Plotting vs. Pantsing

It’s no secret if you’ve read my previous blog posts or heard me talk about writing – I’m a plotter. Almost to a fault. I can’t help it, there’s a part of me that needs to plot out the whole story before I can write it. But for some reason, that only applies to novels.

Okay, I’ll admit that I probably plan WAY too much when it comes to my novels. I have a super detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, character sheets for all my main characters and supporting characters, and basically everything except for the novel. If people die, I also have a list of characters who die and usually how they die. And all of that is the prep that goes into helping me write the novel.

On the other hand, if I’m writing a short story, there’s basically no prep that happens. I will go with the prompt and see what happens. Somehow that works when I’m writing short pieces, probably because it’s just a few scenes or something quick that won’t turn into a long-form piece. It’s also easier because sometimes, I can get away with writing a whole short story without naming my character.

If you’re confused, let me explain the terms a little more. I believe that the two words were popularized among writers online. I first heard it in reference to NaNoWriMo, where most writers can self-identify in either camp. The planners usually go into the writing process with outlines, character sheets, timelines, and any information they might need. Pantsers will start their writing process with enough of the idea that they know roughly what the story will be, and everything else comes to them as they write. Plantsers are a mix of both.

The extent of my planning didn’t really hit me until Maggie, my friend and former roommate, pointed it out before one of our classes. Up until that point, I had really only watched videos of other planners on YouTube, so my planning always felt natural. I figured out really early on that I couldn’t pants a story because I needed to know so many things about the story. My first NaNoWriMo was the least amount of planning I ever did because I chose my story about three days before November started. After having to outline during the writing process, I learned that I needed more guidance before starting my novel.

The main reason why I outline and do so much prep for my novel is because I honestly forget a lot of things about what I come up with. Like, if I have a breakthrough with a story, I need to write it down or I’ll forget and have to wait for my brain to come back around to it. Writing out everything I know about the story also helps me figure out where I need to focus more attention and if there are unexpected things that come up. It’s also how I get to know my characters better because it’s one of my biggest weaknesses as a writer.

When it comes to short stories, I’m usually just trying to fulfill a prompt of some sort or I’m writing something mostly inspired by my life. One a couple of occasions, I’ve written short things that are just scenes, and those don’t always require a lot. The most that I might do is pick a prompt ahead of time if it’s for a class assignment. And because I tend to write a lot of stuff from first person POV, I don’t always have to name my characters, making it a lot easier for me to just write without any prior planning. It’s freeing, in a sense, to not have to plan out the whole story and just see where it goes. What I often find is that with the short story, I feel less inclined to go back into that world to polish the work or add to it if it was unfinished. I’m less invested because I’ve spent less time with it.

Even the articles I wrote were mostly planned. I would write them in my head as the pieces came together, picking out quotes I liked from interviews. By the time the words got onto the page, the story was at least half written. The same went for papers I wrote in school. I knew the gist because I wrote it in my head. In those cases, it was a lot easier for me to work without an outline because they’re shorter pieces. They work for me the same way that short stories do. And because I had hard deadlines, it worked in my favor not to have super extensive outlines for things that often changed as they were written.

Have I ever thought about just writing a novel without planning? Nope. Because the idea doesn’t get solidified and detailed enough for me to just start writing. Having written five novels and started re-writing one of those novels, I’ve learned that I can’t really write a story unless I know what happens all throughout the book. Hence the intense outlining, because I’ve seen what happens when I deviate too much from my outlines – it doesn’t end well.

I can also usually tell if an idea is going to be a short story or a novel. Something about the idea itself is a huge indicator as to whether I can tell it in 5,000-15,000 words or if I need 50,000+ words. There has only been one time that a short story has turned into a novel, and that was because the concept from the short story stuck with me enough that it eventually grew into Project Twins.

There’s a part of me that envies the writers who are able to work without laying out literally everything about their novel. I think it allows for a lot of creative freedom and the chance to see where the little rabbit trails lead. My rabbit trails rarely lead anywhere, so I tend to keep them at bay.

In an ideal world, I’d be more of a plantser. I think it would benefit me to give myself more freedom to explore the rabbit trails while generally sticking to my outline. It would push me a lot as a writer. On the other hand, I’m very grateful for my extensive outlining because it has always worked well and it helps me understand my story better. But until I figure out how to incorporate more pantsing into my writing, I’m just gonna be a really intense planner.

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