Two Writers Debate: Pantsing vs. Plotting

Janna (L) and Eric (R). There's no debate about which one eats more Dunkin' Donuts.

Janna G. Noelle (L) and Eric John Baker (R). There’s no debate about which one of these two eats more Dunkin’ Donuts.

Only two approaches to writing exist: Good and Bad. Write good. Debate over!

Hold on a sec. That’s not what this post is about. This post is a point-counterpoint between two WordPress bloggers arguing the merits of two distinct writing methods, pantsing (freeform writing) and plotting (writing from an outline).

Read on as right-brained, right-coast writer Eric John Baker argues in favor of pantsing (at least we hope that’s what happens… he is making it up as he goes, after all), followed by left-brained, left-coast writer Janna G. Noelle making a case for plotting, probably with all kinds of charts and graphs and stuff.

No matter how ugly and violent it gets, they promise to return you home in time for tea and biscuits!

~~~

Plotting. Pantsing. Marching. Dancing.
By Eric John Baker

I’m not much of a dancer. Stepping this way and that, being graceful, weaving a pattern not immediately apparent. Can’t do it.

Walking a straight line is easier. But walking only brings me to a predetermined destination, whereas dancing can send me places far more mysterious and wonderful: Joy. Surrender. The coat closet for a snog with my dance partner (come on, all that eye contact and bodies touching… it’s nature). If only I knew the moves.

Writing is like dancing in that way. Plotter or pantser, I’m sure you’ll agree: You have to understand composition before you can write well. Until you reach that level, outlining is probably necessary. Once you’ve mastered mechanics, though, maybe not so much.

Outlining seems smart and efficient; it helps you keep track of settings, characters, and events. You know exactly where you are, eyes straight ahead, sight set on your ending.

You know what else is efficient? A pair of handcuffs. And what would we do without lines painted on the road, telling us where we can and cannot drive the car? I’d say outlines are the law enforcement of the writing world.

I used to outline my fiction, scene by scene, and I never crossed the double-yellow lines. Sure the outcome was boring and predictable but, um… I stayed true to my outline! I got to type “The End” exactly when I planned as well.

You see, once the outline was in place, my creative brain shut down. It was all about mechanics after that. The regions of my mind that encourage me to poke a dead jellyfish with a stick or to intentionally alight at the wrong bus stop or to ask, “I wonder where that road goes?” had gone dark. Any reader could guess where my stories were going, because I was telegraphing the conclusion.

Then, one day, I came across the term “blank-pager” in a writing book, though most writers call it “pantsing.” Inspired, I took a (boring and predictable) short story of mine and rewrote it, reusing only its concept and main character. I ended up with a 70,000-word novel, and it was the most fun I ever had writing. I bet any reader would say, “I didn’t see that coming,” at least a dozen times. How could they? I didn’t see it coming either. I spilled seeds as I went, and by the end, I had grown a garden of twists, hidden identities, and red herrings. Fact: my conscious mind could not have generated such ideas in advance. I know, because I had already written the same story with an outline and it failed.

I don’t actually like the word “pantser.” It sounds like a person no one wants to sit next to on the train. For my own reasons, I prefer “phone ringer,” but today I’ll stick with the more popular term because it rhymes with “dancer,” and that was seed enough to grow this argument, sans outline.

Keep Your Story In Line With An Outline
By Janna G. Noelle

I’ve heard just about every explanation for why pantsers don’t outline their stories:

  • It hinders creativity
  • Knowing how a story’s going to end ruins the fun of actually writing it
  • Plotters are rigid, unimaginative, their work is soulless, and they have cooties
  • Creativity is a transcendent process wherein a story’s true essence only emerges when permitted to spring forth unfettered in ecstasy of inspiration, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Or at least the first 30,000 words of true essence.

Yeah, I said it.

30,000 seems to be the magic number where many pantsers’ journeys of discovery comes up short, and unsurprisingly, they realize they’ve run out of plot.

This is unsurprising because of nature of that which pantsers are trying to freestyle. A story isn’t an organic, right-brained, boundless entity; it’s contrived, structured, and logical. No matter how simultaneously beautiful.

Of  course  there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Of course there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Nothing that occurs in a story is just ‘coz. Everything needs to fit together in a causal chain of events that points toward an inevitable (though not necessarily predictable) ending.

If the middle of a story is saggy, it’s because it wasn’t set up well enough in Act One.

If a story’s ending is weak, it’s not a problem with the last chapter, it’s a problem on page 127.

In no other endeavour would someone leave the creation of a highly structured entity to a vague impression of how to do it coupled with chance.

If you were building a house, or a business, or a garden, you’d be all too willing to draw up a blueprint, a business plan, or a list of what actually grows in your region lest you plant bananas in the Northwest Territories.

If Eric decided to drive to Vancouver, BC to have this debate with me in person, he wouldn’t just head north in the general direction of Canada (at least I hope he wouldn’t, especially since Vancouver is northwest of New Jersey!)

Rather, he’d want much more detail of where the road ahead actually leads: some timely hints from the British GPS lady, plus a supplementary map of some navigable scale showing every major junction along the way.

Because an outline is map in the truest sense of the word: a representation of everything between here and there to help you not get lost in your own plot.

It’s not a set itinerary you’re beholden to follow. It’s not a prison sentence. You can take your story in a different direction any time you want.

You probably will, for when have you ever had something go 100% according to plan? Even President Eisenhower recognized this:

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

An outline will keep you moving in right direction, providing a reference if you wander too far off the beaten path. It’ll also likely save you a few drafts of backfill and the risk of growing sick of your novel before it’s fully completed.

And in this way, rather than hinder a writer’s creativity, plotting actually sets it free to explore and discover the full range of possibilities within the story you’re actually trying to tell.

