Plotting: How to Pants – Delilah S Dawson

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That’s right, y’all: I plot by the seat of my pants. In this case, Batgirl fleece pants. And you can, too! But not in my Batgirl fleece pants. You’ll have to get your own.  delilahauthorpic

We all know what plotting is, right? Just search Magical Words for “plot”, and you have all the keys to greatness. But perhaps you don’t know the other half of the writer coin: PANTSING. It means that when you start writing, you don’t always know where you’re going to end up. For me, pantsing is a lot like a college road trip: you know where you’re starting out, you have a general idea of where you want to end up, and lots of really weird stuff that you couldn’t possibly anticipate will happen in between.

In some ways, pantsing is the equivalent of starting too early. You have an idea. You have characters. You have an instigating factor. And instead of really chewing on the story until you can draw out a timeline or plot out the action, you just… go.

 

Now, notice that this method won’t work if you want to drive from Atlanta to San Diego and see every Guinness World Record and eat at every Waffle House from here to there, nor will it suffice if you’re on a tight timetable. If you’re writing something historical, something with dueling POVs, or something with GRR Martin-level plot intricacies and timing– well, you’re stuck with outlining. But if you read a lot and haven an internal understanding of story and character arcs, it might work. I wrote my first three books entirely by pantsing, and I still work only from the shortest synopsis my editor will allow. And even then, the end result sometimes varies wildly.

 

There’s a lot of room for failure when you start without a complete plot, I’ll admit, especially if you’re relatively new to novel writing. The biggest trap is a deep, dark hole I call Making Things Real. That’s when a novel begins with the writer attempting to bludgeon the reader into believing that things exist. Instead of a story moving forward, you get a prologue, a few meaningful quotes, a detailed map of a place that has never existed, a long list of character names and descriptions, and then four pages detailing the setting and clothing in the opening scene without more action than lots of glancing. “These things are real,” you say, to yourself and the reader. “I will force you to see them.” But the reader wants movement and energy, and that’s why so many first chapters get cut, I think. You have to know where you are to know where you’re going.

 

The thing is, if you’re going to pants your novel, you have to be constantly writing in your head. You know where to start, you know the moment everything changes, you know the climax, you know the ending. But everything else is sort of a surprise, and you leave yourself space to have fun. Dorothy gets caught in a tornado, lands in Oz and kills the witch, goes to see the Wizard, gets back home. But the interesting bits are the little cul-de-sacs where she meets friends along the way. If you’re lucky, your characters will walk onstage and be real, just like the Cowardly Lion. And if your characters walk on and lack that “pop”, check out my post last week on Character Retrofitting. Revisions are your friend.

 

So while you’re writing your first draft, be sure to finish your writing for the day knowing what will happen tomorrow, or at least leave a juicy sentence or cliffhanger and spend the rest of your day and night figuring it out. Like so:

 

As Christina curled up in the Earl’s bed for the first time, she couldn’t help wondering what kept her new husband out so late on their first night as husband and wife. Perhaps one of his prized horses was foaling, or maybe he had received a letter from Parliament? Surely he would join her soon, as much as the idea frightened her. Rolling onto her back, she bolted up when she heard the door open in the hall. Finally, he was here!

 

But why were the footsteps those of a running woman, rather than the muscular earl’s sure tread?

 

WHO IS THAT WOMAN? WHY IS SHE RUNNING DOWN THE HALL?

 

I don’t know yet, but you can bet I’ll figure it out tomorrow in the shower or while driving my kid to school and listening to my playlist. Your subconscious is brilliant, and if you give it the space and encouragement it needs to solve problems, it totally will. Many a time I’ve ended my writing on a conundrum or twist, not knowing how to get myself out of a bind. And then, when I was waking up or swimming, the answer just came to me.

 

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????In my third Blud book, WICKED AFTER MIDNIGHT, I knew that Demi would land in a cabaret in Paris and need help from the cabaret girls to find her kidnapped friend. The first girl who gave her a hand up was a green daimon named Mel. Although I didn’t know much about Mel, I knew she was the kind-hearted type to take in strays. But then I realized that she was half of a whole, and she gave a blue daimon named Bea a certain look, and suddenly I had a beautiful relationship between Mel and the mute girl she’d found hiding in the cabaret one night. Mel and Bea’s loving partnership became an integral part of the book, and something that happens to them at the end always brings tears to my eyes. Because I didn’t plot out from the start who would help Demi navigate the cabarets, I ended up letting Mel and Bea surprise me, and I’m so glad I did.

