The Difference Between Plotting and Pantsing (for me)
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
I started my writing as a pantser. “I want to be surprised by the story!” I told myself (and anyone who would even pretend to listen).
“I don’t know how to outline” would have been a much more accurate statement.
Last week, I talked about The Office’s season two finale, Casino Night, and how the writers went for the long arc, not the gasp-inducing drama/cliffhanger that was easy and obvious.
As a pantser, I often went for the gasp, the easy drama. I recently revisited a story I had pantsed the heck out of and realized it had three different climaxes, and not in a good way. It was a mess. There was no growth, because the characters were just literally all over the place.
I took the bones of that story and I applied an outline, focused on one key conflict and let the smaller conflicts and tensions find their way to the story more naturally. Now, this book isn’t done, it still needs revisions, but it’s a lot more cohesive.
In going for the easy drama, I had wrecked the story. It was exciting, sure, but that’s about all it had going on. As I wrote, I would feel like maybe it was time to have something exciting happen and so I’d drop in a twist or a bomb or whatever, making the reader want to turn the next page.
Early readers of that story all agreed that they wanted to know what would happen next, but that was about all they could say about the book that was positive. It was exciting, but the more they thought about it, the less sense it made. The characters didn’t stick with them or make them laugh or make them feel anything other than “Ooooooohh!” at the end of a chapter.
And that’s not enough.
Not for me, anyway.
I’m not sorry that I pantsed my way through my first few novels (my early-early novels? OOF. Such a melodramatic MESS.), but I do know that I need to be willing to either apply an outline or start with one for the story to be any good. Ripping this book apart and putting it back together took a lot more time (it’s on draft #6 right now, and nowhere near ready) than it would have if I had drafted with an outline, or at least a semblance of an outline, from the beginning.
That’s the difference, for me.
Pantsing is fun, discovering the story as I go, but it takes three or four drafts for me to realize that there are huge, gaping problems with the story, and the characters don’t have any room to grow or breathe or feel real to the reader.
But plotting gives me the structure I need to make sure the story actually progresses, makes sense, and builds on itself.