~~~

There you have it, writers. The battle lines have been drawn (most likely by a plotter; they’re big on setting parameters up front). So where do you stand in this debate? Squarely inside the plotters’ outline? Over there somewhere with that bunch of pantsers gathered sorta together but sorta not because they’re free spirits, you know?

Somewhere in between?

And more importantly: which of us do you think will be the dirtier fighter if this degenerates into a back-alley brawl? All bets are on!

~~~

 Hey, gang! Check out Janna’s cross-post on her excellent writing blog, A Frame Around Infinity.

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40 responses to “Two Writers Debate: Pantsing vs. Plotting

  • Two Writers Debate: Pantsing vs. Plotting | A Frame Around Infinity

    […] This debate is cross-posted on Eric’s blog.  Go check him out; he’s a cool dude, for a […]

  • shelleyhazen83

    I’m a combo. I don’t like to strictly outline but I like to write out a general progression of scenes and what I’d like each to achieve in the story, and I like to map out the MC pretty early in the process. I agree with “pantsing,” because I have found my creativity lead me places I would have never imagined. But I like planning, because I often forget what I wrote first by the time I get to the end. I don’t want to end up stuck in a revision loop, getting everything to match and flow and make sense. My solution, so I can avoid both the loosey-goosey pantsing and the strict, boring outlining, is I journal about the story I want to write before I start. What do I want it to be like? Who do I want the MC to be? Where do I want it to end up? Etcetera.

    • Janna G. Noelle

      Shelley, I also journal about my stories, not just before I start, but all the way through, usually about problems that I’m having. I do Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages (in the evening, go figure), and find by rambling through my issues on that page (as opposed to within my WIP itself), I usually end up finding a solution down a path that wasn’t present in my original outline.

    • ericjbaker

      My experience with my own writing is that it turns out best when I don’t know where I want it to end up. Ideas present themselves to me as I go. It’s like Tetris, only maybe not, because I haven’t thought that analogy through.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Would it be narcissistic of me to Like a post that I wrote half of? 🙂

  • mobewan

    I have a suspicion most people go through a cycle. Most think pansting (?!?) is the way to go, so start that way. After heartache, tears, tantrums, sore heads and dented walls, they eventually give up. Then they plan. They plan their arse off. Then they feel stifled so they panst (seriously, new verbs needed). After they are discharged they go back to a gentle, productive mix where they are not afraid to dabble with the power that each righteous path offers. A few succumb to the dark side and take one of the paths to the extreme where only pain and anger are found (hey, did I just use the wisdom of Starwars to make a point?? I think I did…), but most make peace with their inner panster and outliner.

    So we all win. No point made. I apologise.

    But I was promised biscuits so I’m not leaving until I get my custard cream.

    • ericjbaker

      The biscuits and tea are in the mail. I hope it doesn’t spill!

      This debate was for fun. My honest view is that writers should do what works best for them. Outlining hasn’t helped me to produce good fiction. I’m not sure how the rest of the world would feel, but I like my pantsed (you’re right, these verbs are the worst) fiction a lot better.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I’ve always been a dancer. As a dancer, I feel more creative. I agree with you Eric, I don’t like the word “pantser” either. Lately I’ve been contemplating the idea of preparing an outline before I start my next project. Both of you make a good argument for and against outlining. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    • ericjbaker

      Use the force, Jill! It will guide you to the right decision. Anyway, you already have a great foundation in your writing skill, so I’m sure it will turn out great no matter what.

      Group hug?

  • Megan Cashman

    I agree that writing is like dancing. Its a chance to let loose. Its funny though, I’m a pantser yet I tend to be highly organized in most other areas in life. Yet, if I were to plot I would be too tightly wound to be free and creative. I need to be a pantser so my stories can flow out easily.

  • Kevin Brennan

    Reblogged this on What The Hell and commented:
    The definitive debate on everyone’s favorite controversy. I, for one, don’t like the terms. Who has something better?

