There’s an eternal debate in the writing community about pantsing vs planning. It’s older than both of us combined, and it’s not going away any time soon. But the question is, if you’re serious about building a writing career, should you risk it?
When I first started writing twenty plus years ago, I was a pantser. There was no doubt about that. Seven-year-old me didn’t care about anything other than spending time in my fictional worlds and seeing where they took me.
Fast-forward to now and I wouldn’t be able to write and publish as much as I do without planning. I have too many characters, stories, and subplots to be able to juggle all of that without knowing certain things before I start.
Failing to plan with a world that will have around fifteen books in it will lead to me digging myself into holes, inconsistencies in the story, timeline problems, and frustrated readers.
What is pantsing?
Pantsing is when you make up what you’re writing as you go along. You’ve got no idea what’s going to happen from one sentence to the next.
It’s often seen as more fun and more creative than planning or plotting before you begin. For a long time I was part of this camp too.
Why is pantsing bad?
The biggest problem with pantsing in writing is simple: you’re more likely to get stuck. Not knowing what’s going to happen next means you’ll run out of steam when the honeymoon period of forming a new idea is over.
And when you get stuck, it leads to frustration. Frustration leads to less writing. It leads to you giving up on your work in progress, your confidence being damaged, then you end up quitting writing.
Almost every person I’ve ever spoken to about why they’ve gotten stuck in their writing – regardless of what type of writing it is – has gotten stuck because they didn’t know their work in progress well enough.
That, or when they planned, it was a terrible plan.
A few years ago, I decided to write a romance novel as an escape from my dissertation. My dissertation was about a pretty heavy topic – the Lebensborn Project – so I really needed a second project on the go so that the weight of it didn’t drag me down.
For some bizarre reason, I also decided to write my romance novel by hand. This is something you’ll never find me doing again as I can type far faster than I can hand write. Not to mention my brain just works too fast for my hands to write. And don’t even get me started on my handwriting.
After about 2,000 words, I realised that I didn’t have enough of a story to carry a whole book. So a body washed up on the beach. I have a feeling the idea came from watching too many episodes of Castle that year.
Not long after that, I switched to typing the rest of the story. I didn’t like writing in the linear fashion that handwriting was forcing me into. At least if I typed up my story, I could create the scenes in any order and stick them into a folder together so that I could easily find what I wanted. (I now use Scrivener or Plot Factory).
While pantsing the story lead to a nice distraction from my heavy-going dissertation and some fun scenes, I had no idea who the murderer was. Or why they’d done it. Or actually even who the victim was. What was supposed to be a novel ended up being a short story that lacked any real depth.
Planning in advance – and planning properly – gives you time to form a coherent, well-crafted story. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, planning is the most creative part of the process, not writing itself.
Planning is where you get to know your characters, build your world, and develop your plot. That’s where you engage the creative and problem-solving parts of your brain. If you plan right, the process will build all sorts of skills that can benefit you in real life, from your creativity to your problem-solving to your time management.
A bad plan is worse than no plan
A couple of years later, I decided to return to the story and try to write it again for NaNoWriMo. This time, I used Post-It Notes to write down what my key scenes were. Or at least, I thought that was what I’d done.
I returned to my scene cards the night before NaNoWriMo. They’d been sitting in a drawer for a couple of weeks. I was determined to win, and I was convinced they were key to me doing so.
I’d already written at least two novels in 30 days or less by this point, so I didn’t have anything to prove, but I was desperate to win NaNoWriMo anyway. I thought it’d be some sort of badge of honour or bragging right I could use on my blog, The Writer’s Cookbook.
But when I returned to my Post-Its, I realised that my so-called scene cards were more useless than a chocolate teapot. For the Big Reveal scene, all I’d written was, ‘Poppy finds out who the murderer is.’ I had no idea who the murderer was. All I’d done was make a note of when it happens in the story.
