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Your Novel in 13 Weeks, Part 3: The Plot Wars

By all means take up arms in the fight between "plotters" and "fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-ers." Just remember to take up a pen too.

Sarah Hoyt


March 26, 2013 - 2:00 pm

To Plot or Not To Plot

The closest you come to holy wars among writers is on the matter of plotting versus pantsing. Pantsing is a highly technical term, roughly translating as “flying by the seat of the pants.” Plotting in this case means working out the details of your story in advance.

Should someone ask you if you’re a plotter or a pantser, you might think it is just a matter of curiosity; but be careful how you answer.  Whatever your answer, there is an even chance that if your listener is a writer — and even if he isn’t — he’ll have strong opinions on how you’re doing it wrong.

The only people without strong opinions on this are people like me who started as strict plotters, became somewhat looser plotters, and now find themselves as pantsers.  It is not an unusual journey even if the opposite trajectory is almost unheard of .  I have the theory that plotters who become pantsers after a number of books have in fact internalized the structure of a novel so well that the subconscious is pulling its own weight.

Plotters defend their method of work as resulting in tighter, cleaner books, and pantsers defend theirs as letting unexpected genius shine through more often.  And yet, I know many plotters whose work has sudden, unexpected surprises, and many pantsers whose plots work as precisely as a Swiss watch.

So, instead of telling you the way you should work, I’m going to assume you’re an adult and know yourself best. Besides, if you start out one way and it doesn’t work, you can always change.

What I’m going to tell you — quickly — is how some people write plot outlines, and then how other people write without mapping plots in advance.

The Nefarious Plot

The simplest form of a plot is a “high-points plot.”

Take Romeo and Juliet.  The high-points plot could be relatively detailed, or it could fit in the back of a postcard, in which case it would go something like this: Romeo falls in love with Juliet.  Parents enemies. Lightning-fast romance.  Secret marriage.  Forced separation.  Juliet pushed to marry Paris. Confusion.  Double suicide.  Parents chastened.

If you are the more detailed type of high-point plotter, you could have in stuff like the duel with Tybald, or the friar’s plot to fake Juliet’s death.

A more detailed form of plot is a chapter plot.  My chapters tend to coincide with scenes, so it would go something like this:

1- A duel between Capulets and Montagues on the street.  Supporting characters introduced, including Benvolio.  Duel is broken up by the prince.

2- Montague interrogates Benvolio about the cause of the quarrel.  Conversation turns to Romeo, whose behavior has been worrying his parents.

3- Benvolio interrogates Romeo on the cause of his changed behavior, and finds that he’s in love with Rosaline.

If you have no idea on how a plot should go, there are many guides to use, including Campbell’s the Hero’s Journey or (depending on the size of your endeavor) the simple injunction that your character should start the story in some sort of trouble and that his efforts to dig himself out of trouble should bury him deeper and deeper, until a grand climatic battle, confrontation, or effort is necessary to restore him to his normal life.  (Or get him better off than he was when the plot started.)

Most people do know how they want the story to go, though.  Depending on what you’re writing you probably know at least how it ends, and you can reverse engineer it every step of the way to see which scenes must be in there to make it work.

You should be aware that many beginning writers complain that once they have outlined the plot, they no longer wish to write the story.  In that case, you might wish to consider simply doing a high-points plot and leaving your subconscious to fill in the details as you write.

You should also be aware that sometimes the plot changes as you write and characters take on a life of their own.  This happens to some writers all the time, to others not at all, and to some occasionally.  If it happens to you, you’re normal.  Just roll with it, and change your plot as you go.  Of course, then you might find yourself becoming a pantser.

Flying by the Seat of Your Pants

I used to write plots so detailed that I’d just fill in dialogue and description, and I had a full novel.  And then… it changed.  I could write all the plots I wanted, but the story would refuse to conform.  Or the story blasted through so fast, I had no time to plot.

This is very unnerving and requires a great deal of self-confidence, which few writers have.  So you might find yourself spending an unconscionable amount of time doubting your novel’s course, what you’re doing, and even your sanity.

It’s okay if this happens to you.  No, really.  It’s disconcerting and worrying, and it makes you feel like you lost your mind — or at least it made me feel like I lost my mind — but it is not unusual and it is not in any way wrong.

Lots of bestselling authors wrote and write that way at least part of the time.  The ones that come to mind are Agatha Christie (who wrote that way sometimes, and who likened writing that way to driving down a road at night, seeing only a car length ahead of you at any time), and Terry Pratchett, who writes that way all the time, and whose works are some of the more intricately plotted fantasies ever written.

So, first, stop being scared.  Take a deep breath and start.  Trust your instinct and your voice.  Remember these magical words: you can always fix it in edit.  The reader will never know.