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Well, Mr. Baker, this has all been entirely civilized and pleasant in the comments thread. Here I thought there would be rioting in the cyber-streets: Down with plotters! Down with pantsers! Down with overly long blog posts! The sort of thing we’d tell the grandkids about when reminiscing about the good old writing days.

    Joking aside, I’d like to make a couple of assertions in response to what you wrote, funnily enough, unrelated to the core issue of plotting vs. pantsing. I would posit that a reader saying “I didn’t see that coming” may not be something a writer wants to hear, for it might suggests that the twist/reveal/whatever wasn’t set up properly – that the various hints weren’t there – and perhaps, as a whole, the story doesn’t totally work.

    I don’t believe anything should ever come as a genuine surprise to a reader or be something s/he couldn’t have predicted if s/he’d been paying close attention to the clues.

    Take for example the movie The Sixth Sense. That movie blew my mind when I saw it. My reaction wasn’t, “I didn’t see that coming” but rather, “OMG, how did I miss that?” It was all there to figure out. I even remember asking myself at one point why they were always taking the bus instead of traveling by car, but I just didn’t put two and two together. Some people did figure it out, which some should always be able to do. Because as a story progresses, it starts to funnel toward inevitability. Maybe not a single possible ending, but one that can be predicted at least in part.

    I’ll even take it a step further and posit that 95% of the time (if not more), people don’t read fiction in order to be surprised, but rather for re-confirmation of universal human truths they already know that are merely expressed in a different (or not) way.

    • ericjbaker

      I can’t make any prediction about what other readers want, but I want to be surprised, and I write things I would want to read. When I read a mystery, I want the writer to fool me. When I see a movie, I don’t want to predict what comes next. I want a story to take me on a journey and challenge my views. If I can see what’s coming and it tells me something I already know, what’s the point in watching or reading it?

      Writing without a plan doesn’t automatically mean that stories ramble and go nowhere or that they are full of tangential elements that don’t add meaning. I have the scope of vision as a writer to know when something doesn’t belong in my story, and my plots aren’t aimless. The story is already there and the themes are already there. I’m just waiting for the light to go on in front of me and show me the next step. There is a plan; it’s the story that has a plan for me, not the other way around.

      Why are we burning up all this great material in the comments instead of planning a rebuttal post?

      😈

      • Janna G. Noelle

        Okay, that emoticon surprised me. I didn’t know that one existed.

        Writing without a plan doesn’t automatically mean…
        No, it doesn’t, which is why I said my assertions were unrelated to the core issues of plotting vs. pantsing

        Personally, I’m having a hard time thinking of a book or movie that truly surprised me. For sure, I’ve had the reaction of, “Oh, what a neat idea”, but something that genuinely bent my mind in a direction it wasn’t already at least subconsciousness wanting to go? I’m not so sure. Because if my mind didn’t want to go that way, I wouldn’t have picked up that book at that time to begin with.

        When I read a mystery, I want an experience with a satisfactory conclusion. Maybe that means the author was deft at hiding the clues and I’m “surprised” by the reveal that was right there all along. Or maybe I’m savvy while reading and am able to foresee the ending. This too is enjoyable because I get to feel smart for figuring it out, and the plot is resolved in a manner consistent with the way this same story (there are only 3-20 known stories, depending on who you ask) has always ended. Humans are creature of habit, repetition, and reaffirmation.

        There is a plan; it’s the story that has a plan for me, not the other way around.
        I agree with the general sentiment, but prefer to maintain my agency within the process. I’m always the one with the plan. I just don’t always know that I have it yet

        This is part of my process as a plotter: drain the brain of what immediately comes to mind to make space for what lies beneath to emerge. Plenty more good material in there for rebuttal posts.

        • ericjbaker

          Here’s the link for WordPress emoticons:

          http://codex.wordpress.org/Using_Smilies

          I fundamentally disagree that readers (or, expanding it to include film and TV, those who experience storytelling) want reaffirmation rather than surprise. Sure, you can’t alienate them with unrelatable characters or create stories so jarring that they can’t be followed. But nothing creates a buzz like a story with shocking twist, which, by definition, people did not see coming. I would not take the statement “I didn’t see that coming” from a reader as anything other than a compliment. If a plot turn didn’t fit or was unpleasant or jarring, I doubt that phrase would be chosen. “It didn’t make sense,” or, “I didn’t get the story” is more likely.

