Plotting Versus Pantsing

It’s interesting to see in the writing world how there this kind of philosophical divide when it comes to how to write a book (or even how to write in general). The two camps are “plotting” and “pantsing.”

Plotting is pretty self explanatory. This is the pre-meditated endeavor to structure one’s story, to plan out one’s story arch. Plotting has its spectrum, going from a broad map of where the story is supposed to go, to a chapter-to-chapter or even scene-by-scene breakdown of one’s story. This philosophy can also extend out into character concepting with detailed descriptions, backstories, and archs of development.

Pantsing is the opposite, and has nothing to do with public humiliation. The pantsing approach comes from the image of “writing by the seat of your pants.” This is a rather extemporaneous process with very little to no pre-meditated script, arch, or design. The plot, the world, and even the characters unfold either on their own or by the circumstantial inspiration the author is struck with. While future ideas and structure might unfold during the process, it is done in the process of writing rather than being done before one stares at the blank screen/paper.

The debate of plotting versus pantsing had intrigued me as I reflected my own writing craft while juggling a few stories not too long ago. At the time, my first story “Masks: The Unmercenaries” was being edited and its sequel was being explored (and is currently being drafted).

Masks, The Unmercenaries, had largely been written through a process of Pantsing. This novel began as an exploration of “what happens when Halloween carries on a little too long, when people keep their masks on for good and for evil” after a rather thought-provoking Halloween celebration. The story began as sample chapters, vignettes of random characters celebrating Halloween as vigilantes and villains in a city of masks. There were a dozen or so “character chapters” that I wrote rather aimlessly, and when I decided I wanted it to become a novel instead of a series of short stories, I narrowed down my character list with a primary cast and began writing chapters. Still, the process felt very exploratory, as though I were freely allowing the villains and vigilantes to show me their wishes, their wills, their purpose in the story. Halfway through writing it, my friend made an observation that it was perhaps wise for me to take back the wheel on the story, to not let the characters guide it so much, but to use what they had already paved for me. So halfway through writing the first draft I came up with a list of chapters, many of which still ended up being cut, and years of editing that piece followed.

This first project did eventually take on some planning, some “Plotting,” but I would say it leaned closer to the philosophy of Pantsing, of stepping into a world and into the shoes of characters within my imagination and seeing where they would take me in a narrative. Although there were lots of life events happening that slowed my writing/editing process with this first piece, a part of me suspects the long period of writing and editing did come out from this pantsing approach.

Fast forward to the submission of Masks: The Unmercenaries being published, I began writing its sequel, but I began this process specifically through an outline. I already had in my mind some iconic scenes I wanted depicted in the sequel of the Masks series, but there was no string of events to tie all those scenes together. So I sat in front of an outline for chapters instead of just plopping myself into chapter 1 and seeing where it would take me. I divided this plot outline into a 4-part arch (much like the first book) and inserted the iconic scenes into each part. Then I began wondering what needed to happen to get between those points, what exposition was necessary, etc. One might argue that starting with those scenes and then branching out is a kind of “pantsing process” though I was very intentional about not beginning to write a single word into a chapter until I felt I had a rather developed outline of chapters that could string together. A few months later I’m still using that outline, am half done with the first draft of my book, and have even inserted chapters into the outline as a result of the writing process showing me needs for transition, exposition, etc.

I confess I’ve actually found that writing the sequel to be more enjoyable than the first book. It could just be that the sequel requires far less exposition and that what is fun is building off of the characters that have already been established. However, I do suspect that this process has come a little easier in the sequel as I’ve taken out the guesswork of what’s coming after the chapter I’m writing. I won’t finish a chapter and wonder what questions still need to be answered or task myself with where things need to leave off because the master plan exists. That being said, the master plan has changed, with chapters being divided into two parts, new chapters being inserted as need dictates, things being combined, etc.

An example of the flexibility with this plotting style I have approached is seeing chapters that seemingly have no conflict end up with unforeseen outcomes. For example, I had chosen to have a character shot at the end of one chapter instead of coming out unscathed, and another character (intended to be captured in a later chapter) caught instead of making a clean escape. The alternative outcomes that I ended up writing were contrary to what I had plotted, but both conclusions didn’t totally dislodge my overall arch and map of the story. What it did do was afford me some more intrigue and excitement, afforded me some character development that might not have happened unless I let some inspiration throw a wrench in the narrative.

As I compare book one to book two, it may seem as though I’m choosing favorites. Plotting has made book two much easier to write and perhaps even more enjoyable. That being said, there was a kind of exploratory magic in book one that can’t be discredited, and I think a lot of growth for myself as a writer by allowing that curiosity to blossom and being at the mercy of inspiration.

The way I see these two approaches is how I largely believe our “minds” work. Our actual minds are more of receptive organs and processing units than they are producers. I don’t believe thoughts and inspiration are truly our own, for it seems no plot is truly new under the sun, that the common threads we see in stories are indicative of the existence of archetypes, muses, or how I prefer to call it “heavenly intelligences.” We are struck by these ideas and inspirations rather than producing them from raw contemplation. That being said, an idea or image (whether that image be in our heads, in memory, or even in front of us) can be processed by us, can be elaborated on, digested, restructured, combined with other images, etc; perhaps that is raw creativity.

That is what I think writing is: the receptivity of inspiration mingled in with raw creativity. I believe the pantsing approach leans more on the inspiration whereas the raw creativity is the plotter who restructures things until they seem to fit or create something harmonious.

Where I rest on this topic is with the belief that Pantsing and Plotting should go hand in hand in our process, that we should not give ourselves to one extreme or the other. Plotting can become far too extreme to the point that the plot is predictable, contrived, or dogmatically allegorious. Pantsing can become too flimsy when the artist takes no agency over the ideas or works, creating a substanceless stream of consciousness of ideas that can lead to no conclusion at best or poor ones at worst.

My two cents is to experiment with both, and be aware of the creative process of plotting that attempts to reorganize things until harmony is realized, all the while being receptive to inspiration that a story and its characters may unfold on its own.

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