented:
    Wonderful post… and if any of you are wondering, I’m a “pantser” LOL

  • Chris Edgar

    Thanks, this was thought-provoking for me. I’m going to release my current project, an online animated musical, over a series of episodes, and although I have a plan for the story at present, I plan to constantly tinker with the episodes as I start to get a sense of how people are responding to the series and what’s “working.” So I suppose I’m a hybrid of the planned and seat-of-the-pants approaches.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s pretty cool! When you add a visual component, the planning must become more critical. At least I imagine that to be the case.

      When you have it up and running, please drop by and post a link.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    I am a micrometer away from being a polar pantser who can paint himself into a corner with words.You would never guess this having reading my writing, but I can be an incoming, artillery-idea-bomb, exploding into shrapnel of omni-non-sequitur sentences.

    I have made mind maps of story planning and it helps me stay on track.However as you would guess I do not stick to them all the way through. The problem is that I feel wonderfully exhilarated by not having a plan and writing by the seat of my pants. Do you have any suggestions that may help me grab hold of my keyboard by the reigns? I need a paper clip chain of idea. I am tired of spilling the box of them on the floor instead.

    Thanks.

    • ericjbaker

      You can pour out as many words as your want in the first draft. Then go back and chop out all the ones that don’t shade the character or advance the story. It doesn’t really matter how much you love a phrase. If it gets in the way, it has to go.

  • Uzoma

    I apologize for the error in my first comment. My mobile browser messed the whole up. Here is what I wanted to say:

    Forgive my inability to comment earlier, Eric. So much in the way back then. Okay…

    I think am much of a planner.

    I like to piece a story in my head first before writing. This gives me a lot of confidence. Sometimes the story tends to change course along the way. Like you rightly pointed out, procrastination is one of biggest problems. Also I could waste time polishing an idea only for me to lose steam in the end.

    A man in between the personalities is definitely the solution. Thanks for yet another educative post.

    • ericjbaker

      No worries. I deleted the glitchy version.

      I know what you mean about losing steam. I tend to make up for my freeform beginning by micromanaging the later drafts to the point that I’m afraid I’ve sucked the life out of the story. Perhaps I should stop at three or 4 and then get a second pair of eyes.

      Thanks for commenting, sir.

      • Dave

        I’ll second the idea of getting a second pair of eyes. I’m terrible about this and end up agonizing over various drafts until I feel like chucking a manuscript out the window. Nothing like a fresh perspective to let you know you either suck or you’re doing a pretty good job.

  • Anonymous

    A-Ha! My favorite music video! I’m a planner but usually I only outline my stories and when I start writing they sometimes go in a different direction than my original thoughts.

  • LaMonique Hamilton

    Definitely a pantser…and a bit of a sexual deviant. I create detailed character bios, and then pick a day and time in the past or future and let them find their way. I love the surprise of their discoveries.

    • ericjbaker

      I think you captured what I enjoy about blank paging, which is the idea that the story starts it write itself. I like how it can think of plot points without asking me. It’s sounds like I’m talking s***, but it’s a real thing.

      That said, I keep experiencing scary moments with my current project when I realize I have no second and third act yet. I could come up with some sort of framework, but I’m deliberately avoiding that because doing so will ruin the story. Of that I am sure.

      Thanks for stopping by. I need all the clicks I can get.

      😉

  • Arkenaten

    Adopted both approaches. I have several notebooks with scenes loosely mapped out -headings, one or two words of dialogue. This sufficed for two books. I would sit and review the notes at breakfast then later, write it out in full.
    Other times I have decided to freewheel, with almost no planning other than an idea, and the attitude that if I couldn’t remember something it wasn’t worth the effort to write it out.
    I battled for weeks over one particular scene until the answer materialized during my morning jog: setting , dialogue, the lot. I got home, switched on the laptop; sweating all over the keyboard – yuck- and wrote it out as I’d written it in m y head.

    But the older I get the latter method is becoming a tad unreliable!

    • ericjbaker

      I can see the benefit of being adaptable like that. I think my problem is I rarely think of anything worthwhile when I’m taking notes. Like you, I’ll be in the shower or driving to work, or whatever, and the sequence will materialize. I’ve had one mentally filed for weeks while I try to catch up to it on my current project.

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