 

And don’t worry– the Pants Club won’t kick you out if you keep little notes at the bottom of your document about things you’d like to happen later. I’m a firm believer in everyone having their own process, and sometimes each book having its own process. The thing about pantsing is that while you can teach plotting, you can’t teach pantsing. You need optimism, obsession, time on task, and the willingness to trust your subconscious and your gut. And you also need the ability to sense when you’ve gone off course and need to backtrack. Even Batgirl fleece pants can’t make writing easy.

Wanna see a pantsed e-novella in motion? My third Blud e-novella, THE DAMSEL AND THE DAGGERMAN,  is out now. And I only knew four plot points when I wrote the first sentence. The attack lobsters were a gift from my subconscious.

 

Thanks again for having me at Magical Words!

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15 comments to Plotting: How to Pants – Delilah S Dawson

  • Ken

    Hi there Delilah, welcome back!

    I’m still trying to figure out my Outlining/Pantsing identity and I suspect that I’m something of a hybrid writer. I need to know the start, the end, and I need to know some cool places to visit along the way.

    What I usually don’t know is how I’m going to get there OR what I’m going to find at these cool places (I sometimes know, but sometimes I’ll get there and I’ll be looking at something else entirely–kind of like going to visit the biggest ball of string in Arizona and, instead, paying more attention to the antique marble collection housed in the same warehouse…cuz where else are you going to put your antique marbles other than right next to your biggest ball of string?)

    So, yah, hybrid. My question to you is how do you know when you’ve left the path and need to backtrack?

  • Thanks Delilah, great post!

    I’m also part of the Pants Club. An interesting part of the reason why is that when I spend a lot of time thinking about a scene it seems to just disappear on me. It’s like I have one shot at the creativity, and if it doesn’t end up on paper while it’s being created it’s gone forever. So if I spend all that energy thinking and planning everything up front, that was my one shot and I can’t write it. Kind of weird, and probably something that will improve as I practice I suppose.

    Thanks again for your post. Glad you’re here with us.

  • Yay Delilah! I have never been a panster — outliner all the way. But doesn’t mean I don’t get stuck or find that something won’t work, and then, I’m a pantser. And this is so so so true: >>Your subconscious is brilliant, and if you give it the space and encouragement it needs to solve problems, it totally will. <<
    Trusting in the creative sub-brain is paramount!

  • Thanks, Delilah. Welcome back! It’s very interesting to hear about your process and how it works for you.

    Ken – I do the same thing. I call it “puzzling”. Because while I find I love to plot, I’m also like Faith, I still find that the smaller details are often like puzzle pieces I have to find, have to get creative about and fit as needed. I like the flexibility.

  • Ken

    Puzzling.

    I like that. Not in the least because I can refer to myself as a puzzling writer :)

  • Ken, I know I need to backtrack when the path isn’t clear. When I hit a dead-end and get stuck. The writing will be going well, with a pace that makes me comfortable and keeps me interested. And then something will happen, and I will flat out stop writing. I won’t know where to go. It’s like getting to part of the Grand Canyon and realizing you can’t just teleport across. So I look at the last time the writing was exactly on track and which decision led me to the Point of No Continuation. Sometimes it’s a character’s words or reactions, and often, the first step to stasis is a passive decision. I find that when my characters are actively choosing their paths, things go well. But when I choose to let fate carry them onward, they lose their momentum, and then I’m not sure where to take them.

    Which is also an argument for keeping motivation and agency tantamount in your writing. Yes, nature and chance and other characters will throw wrenches into the main character’s plan. But the main character must keep moving forward, making decisions that may or may not be smart choices but that are in line with their personality and goals. They will always be thinking and planning, and therefore so will you.

    Make sense?

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for sharing your process on this. It’s very helpful to get tips from non-plotters!