          As far as unpredictability being a sign that a story is “not working,” I prefer to think it didn’t work because it was poorly written. If the writer has the chops, it works, just not in the way the reader anticipated. I love a story that, in one moment, can reframe the reader’s expectations and understanding. The conclusion of “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson is brilliant beyond description in that way.

          I’m curious as to your opinion on “character moments.” That is, does every event in the story have to drive the plot? I take opportunities to storytell through character reactions and what may appear as superfluous comments, yet they are there to seed future actions and reactions to more plot-central events. Where’s your line between character depth and story momentum? More importantly, when you read my novel some day, are you going to go in seeking a story experience, or are you going in to look for pantsing failure?

          :mrgreen:

          ^
          I always wanted to use that guy, and I finally have a reason.

  • nrhatch

    Fantastic idea for a post. Bravo to the both of you.

    That said, I’ve “had a day” and don’t have it in me to fly by the seat of my pants OR outline points pro and con. I plan to come back on the morrow and read your thoughts when I have space in my head to process them.

  • Ciara Darren

    I liked this post! And good to see everyone getting on so well. Ok, my two cents. I used to pants everything. And a lot of stuff didn’t get finished. Now I work ‘by compass’ as I like to think of it. I have a direction, a set of characters and I write the first chapter or five, which is usually turns out to be back story that ends up in a world document. After a mind map or five, I sit down and start writing. It’s not pantsing but also not plotting, because there is no outline. At best there’s a list of chapters to write with a blurb on top during really tight plot sections where hours and dates have to exactly line up. But I’m always open to the story surprising me. Lucky me, now it surprises me earlier and earlier so I can work it into the general plan. I love surprises, that’s when the world feels like its breathing without life support.

    • ericjbaker

      It’s fun to debate, but, of course, everyone has to do what works personally. I like your use of the term “compass,” and your technique for laying the groundwork. I think I might make an outline after I finish the first draft to make sure dates and people ad events line up. I’m pretty good at mental mapping as I go, but it can’t hurt to check up on myself.

      Thanks for the comment and for your insights!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    [This is in response to above. It wouldn’t let me nest it any future.]

    Yes, we are getting fundamental here. And philosophical.

    What I’m arguing is that, when it comes to stories of any stripe, “surprise” doesn’t really exist – that the reason people “didn’t see something coming” is, if not because the story didn’t work, then because they didn’t interpret the story clues and cues. Life is hectic and we’re all seriously short on time. We rush through our days; we rush through our entertainment as well. Again, I return to The Sixth Sense: there were people who predicted that. Or look at the “Red Wedding” episode of Game of Thrones. That wasn’t really such a stretch when you think about how many people kept warning that Walder Frey wasn’t to be trifled with and wasn’t a forgiving man. You knew something was going to happen there. It might have been a bit shocking by degree, but then, recalling the extremes GRRM likes to go to in his writing, maybe not.

    Here are things that surprise me: when someone comes up behind me while I’m wearing headphones; when a friend I haven’t talked to in years emails me out of the blue; when a car breaks too late at a crosswalk and almost hits me. That’s because there’s no order governing the occurrence of any of these things. But stories have order and structure – they’re a causal chain where everything that happens motivates everything that follows, plot twists included – and as a result of this, are predictable. Perhaps not down to the nitty-gritty details, but in broad strokes, for sure. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen, but we have a pretty good idea of what, and that idea gets clearer with each turn of the page.

    I do believe that’s what people want – that we want reaffirmation of the same general stories and the same morals and human truths we’ve been telling each other over and over since the beginning of time. We want to see the how. But we may just have to agree to disagree on that point.

