Henri ponders, To Plot or Not to Plot

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Example of an outline

Example of an outline

By the way, I can’t take credit for that wonderful word “pantser” – I first heard it at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference in Greenwich in 2010, from the writer Kate Hardy. You can find Kate here, www.katehardy.com

A pantser is the opposite of a plotter – it means that you’re writing your novel by “the seat of your pants”, or “into the wind” (wind, pants… sorry, no pun intended!).

I’ll admit to being a plotter through and through, creating detailed outlines broken down chapter by chapter, which may each include the setting for that particular section, the characters in it, whose viewpoint it is, what needs to be researched further, etc. I sometimes also include the discoveries the characters will make and the emotions this will produce, words of dialogue I’ve already “written” in my head, and how the section will end, i.e. on a cliff-hanger, raising further questions for the characters, or on an emotional note. All of it colour-coded so I can reference it at a glance.

Here’s an example of what one of my outlines may look like:

Well, I did say I like to be in control!

Do my characters ever surprise me? Sure they do, but I’m a hard taskmaster and quickly bring them to heel. Having said that, there are times when they insist on going in a different direction to where I want them to go, or saying something they weren’t meant to say. In such circumstances, no matter how hard I try, I can’t get them to toe the line, and I have to let them have their way. Despite my despair being the parent of such unruly children, interestingly the novel always works out for the better. It’s one of those weird and wonderful things about being a writer – you can plan your book, but you can also adapt when you have to.

And people who don’t write will think you’re off your trolley when you mention that you’ve just had a blazing row with someone who… er… doesn’t exist, but, hey, that’s par for the course.

21 thoughts on “Henri ponders, To Plot or Not to Plot

  1. That’s the kind of outline I’d like to write. Mine are more a compost heap of sheets of scribble plus some sticky notes and a couple of things ripped from magazines with something I can’t read scrawled in the margin. x

  2. Wow – am I impressed, or what? I’m definitely a panster……although as I write each chapter I do a precis of it on a single side of A4 ringing when certain people and things were first mentioned so I don’t repeat. But I am so not in your league for plotting, Henri.
    Great post…..:)

  3. Wow, that’s impressive, Henri! I wish I could be as detailed as that, but I’m not. I know my characters before I begin to write the novel, and how it will start and end, and what happens in the middle, but not the details. I guess I’m a mixture of both.

    Liz X

  4. I’m a planner rather than a blurter, but I do allow my characters to surprise me. Also, some of the most important characters in my stories walk into my head unannounced and tell me I have to write about them – or else!

  5. Thanks, Sue, Linda, and Liz. One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no right way or wrong way, just My Way, as Frank Sinatra would say. It’s what works for you. I think there must be as many ways of working on a novel as there are writers out there, and that is a lot! Hx

  6. Margaret – I agree. Sometimes we’ve just got to let them dictate certain aspects of the book even if we have overall control. Perhaps this is how to keep the writing fresh.

  7. A great post. I think it is really interesting to see how other writers think. You are very ordered and exact and I wish I could be like that sometimes because I can tie myself in knots.(not literally) I am definitley a panster, but not a pantster I hope! I have a general idea about where I want the story to go and what the characters will do, but they normally take off in different directions!

    Under my main MS I have a few rough paragraphs to remind me what to add in…and that’s it. If you could see my thought process it would probably look like yesterday’s cold spaghetti! 🙂

  8. I’m definitely a pantser for the most part, as you know, although I do try to write a rough outline before I start just so I won’t forget whatever ideas I’ve had! But if a scene from the middle of the book pops into my head, I’ll write that first and adapt everything else around it. Wish I could be as organised as you!

  9. Great post!
    I thought my outlines were detailed. I’m happy-go-lucky compared to you. Or perhaps happy-go-pantser? 🙂

  10. Definitely a combination of the two. I like to work out ‘whodunnit’ and have an overview before I start, but then I kind of let it all evolve, because that way, I get taken to places I never wpuld have dreamed up. Sometimes, I like to finish a chapter without a clue how my heroine is going to get out of THAT! Whoah, we are so opposites, Henri. But we still get on! That’s the great thing about writing. Room for all of us.

  11. I’m almost anal when it comes to detail and plotting. Don’t know if I’d describe Val that way, but we do both like to work from a structure, knowing what happens next, whose pov etc. Then we sit back and wait for the characters to take over and blow the structure right out of the water.

