Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

10 comments on “Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

  1. DAVID RILEY says:

    Take if from a confirmed seat of pantser, that’s the only way to write.

    • Really, it’s whatever works for you. That said, the point here is to suggest that it’s not necessarily the black/white, either/or choice we’re often presented with. A pantser who tries plotting may be able to sell a few things before they actually write them. A plotter who tries a little pantsing might add some spontaneity to their writing.

  2. I agree that it’s a good idea for writers to step out of their “comfort zone,” to try writing differently than usual. You may create things you wouldn’t have done otherwise.

    For plays, I typically create detailed characters and put them in a situation, then “watch” them and record what they say and do. My first produced one-act play had no outline whatsoever (except I knew how it would end).

    On the other hand, when I was head writer of a university-created English-language telenovela, we had writers working on different scripts of the continuing story at the same time. The 12 episodes were carefully outlined because episode 2 had to make sense following episode 1 and had to lead directly to episode 3.

    But outside of a collaboration, I usually watch my characters and record what they do and say. Sometimes the ending is set; other times I have little idea where the story is going until it gets there. (And sometimes that requires major revision to get things on track.)

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Alden. It also raises a good point and about how different skill sets can come in handy under different circumstances. Learning to be flexible can open up different opportunities.

  3. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    This is good advice, David, but I don’t think a writer can successfully change what works for him. I know I can’t. I plot in such detail that other plotters consider me an outlier. Yet I retain enough flexibility that if you read a finished story alongside the outline, you could see each deviation where the characters shifted each scene a little until the ending is almost nothing like the outline said it should have been. To each his own, like you say. The only pantsers who bother me are the self-important gits who like to tell me that plotters have no creativity. Where do think I got that outline, in the Plot Department in Wal-Mart? I have an offensive retort for them, as well.

    But yeah, a good story (like The Astronomer’s Crypt) is a good story, and the reader doesn’t much care how it got that way. It looks like you have a good, balanced method, one that I’ve tried, and envy you for mastering; I just can’t do it. But, to each his own, and keep those good stories coming!

    • Thanks for the good thoughts, Jack. I don’t disagree that writers should go with what works for them. My suggestion is mostly one of trying new things. You might surprise yourself and find a new thing that works! As I noted last week in my post about taking risks, I think we run into a danger of getting so far into our comfort zone that we never expand our horizons.

  4. Pagadan says:

    I like the idea of goals; it’s a good start. I mostly plot non-fiction; and my characters grow as I go along…

  5. dm yates says:

    I used to plot out all my stories. I even drew clock diagrams. Now, I write what comes.

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