    I think of plot as a conjoined function of character, setting, and the actual stuff that happens in a story. Every event must either reveal character, reveal the setting, or make something happen to the character or setting, which is to say, drive the plot. As to “character moments”, as you define them, they’re not superfluous at all, but perfectly relevant to the plot. These are the sorts of things I mean by story clues and cues. I really like stories that sprinkle these throughout, for all that I tend to be quite good at recognizing them and knowing they’ll rear their heads again. But maybe that’s just because I’m a writer and can’t unsee what’s behind the curtain.

    More importantly, when you read my novel some day
    Of course I won’t go looking for a pantsing failure; no more than I’d expect you to read mine looking for the hedgerows around each scene. Most of the time I don’t even know if a book was outlined or not, nor would knowing be a factor in what I choose to read. I always read for the experience, believing that the author will make good on the tacit promises of his/her story by the end. I continue believing this right up until I’m given a reason to stop.

    ➡ (i.e. back to you)

    • ericjbaker

      I agree that people want predictability on a genre level. For example, a romance novel must have two people meeting and experiencing ignited passion, and a science fiction novel has to have some currently impossible element related to science or technology at the minimum. But that’s not the same thing as wanting predictability on page 28, and on page 157, and on page 202, etc. And the average reader is going to say, “Ooh, cool twist,” without considering at length whether they’ve been properly led to it.

      • Janna G. Noelle

        It wouldn’t be a cool twist if the reader wasn’t properly led to it; it would be a cheat. And I do believe the average reader would ponder the effectiveness of it, thinking back to all the clues s/he missed.

        But we could bandy these points back and forth indefinitely. I’d like to conclude by saying how much fun I’ve had debating with you and coming to see your perspective on various elements of writing craft. I really do love talking about this stuff, and believe we all have something to learn from each other. I hope we can do another point-counterpoint sometime. 8)

        On Wed, Feb 26, 2014 at 8:42 AM, ericjohnbaker

        • ericjbaker

          For sure! I feel like it turned out great. We got reblogged by Kevin Brennan, by the way, and he’s a real-live traditionally published author. Hopefully our shared post will be one that continues to draw clicks going forward.

  • Breathing Life Into Characters | Spirit Lights The Way

    […] post:  Explanations (Candid Impressions) * Two Writers Debate: Pantsing vs. Plotting (Eric John […]

  • Arkenaten

    I must have ”Point Z” firmly fixed before I set off.
    I cannot write without a final destination in mind
    I have enough half-finished bits and bobs sitting in drawers, on my hard drive, lining the budgie tray.
    No thanks.
    Once the ending /goal is more or less established that’s when the fun begins because I can meander as much as I like providing I get to Point Z in the end.
    My completed novels have all begun this way: even if I don’t make physical notes it has to be plot idea. plot resolution, and away we go.

    • ericjbaker

      I could have sworn I responded to this already. Oh well. What I’m experiencing now, in the second act of my first draft, is that all the nutty randomness of my first act set up what I’m writing now. The story has now written itself in my brain, and I’m just trying to catch up.

  • livelytwist

    Both of you are right. But of course, Eric eats more Dunkin’ Donuts.

    I’m somewhere in between. Sometimes, I hear a phrase in my head and I start writing. The story unfolds under my unsteady hands tapping away on my keyboard. I am surprised at where it wants to go and how it ends!

    Other times, I’m more intentional. Within my broad outline, I unleash my creativity. I’m not surprised by the twists or the outcome, but the words that transport me there, and the way my characters get there, makes me ooh and ah.

    Bear in mind that I’m talking about works of 10,000 words and below. Anything longer, and I’ll have a proper outline 🙂

    • ericjbaker

      I had an “ooh and ah” moment in my WiP this past weekend. Something I had written randomly and without conscious reason into an early chapter turned out to be critically important in resolving a plot problem I wrote myself into, and it also helped establish the villain’s nature more explicitly.

      That is, in essence, why I am a pantser. Because stuff like that happens.

  • Dave

    A while back I came across a term to describe describe pantsers (of which I am one) that sounds much nicer: discovery writer. Yeah, that’s right. I’m a discovery writer 🙂

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