Second, if you get irrevocably stuck, try deciding if you might have painted yourself into a corner or if you’re afraid of what you have to write next.  If neither of these circumstances apply, take a couple of days off.  Go for a walk.  Read a couple of books.  Watch a movie.  Usually in the middle of other activities, something will click and suddenly you’ll know how to go on.  However, even if that doesn’t happen, come back to the book and try again.

The risk of pantsing is, of course, that you’ll need to do extensive edits, as the novel doesn’t go where you intended and/or has iterative chapters in the middle where the characters are stuck in a purposeless action loop. The good thing is that you CAN edit.

But at least you’ll have all the material right there, in front of you, which might suit your mind better than plotting it all in advance.  And, hey, you can always publish a “blooper reel” for the book on your blog and amuse your fans.

Full Steam Ahead

Whichever way you’re going to do it, pick one, and start writing.  Despite the heat writers generate when arguing over methods, if your results are good, no one cares how you got there.  And if your results are bad, it was a learning experience.

You can always change from one method to the other, if it doesn’t suit you or even if it stops working for you.

It’s your method, and you can do it however you want.  If the other side declares you a plotting/pantsing infidel, tell them I gave you dispensation.

We’re writers, anyway.  The worst any of us would do is kill you in a story, and since we also routinely kill our best friends and fans, that’s almost a compliment.

Sarah Hoyt lives in Colorado with her husband, two sons and too many cats. She has published Darkship Thieves and 16 other novels, and over 100 short stories. Writing non-fiction is a new, daunting endeavor. For more on Sarah and samples of her writing, look around at Sarah A. or check out her writing and life blog at According to

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All Comments   (8)
All Comments   (8)
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Two good strategies but i employ neither.I carry a little notebook to catch my cluster f of observations and thoughts as they fly in and land.
The problems from this disfunctional neighborhood where i live and that makes my children stay away.Am i one in the same?I want it to be a how not to guide,but say to myself that i like it,here in my yuppy free zone.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I know when I write that I don't develop any type of outline. I forgot where I read it but I follow the "write it down" rule of thumb: Whatever comes to mind write it down and don't stop until you've finished your thought. Once you've written it down go back, read it, edit it, then read it again, then edit it again. If that makes me a pantser so be it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I tried being a complete panster, and I just got lost wandering from scene to the next. My problem is that I can come up with characters and I can think of interesting scenes to put them in, but when it came time to get those scenes to lead from point A to point B, I couldn't get it to work.

I finally had to concede that I needed to do the "icky" work of figuring out where my story was going and what it was doing overall; then it was just a matter of taking my scenes and working them into the plot. Once I did that and started working things out on that scale, things fell into place much easier. All the interesting character pieces now had a place and potential reason for being in the overall grand scheme of things. Now, I just need to finish those last touches on the Master Plan. I am itching to really dig in and add all the juicy details, the fun part.

I've been dying to do that because this planning stage is anything but fun. My imagination keeps distracting me with what and how my characters might interact and behave at every stage and I want to write that, but I want to finish the big picture first. But I'm one of the methodical people who wants to get the "no fun" done before I reward myself with the goodies.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I agree,my notes resemble a stack of cards,that fell off the table,i must rely on a skeleton to tape them into a readable story!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Does "backstory" count as plotting? I rather doubt it, but I know where my characters come from and against what background the story unfolds (in 2068 [I may need to move that back to 2058 for other reasons], the US is not broke [I have no idea why not], nanotech and the singularity are still "just around the corner"). My protagonist (she even has a first name: Kate) has about 30,000 people in the same boat to keep her company.

Still need High School (which probably implies city and state), last names, company names, parent's associates (at least in general - politicians? high society? rich but unpretentious?).

I just realized I'm going to be writing about a teen-aged girl. I have no personal experience. Hopefully the CW and Twilight have been good tutors (yes, that's scary). Need to get out of that phase, quickly. Perhaps I'll open when she's in college. Perhaps I'll tell the story from the brother's (Tom, yay, a name!) perspective.

On the other hand, it is about telepaths, so 3rd person omniscient might be the route to take.

BTW: I feel lonely - not that it will stop me. Is no one else taking up Sarah's challenge?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Solved the "I know nothing about it" recipe for disaster: Story starts with Kate in business with her brother, not a high-school girl. A few words from the brother about "I always looked after you" will provide enough background. If more is needed, a couple of flashbacks should do it. No need to start the story so far before the main action.

Still no outline, but I have an hour...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In case anyone is paying attention, I have an outline. 14 chapters, it looks like. (and, no, it didn't take six days to write it; I just came back to see if there was another post in this series, which there is.)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm more of a pantser myself--though admittedly, I haven't heard that term before. My wife's definitely more of a plotter. We've learned to live and let live on this issue.

Although, to be honest, we've both done some moving toward the middle. She writes more from scratch these days, while I sometimes need to take a step back and figure out where a story is going.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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