  12. Wow, so many different ways to work, but as Carol says, there’s room for us all. I love hearing other writers talk about their methods. I really admire pantsers and sometimes I wish I could be more like that, but the few times I’ve tried, the results were… well, not pretty! Hx

  13. Great post, Henri. I’m definitely a plotter (or should that be plodder?) if my pile of notebooks and highlighters in every colour of the rainbow are anything to go by. Saying that, I have had the odd character surprise me halfway through a scene whereby I’ve let them do their own thing just to see where it leads and whether or not I need to reel them back in. I tend to over-ananlyze things which can be a pain at times. I do sometimes envy the pantser 😉 x

  14. I like to have a plan in place but not so detailed that I feel that I’ve written myself and the story out! It’s a fine balance! You’re right though, it’s about finding what works for you… and hoping that it works the next time!

  15. I certainly used to be a ‘pantser’ but then I’d only written a few short stories. I am now writing my first novel and because it has grown out of a short story (actually one I wrote for the last Choc-Lit competition) and has become a Clapham Junction of plot lines, I have taken fright, deserted my trusty instincts and become a planner. Still, for the moment, all is coming along quite nicely: the characters are reasonably well-behaved (bless them) – though new characters will keep bobbing up and demanding their own sub-plots. However, I do feel at times the process is like an enormous, fiendish Sudoku puzzle. Do you feel that? You’ve got these gaps but filling them is more logical than creative. Suddenly, I’ll have a thought and say to myself, ‘ah – so that is how A met B,’ or whatever. And there’s so much research to do. Indeed at the moment I feel less like a writer, more a student studying for a degree – writing the novel is just the exam at the end. Slowly, the characters are becoming alive and so is the chocolate factory at the centre of the novel (now researching chocolate is fun) and so is researching the wonderful city of St Petersburg, where the novel is mostly set. I’m still very much a tyro at the black and white stage – but colour coding, Henri, well, there’s an idea. I may borrow that.

  16. Great post, Henry – and an impressive plot outline! I’m a pantser through and through – but then, updating Austen means that someone else has set out the plot.

  17. Colour coding? Outlines? I *wish* I could be that organised, Henri! I admire your professional approach to the whole thing, I’m afraid that I let my characters dictate the story to me ‘as it happens’, which leads to some false starts and weird ends that need rewriting. I’m just genetically incapable of planning anything, I suppose, and I’ve got used to my ‘characters talking’ approach, but one day…one day I’m actually going to know what I’m writing about when I’m writing it, instead of afterwards!

  18. Jan – It sounds like you work a little bit like me: planning but allowing a little bit of leeway for your characters to surprise you.

    Chris – So true. It’s a fine balance. I have found sometimes find that I can get bored with the story because I’ve already written it, as it were, and I really have to kick myself back into working on it. Writing the words “The End” always fills me with a mixture of relief as well as sadness.

    Fennie – Borrow all you like! I’m very pleased that someone else might find what works for me useful to them. It’s a good way to share.

    Juliet – Ah, yes, you’re very lucky having Jane Austen “behind” you 🙂 , but I still think it must be very difficult to update her stories, while being faithful to them at the same time.

  19. I start out planning carefully but I usually have to renegotiate it with my characters who insist on doing their own thing. They are so real that when I am writing dialogue I am simply listening to them talking and writing down what they are saying and then I wonder, ‘Why did he/she say that?’ Trying to force them back into line just doesn’t work. If they are acting in character, which they surely ought to be, then they know best. But as others have pointed out, you have to do what works for you

  20. Jane – Thanks for referring to my approach as professional. I’m still basking in that! I don’t think I’m any more professional than other writers, but it does help to keep my head “uncluttered”. I wish I could say the same for my office 😀

    Mary – Many thanks for commenting. It was interesting to hear you say your characters speak to you. That happens to me occasionally, often when I’m about to fall asleep, or sometimes I wake up in the night with their words in my head. Probably I’m more susceptible at such times, but it can be darned annoying!

  21. Fab post Henri – sorry so late to it! Am absolutely totally and definitely a pantser. Which is surprising because I like being in control. In my day to day life I can’t function without lists. Perhaps that’s why when writing I let it all go? Yeah I am a wonderful sight writing LOL! For me I adore the characters leading the way. Yeah it gets me into no end of sticky situations. Some I have no idea whether I’ll be able to get myself out of. And then I rise to the challenge the best I can. I do aspire to be far more organised though. Think approaching writing your way must provide the reassurance that is so not there being a pantser. With the next book being a sequel, I’m going to have to get my act together. Believe I am going to attempt to follow your very impressive lead 🙂

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