Sunday, October 04, 2015

Pantsing versus Planning

6:00 AM Posted by Tara No comments
One of Nanowrimo's mottoes is "No plot? No problem!" For some, that works well, but for others... not so much. Today we're going to talk about the great debate: pantsing versus planning.

What the heck is pantsing?

I'm glad you asked!

1. The act of forcefully removing a person's pants as a form of embarrassment.
2. The act of writing without a fixed outline, or "by the seat of your pants."

It's entirely possible that the first kind of pantsing occurs in your novel, and you need to perform some real-world research on the topic—you just never know with writers, do you? But for our purposes here, we'll be focusing on the second kind.

Pantsers usually have some vague idea for a story, a main character, or an opening line, but not much else. Some may not have had time to do any planning, while others simply enjoy the adrenaline rush. Whatever the case, on November 1, pantsers dive right in without a life-jacket. They often have no idea what's going to happen next, and enjoy the surprise of discovering their story as they go along.

There are different levels of pantsing. The extremist pantser truly writes moment-to-moment with little to no forethought, perhaps taking on random dares or prompts from the Nanowrimo community. Moderate pantsers will start the month with an idea ("What if all the statues on Earth suddenly came to life?"), but develop their plot and characters as they write. Conservative pantsers will have a rough picture of the beginning, middle, and end of their novel before Nanowrimo begins, but allow their story to veer off course at will.

There are both benefits and downfalls to pantsing your way through Nanowrimo.

Pantsing pros:

  • If the intimidating specter of outlining has scared you away from writing a novel in the past, pantsing lets you skip it and get to the good part!
  • There's a sense of exploration and discovery in writing the unknown. You're right there with your characters, along for the same journey—and that journey is spoiler-free.
  • You have freedom to change direction if your plot loses steam, if you get bored and lack the motivation to continue, or if you just really hate that one character and need to kill him.
  • Inspiration for your next plot twist can come from anywhere: the couple breaking up at the next table at Starbucks, the song on the radio, the bird that just hit your window.
  • Pantsing embraces one of Nanowrimo's greatest tenets: that you don't need a fully fleshed-out plot to start writing a novel. The most important thing is that you start writing.

Pantsing cons:

  • Inspiration can end abruptly, leaving you stranded in the middle of your novel with another 25,000 words to go... and there's only so many dream sequences you can write.
  • You feel less commitment to an idea you came up with two days ago than one you've been nurturing for months, and therefore are more likely to abandon it at the first sign of trouble.
  • Without a map to keep your story on track, it's easy to get lost in a mire of rambling tangents, and to find yourself a hundred miles from the end of your story at the end of November.
  • Your novel may lack the structure needed to be a cohesive plot, and end up as a series of things happening with no real purpose.
  • All that time you saved by not outlining will be spent in revision if you want your manuscript to resemble anything close to a publishable novel.

So you're thinking about becoming a pantser...

If you like a good paradox and plan to pants it this November, there are a few approaches you might take.

Utilize's Adoption Society.

Each year on the forums, hundreds of threads are created with thousands of adoptable ideas; whatever you need, be it a villain's catchphrase or a name for an alien race, you'll find it on the Adoption Society. For a classic pantsing experience, choose a random plot from the Adopt A Plot thread on November 1 and start writing! Get your characters, settings, and twist ending from the Adoption Society, too. It's one-stop shopping for pantsers!

Draw scenes from a hat. 

Everyone's favorite Whose Line is it Anyway? game, now a method for novel-writing! Jot down ideas for scenes and plot twists on pieces of paper, ranging from simple ("Someone dies") to detailed ("The protagonist discovers his pet cat can talk, and they start a stand-up comedy routine"). Toss them all in a hat, and pull one out every few days to throw a wrench into your characters' lives.

Use anything and everything as a prompt.

Scroll down your Instagram feed and use whatever photo you land on as a prompt for your next scene (turn your friend's zillionth "artsy" dinner shot into your protagonist's disastrous attempt to cook for their love interest). Do the same with iTunes: turn on shuffle, hit play, and use the opening line of the song you get as a starting point (Baby Got Back? Well, you're on your own with that one). Keep your ears peeled on your commute to work or in the cafeteria at school for ready-made dialogue (if you only hear one side of the conversation, you must make the other as ridiculous as possible; those are the rules). During Nanowrimo, everything is fair game to use in your novel, and no one does it better than a pantser.

Let others take the wheel.

Turn the Choose Your Own Adventure books of our youth on their head and let others choose this adventure for you! Every day, offer two narrative options to the social network of your choice, and run with the one that gets the most votes. Make the options wildly different ("Anna gets a phone call. Is it a kidnapper demanding ransom for her sister, or her future self with a warning of the impending alien invasion?") to maximize their pantsing factor.

Roll for initiative.

Any Dungeons & Dragons player will tell you that a single roll of the dice can either make or break the game. You can use that same high-stakes unpredictability in your writing. Write down and number the names of six characters and six random events that could happen to any one of them ("Fights a zombie," "Runs into love interest," "Killed by the Travelling Shovel of Death"). Then roll your dice twice, once to choose a character and once to choose their plot twist. You could also use dice instead of the majority vote to decide between your aforementioned daily narrative options, or simply use lower numbers to drive your characters into pits of despair while higher numbers offer strokes of good luck.