    Like Ken, I also seem to be somewhat of a hybrid. I really like to outline what I can so I can see where I’m going. Knowing what I want to come later is *so* helpful in figuring out how to leverage the earlier stuff to best advantage. However, so far the pattern seems to be that I can’t seem to see past the characters I haven’t met yet. To be more precise, if I plan to have such-and-such side character come into the plot and give it a shove in some direction or another, if I haven’t had a chance to write about that side character yet, then I don’t seem to have enough information to outline past that plot point (even though I know the basic plot point!). (This was fairly frustrating when one of my characters in my last book didn’t meet her mentor until about a third of the way into the book…) The end result of all this is anytime a writer says, “and I know the ending”, I feel extremely envious.

  • I’m a pretty dedicated plotter. I outline all of my books. But outlines are very, very rough — almost no detail at all. And so I have these mileposts that I know I have to hit, but I do a lot of improvising in between each one. Too much plotting, and my storytelling goes flat. Too little and I get lost. As you say, every writer has his or her approach. With mine, I try to get something valuable from each approach. But the other thing is that my process is a work-in-progress. It changes from book to book, and sometimes even in the middle of a book. I guess that’s what makes all of this stuff so much fun to think and write about. Thanks for the post, Delilah.

  • khernandez

    Wow there’s a term for what I do! I only have a general idea of where my plot is going, no real idea of the end. I think I do what other writers call “headlights planning” I have an outline about 2 or 3 chapters ahead of where I am currently writing. Then when I get there, I will probably have figured out another 2 or 3 chapters. This is my first novel so I’m of course still developing my style, but this is what is happening for me.

  • I’m still trying to find a balance between pantsing and plotting that works for me. Historically I’m a pantser, but historically I’ve mostly had stories gradually wilt away and die or crash into an insurmountable barrier because I haven’t planned enough. Right now I know the ending and some key points along the way, but I’m trying not to overplot. I think I need some open space in the story where I can wait and see what comes along to fill in the blanks. Some of my best writing happens in those spaces.

  • Razziecat

    Here’s what I’ve learned about my process (if I can call it that ;D) in the last couple of years: I can totally write an outline…but the more detail I put into it, the less I want to write the actual story. Instead, to get things flowing, I write a sort of stream-of-consciousness thing in a blank document, putting my thoughts down as they occur to me, until I get to the “I have to write this story NOW!” feeling. For me the first line is crucial, the spark that sets the rest on fire. That always makes me want to just see where the story is going. Once it’s in motion I keep to a list of major events that I want to happen, and I know it’s going well when I’m thinking several scenes ahead. For me, being surprised by my characters is key to my interest in the story. I’ve finally learned to ignore the inner editor in favor of forward motion. I can always go back and revise. :D

  • Very timely. I’ve been drafting a series of blog posts for beginning novelists, one of which I entitle “Neither a pantser nor a plotter be.” My point is that few if any writers truly adhere to either method. Plotting out your story in too much detail is as detrimental as writing without any idea where your story is going. Both invite setbacks and delays. I recommend beginners write a two-page synopsis before they start writing, identifying the theme and describing the ending. I also suggest they start with a written albeit sketchy outline so that you have given some thought to the structure of the novel. Neither exercise should stifle a self-described pantser’s creativity while experienced plotters like David know just how much structure to lock themselves into without making the process sterile.

  • My problem is that I quit being able to have a climax and an ending. My brain refuses to let me have those. I have to pants until I find them. It’s killing me. So I’m working to change that back to at least knowing a few key peg points.

  • I plot. I used to pants, long, long ago. But I also never finished anything until I started planning it out beforehand. Of course, each project has different levels of planning. Some just need a bare bones sketch and others need full outlines.

  • If my plot is detailed, I get tired of the tale – it’s like, “I’ve watched this movie too many times! There are no surprises here!” I have to know my MC and the world (love world-building), and I have a general idea of the “thing” that has to be fixed, but until I start writing, I prefer not knowing how to get from A to X. As I work, though, and learn more about the “thing,” I start having more ideas of obstacles and assistances I want to toss into the road for the MC to run over, pick up, or crash into. I scribble these on a notepad or my tablet until I can collect them into some pretense of coherence.