Plotter or Pantser?

I’ve been trying to write a little more regularly since Christmas (this is definitely not a New Year’s Resolution, promise…), partly because I have a variety of story ideas I want to get moving with, partly because I was bought a selection of wonderful notepads, pens and pencils as gifts which are just begging to be used. Over the last couple of days I have managed to work on a first draft of a story I have been mulling for a while now, I have also spent some time recently drafting out new ideas which I have had in the last week or so.

I don’t think anyone could argue working on a first draft is anything but writing. What I am unsure about is whether plotting out a new story counts as well (or writing a blog post for that matter…). While my plots can often be detailed, they are notes and scribblings and are certainly not something which will ever be published or read by anyone but me. Can this count as me engaging more with writing?

I tend to plot out all of the stories I want to tell in varying levels of detail. The first full novel I attempted (and have yet to finish) was a seat of the pants job (hence the title of this post, a pantser rather than a plotter), but I found myself getting lost in the detail and the story felt laboured. I gave up on the draft after chapter 4, but have subsequently plotted the rest of the story out so may return to it in the future.

Since then, I have plotted the stories I want to write, resulting in Free City from my first real attempt at a plot. I have even used simple sets of notes for the longer stories in A Tale in Few Words, and while the story I am currently writing does not have the chapter by chapter plot I usually use, it does have a rough outline of where I am going and what I want to happen, something I returned to just yesterday to make sure I am on track.

For those of you who are able to write without the need for a plot to guide you, please share your secrets in the comments below. I can only imagine you must have such a vivid understanding of your story in your mind which makes the need for a guide obsolete, but if you have any other tips or tricks then do feel free to share.

For my fellow plotters, and especially those looking to write for the first time, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my experiences of plotting out a story which you may find helpful in your own work. I am by no means an expert in developing a good plot, but I certainly have my fair share of notes lying around to draw on.

Detail

Probably the most important consideration when plotting a story is how much detail to include. Too little and it risks being no use to you in keeping track of your writing, too detailed and you might as well polish it up and consider it your first draft.

As I hinted above I tend to develop my plot chapter by chapter. For each chapter, this will include the basic plot points to be covered, something about the setting and which characters are involved. I might also make notes to myself about ideas for clever narrative I want to include, as well as reminders of important details to be included for the plot to make sense. For a average length book (80000 words or so) this would result in 1-2 paragraphs per chapter.

Outside of the chapter plan, and especially in more speculative fiction, I might also have world building sections such as locations, characters etc, but I don’t find these are always helpful, especially if the world my story is set in is much like the real one.

Consistency

One of the main reasons I use plots and notes is to keep track of more complex stories, especially those with mystery elements which are needed for the conclusion of the tale. Free City is a good example here, as it weaves several parallel subplots which are interlinked in sometimes obscure ways. If I did not have my original notes I would quite easily have lost myself I am sure. Whether your notes are printed, in notebooks or on your laptop, using a highlighter (or highlighter function) to keep tabs on the really important points is going to save you a lot of work when it comes to getting the first draft of your story down on paper.

Notebook or Electronic

I have written before about my love of notebooks which I will use for the first draft of my stories before typing them up for draft 2. When it comes to plotting out the story, however, I tend to rely on technology. More specifically, I tend to use my phone and the notes app to draft out the plot. This is partly because I always have my phone with me and can quickly jot down ideas when they come to me, partly as it can become cumbersome to have notebooks full of notes as well as notebooks containing the actually draft lying around as I write.

Searchability

Using my phone does come with its own problems, the main one being the ability to easily search through my notes for important bits of information. While getting a plot down quickly on the notes app is useful at the time, looking back at it later when I am trying to draft the story can be a real pain, especially if the story is a long one. Having to scroll back through lines and lines of text to where I think an important point is located can be frustrating, and at the worst leads to me losing my flow. If you are going to trying plotting your first or next story, I would strongly advise doing so on a platform which is searchable. Word and Pages are useful tools here, more so than your phone notes app. Despite what I have said above, it can also be easier to flick through pages of a notebook than scroll through text on your phone, so if you don’t mind additional notebooks lying around while you write, feel free to ignore what I wrote above.

Bullet Points

I don’t think there is much to elaborate on here beyond; use bullet points and lists liberally.

  • Bullet points are quick to get down on paper
  • They can contain a lot of information in a small space
  • They are easy to search back through at a future time
  • You can have the pleasure of ticking off points as and when you have included them in the story, a little reward to yourself for progress made

Spelling and Grammar

Finally, and I cannot stress this enough; do not worry about your spelling and grammar as you get your plot on paper! Providing it is legible and coherent enough for you to understand weeks or months down the line, it is good enough for the plot. Spending any more time correcting yourself in a plan no one else will see is time you could have spent writing the first draft. I am sure you will look back at notes as you move along and cringe at the mistakes (I know I do) but that is OK, getting the plot on paper as efficiently as possible to give you as much time as possible to write the actual story should always be the goal, spelling and grammar be damned!

So are you a Plotter or a Pantser?

Whether you are a plotting novice or expert, I hope there is something above which you can use when starting out on your next story. As I have said earlier on, why not tell us about your experiences in the comments below, both good and bad.

Most of all, happy writing!

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