Many Wrimos swear by the pantsing approach, but if you panic at the mere thought of attempting to write 50,000 words without any idea of where to begin, where you're going, or how to get there, pantsing is probably not for you. You must be a planner!

Preparation: the key to success?

Planners, like pantsers, come in a variety of flavors. The conservative planner has a bare-bones outline at the very least—they know the major plot points of their novel, their characters' names and roles, the general details of their setting—but fill in the blanks as they write. The moderate planner spends more time developing their idea, and will prepare short synopses of each chapter or scene, character profiles, and maps of their settings. They may also do some research on real-world topics they'll cover in their novel, or world-building for their fantasy lands and cultures.

And then, there's the extremist planner, who devotes more time to planning their novel than actually writing it. The extremist planner creates sprawling outlines with detailed scene synopses that follow a specific plot structure; they know their characters' desires, fears, insecurities, and the inner evolution they will experience throughout the story; they have done extensive research to ensure the science in their science fiction is plausible, or that their medieval villages are historically accurate; they have thought about theme, symbolism, metaphor, and foreshadowing. Simply put, they know everything there is to know about their novel... until they start writing, and realize their so-called total understanding was just an illusion.

The fact is, even the best-laid plans can go awry. No outline, no matter how elaborate, should ever be set in stone. You will get stuck at least once during the course of writing the novel you so meticulously outlined, and will have to adapt your plans to bridge the gap. The exhilarating stage of the first draft is about experimentation and discovery, even for the most rigid of planners, who will continue to be inspired and come up with new ideas throughout the writing process. Don't panic if, 10,000 words in, you decide your story would be stronger told from another character's perspective, or you realize your villain may actually be more of a hero. Sometimes it's better to follow your gut instinct than your outline. And remember—you can (and should!) revise your outline once you've finished writing your first draft.

So, what are the ups and downs of planning?

Planning pros:

  • You have the aforementioned map to get you from point A to point B in thirty days, so you spend less time thinking, "Now what?" and more time actually writing.
  • You have a better chance at identifying—and solving—potential problems like plot holes and dead ends ahead of time.
  • Knowing your plot's arc allows you to write non-linearly. If you're stuck on one scene, you can jump ahead to another to keep your momentum going.
  • You're more likely to stick with your novel when the going gets tough, since you've already committed so much time and effort to it.
  • You're more likely to end the month with a relatively clean first draft, making rewrites less extensive.

Planning cons:

  • You need to invest time in the weeks or months prior to November to plan your novel.
  • You may be overwhelmed by what can seem a herculean task, especially if this is your first time outlining, and give up on your novel before you even start writing it. 
  • You're more likely to get bored while writing your story, having already spent so much time with it, and already knowing everything that's going to happen.
  • Outlines can feel restrictive, and may cause you to turn away a great idea that doesn't fit into your plan.
  • If that inspiration is too strong to ignore, you may be compelled to revise your outline before you continue writing, which can result in falling behind on your word count goal.

But I don't know how to outline!

Despite what you were told in your fourth-grade creative writing unit, there's no single right way to outline. Different practices work for different people, and no two writers' methods will be exactly alike. After all, outlining is essentially just a way of organizing your thoughts.

Here's a brief look at five different outlining methods you might use to plan your novel. Want more information? Check out this post.

Post-It Notes.

Post-It Notes: a user-friendly tool for outlining your novel scene by scene. Write down things that will happen, stick them up on a wall, and voila! Instant outline!

The Snowflake method.

Most outlining practices involve starting with a single idea and building on it, but the Snowflake method does this in a much more focused way that ensures you devote time to developing both your plot and your characters.  It's great for those new to outlining and those who prefer a narrative approach to envisioning their novel.

The three-act structure.

If you don't want to outline every single scene of your novel but still want to ensure your plot is properly mapped, the three-act structure allows you to plan your story's major plot points while leaving the rest open to your imagination.


Spreadsheet outlines offer visual organization, at-a-glance information, and endless customization, and are especially great at keeping track of the who, what, where, when, and why of individual scenes or chapters.


Scrivener is a complete project manager, ideal for the extremist planner but also useful to even the most conservative ones. With its corkboard view, outliner view, nested files and folders, collections, keywords, and labels, Scrivener has something for everyone.

The bottom line

When it comes right down to it, we are all some combination of pantser and planner. The most outline-averse pantser will still have ideas for what's to come in their novel rolling around in their head, and the planner who spends months outlining their novel will still have moments of sudden inspiration that demands a change of course.

There is no right way to approach novel-writing; what matters is that you find the way best suited to you. Don't force yourself to plan more or less than you feel comfortable with, or else Nanowrimo will start to feel more like work and less like play.

What's your preferred method of preparing for Nanowrimo? Let me know the pros and cons you've experienced with either pantsing or planning!


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