Writing a Novel: Pantsing vs. Planning


Are you a pantser or a planner? If you’re a pantser, chances are you just sit down and write with no plan in mind. You let the characters take you where they will and you let them surprise you. Sometimes your stories might run into a dead end or trail off into the great black nothing, but generally, you enjoy writing spontaneously.

Pantsing can be exhilarating; after all, you’re writing “by the seat of your pants” and you never know where you might end up. Pantsing can also be draining – you can end up wandering off a cliff or into open water without really realizing how you got there, then backtracking to get your story back into a groove that will make sense for readers.

Planners, on the other hand, love to plot out the details of their stories. There is a range when it comes to the depth of planning: some like to plan the rough outlines of a story before writing begins while others will plan out minute details so the writing can progress smoothly after most of the questions have been answered (what would they have eaten for dinner in 1547? I have that in my notes already…).

Planning can also be fun; watching a story take shape and then writing along that shape to create an in-depth exploration of a character or plotline can be immensely satisfying. But planners also run the risk of planning so much that they never start writing. For example, if you find yourself answering 150 character questions about every single one of your major and minor characters before you can begin writing, you might be caught in a type of planning paralysis. Nothing gets a story done but writing, after all, and refining the details is what editing is for.

So how do you find a happy medium? Not everyone needs to find a middle ground, of course: you may be perfectly happy and productive with your pure-pantsing or -planning approach. But for those of us who can get stuck one way or the other, there are some ways to integrate a little pantsing into your planning and a little planning into your pantsing.

Plan only a few scenes ahead at a time

Remember that planning ahead doesn’t have to mean plotting out every detail of your entire book. If you plot the coming three or four scenes at a time, then you have an idea of the direction your characters are headed and can nudge them in that direction when necessary. For over-planners, sticking to a plan of just a few scenes can get you to the writing faster. Each time you finish the scenes you have planned, try taking a set amount of time (so you don’t get stalled) to plan the next few scenes, then it’s off to the races again.

Write out of order

If the thrill of pure inspiration has grabbed you, write what’s running through your head before it runs away. The beauty of these fancy-shmancy word processors we have nowadays is that we can cut and paste with abandon, so go ahead and write that scene that cropped up in your dream last night or that came to you in a flash of insight. You can slot it into the proper place later – the important thing is to get it down on paper now. This tip applies across the board: when you’re sitting down to write, even if you’ve planned out the scenes you want to work on, there may be another piece that’s calling your name. Write that instead!

Set a timer

Choose a set amount of time, set a timer, and then write until the timer goes off. There are advantages here for both pantsers and planners: for planners, getting in a set amount of writing time each day will get you out of the planning stage. For pantsers, setting an end time will allow you to review and make sure your characters are in a place that makes sense to your story. Remember, I said, “makes sense to your story” – jumping off a cliff might make perfect sense in one context and no sense in another. If you’ve veered too far off track, then now if your chance to make your way back.

What do you think? Are you a pantser or a planner? What are your best tricks for avoiding the extremes of your chosen path?

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