Quick-Tip Tuesday: Finding Balance Between Plotting and Pantsing


Whether to outline or whether to just write the story — put another way, to plot or to pants.

This is an ongoing discussion among writers, one that we’ve discussed here in the past. It’s actually more relevant for me right now than you might know. I’m well into a novel — I’ve written more than 100,000 words on it already — that I did NOT outline. And now I find myself struggling with the plotting as the book approaches its climax.

So, I must be about to give you a sermon on the virtues of plotting and the evils of pantsing, right?

Well, not entirely. The truth is, while I’m scuffling a bit right now, writing the novel has been fun. Because I haven’t been working from an outline, the discovery of each new plot point has come as something of an epiphany. I’ve been experiencing the story as a writer the way my readers will experience it, watching my narrative unfold, living the revelations. It’s not only exciting, it’s also instructive.

So, on the one hand, I’m as convinced as ever of the need to outline; on the other, I’m enjoying life as a pantser. How do I put this into a Quick Tip?

The first step is to remember that despite the way the “Plotter v. Pantser” debate is usually framed, we don’t have to approach this decision as an either-or proposition. I know people who don’t outline at all; I know people who don’t feel comfortable writing a novel with anything less than a fifteen to twenty page outline. I usually work somewhere between these two extremes. As most people do. Again, it’s not either-or; rather it’s a choice that exists along a continuum.

The second step is figuring out what things you need to know before you begin to write, and which things you feel comfortable discovering along the way. As an example, I usually like to know in a rough way what I’m going to accomplish with each chapter. I don’t need the details, I don’t need to know the contents of specific conversations, I don’t even need to know how characters get to where they need to be, either physically or in a more figurative sense. But I do usually have to have those major narrative markers in mind.

The problems I’ve had with this current project have been rooted in the fact that I didn’t have even that basic information. At the same time, my usual approach allows me some of that sense of discovery I’ve enjoyed so much as I’ve written this book. Put another way, I usually try to find a balance between what I need to know, and what I don’t want to know so that I can remain excited by my creative process.

And finally, the most important element of “outlining” for me is remaining flexible, not only as I outline, but also as I write.

What do I mean?

When my writing goes well, my characters do and say things I don’t expect. They assert themselves as independent entities and so change my narrative plans in ways I can’t possibly anticipate. That’s a good thing.  When my characters surprise me it means they’re coming alive, as they should.

But it also means that any narrative plans I start with are going to become outdated before long. I need to be willing to revisit again and again, until the book is finished, whatever sort of outline I create initially.

So, taking some time to plan out a narrative doesn’t necessarily turn one into a fully committed outliner. Just remember those three steps: 1) Figure out where on the plotter-pantser continuum you feel most comfortable; 2) Decide what things you need to know about your story ahead of time, and which things you want to discover along the way; and 3) Remain flexible.

Best of luck and keep writing!


5 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: Finding Balance Between Plotting and Pantsing

  • […] It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday, and in today’s post over at Magical Words I take on the Plotter v. Pantser debate, with what I think might be a third way. This post is personal for me this time around, because I’m dealing with the issue in my own writing. I hope you enjoy the post and find it helpful. You can read it here. […]

  • […] It’s Quick-Tip Tuesday, and in today’s post over at Magical Words I take on the Plotter v. Pantser debate, with what I think might be a third way. This post is personal for me this time around, because I’m dealing with the issue in my own writing. I hope you enjoy the post and find it helpful. You can read it here. […]

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Way to condense an argument!

    The only thing I can think to add to the discussion is that it feels like this topic is particularly difficult for beginning writers. Like you, I prefer to start with at least some level of bare-bones outline to at least get me pointed where I’m going. But when I started my first book, that was very nearly impossible. I just didn’t know enough about how to translate my ideas into coherent story structure. So at that stage, pantsing was an important step – I had to dive in and see what happened. So, I guess this is just an addendum to #3: Being flexible means be prepared to maybe oscillate wildly between different approaches, and that’s perfectly okay. Whatever it takes to keep going.

  • Razziecat

    I think I’ve quote this before, by Gene Wolfe: “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.”

    And that is so true! Sometimes I need more of an outline, sometimes I need things to be more abstract. I need a general idea of what the characters want and what the end result will be – in fact, I’m finding it much easier to write when I know how it ends – but to me, the best part of writing is being surprised by what comes out of the pen (or the keyboard!). When the characters do things I never expected, I’m thrilled. I keep an ongoing document called “Notes on [story name]” and add ideas and thoughts to it so I don’t forget important plot points or other ideas; but I never outline in excruciating detail because to me, that’s writing the story. If I have to go back and change something to fit new developments, that’s fine. I’ve been playing with short stories recently and have been fascinated by the way each scene takes on a more solid shape as I revise. Applying what I’ve learned to a full-length novel will be the next step.

  • Hep, that’s a great point. For those who are just starting out, that first outline can be incredibly intimidating. I remember outlining the second book in my first series (I just wrote the first as it came to me) and finding it both exhilarating and intimidating. Great comment. Thanks!

    Razz, I’ve always liked that Gene Wolfe quote, and I think it’s absolutely true. I could never have written one of the Thieftaker novels the way I’m writing this new one. And as frustrated as I’ve been at times with the WIP, I also know that it wouldn’t have come out so well (so far) had I forced myself to create a detailed outline from the outset. As you say, each novel creates its own exigencies. Thanks for the comment!!