I knew the main character (Poppy) and her love interest really well, but not the rest of the characters within the world. I therefore had no idea who would be the perfect person to commit the crime.
It was late. NaNoWriMo began the next day. I didn’t have time to figure out who the murderer was.
So, the next day, with no real plan, I started writing. At first it was easy. I was establishing the romance. Romance is my thing. That comes easily. But then it came to the murder…
I changed the murderer three times.
And I almost quit writing completely because I hated the process. I was so desperate to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo that I forced myself to keep going even though I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. That one story – and lack of any direction – almost caused me to give up on the dream I’d been chasing for twenty years.
What are the alternatives?
There’s no right or wrong way to plan a novel. Different things work for different people.
It’s a scale, too: some writers need to know every minute detail before they begin; others just need to know their characters and key scenes.
Know your plot
At the very least, you should know what your plot is.
Where are your characters at the start, and where are they at the end? That’s the question that should inform your plot. Do you want them to be in a relationship? Having found the murderer? Having learned a moral lesson?
There are lots of options, but you should only pick one for your main plot and possibly one for each character per book.
Otherwise it overcomplicates things and gives you too much to wrap up, leaving readers feeling like things were rushed. (I’m looking at you, ending of Charmed. You did not need every sister to end up married and with children.)
Visualise your key scenes
This is what I do. Once I know my plot, I clear the dining table and crack out the Post-It Notes.
Then, I write one scene per Post-It Note and place them in order on the table. If there are gaps that need filling in, I come up with things to fill the gaps.
Then, instead of laying them out in a straight line, I move them to reflect the peaks and troughs in the story.
Peaks are the moments of tension. They’re your arguments, your fight scenes, your confrontations.
Troughs are when things slow down. It’s where your characters recover and plan. It’s where your reader gets to know your characters on a more personal level. It’s where your readers and characters can breathe.
There’s no right or wrong number of peaks and troughs for a story, but your stakes should get higher as your story goes on. This will make your peaks higher and your troughs (possibly) seem lower.
For your reader to become invested in your story and your characters, your stakes must increase as the story goes on. This is true for both individual books and series. Laying out your scenes in this way helps you to ensure that you do this.
Write an in-depth plan
This isn’t for everyone, but it does work well for Society co-founder Sarah. Not only does she know all of her characters in depth, but she even writes out a plot summary and cards for every scene so that she knows what happens when and to whom. This has helped her to write a 70,000 word novel in less than a month!
Planning vs pantsing is a scale
As humans, we have a tendency to make things very black and white. But the truth is, planning and pantsing is a scale. Where you are on that scale will depend on many factors.
I’ve published nine books, and for me, the process I use changes with every book. I’m cool with that too, because I know that I’m a different person at the end of each book compared to when I started it, just like my characters are.
At one end of the scale you have Sarah, with her gazillion scene cards that have enabled her to write 50,000 words in two weeks. On the other end is someone who has no idea what’s going to happen in the next sentence, let alone the next scene.
Stephen King has regularly talked about how he prefers to make things up as he goes along, but he also says in On Writing that he often knows what’s going to happen in his head. Yeah, that’s still planning.
Marian Keyes pantses a lot of her novels too, but she has a gigantic following that will buy almost anything she publishes. It’s often pretty obvious which books she plans, too, as the plots are more solid. (If you compare The Woman Who Stole My Life to The Mystery of Mercy Close, you’ll see what I mean. There’s far more of a journey in the latter.)
Both of these authors are traditionally published and have been for well over two decades. Their approaches may still work for them, but when it comes to being a newbie author, you have to adapt to the landscape.
There are over two million books published every year. You have to work harder to stand out. The more fleshed out your book is before you start, the more fleshed out and believable it’ll be when it’s finished. Not to mention you’ll build your writing skills faster and you’ll be more confident that your story is SOLID.
Planning may seem like more work, but you have to ask yourself: how much work are you willing to put in to your future writing career?