Friday, July 4, 2014

Dear Author Dearest

     Plotting or pantsing?

One question that has come up at nearly every meeting, panel, or workshop I’ve been a part of has been the issue of plotting novels (planning the story ahead of time) versus writing on the fly or “pantsing,” as in writing by the seat of your pants.

Now, my first instinct is to come snapping at you a la Westside Story and whisper “Outline!”

Jazz hands! 

After all, I have completed six novels (of varying quality) by outlining, and I have completed zero novels by pantsing. Therefore, plotting is the correct answer.

It’s the correct answer for me, Jessica Hawke. It works for me and my brain, which desperately needs structure. My pre-writing process borders on excessive. I go through a brainstorming stage with index cards, lay out a physical storyboard, and then create an outline from that. Just for reference, the outline of the book I’m working on right now is about nine pages, just over 4200 words. 

This is an example of a storyboard I did for a YA novel a few years ago.

(Before getting into my argument for why plotting is awesome, I’m going to just mention that I use the term “outline” and “plot” pretty much interchangeably.)

Contrary to popular belief, doing all this work ahead of time doesn’t suck the magic out of the story. While the map metaphors for outlining are a bit overused at this point, they’re apt. When I go on a road trip, I want to know where I’m going. I turn on the GPS, enter my destination, and then I follow the directions. I deviate only if absolutely necessary.

And shockingly, it doesn’t ruin the trip! It’s comforting to know that I will eventually get to where I’m going. Along the way, I can enjoy the scenery. I can even pull off the road if I see something that interests me, because I know how to get back on track to my destination.

The same goes with writing. I would much rather hash out the details of structure in a smaller form. Outlining and storyboarding give you a literal birds’ eye view of the story. It’s much less distressing to trash five pages of an outline than to trash fifty thousand words of prose.

Novels are long-form stories. They are not the sort of work where you get a spark of an idea over morning coffee and have a completed story on paper by suppertime. And unless you have an incredible innate sense of story structure, it’s very difficult to shape a satisfying, engaging story that encompasses upwards of sixty thousand words.

To quote one of my favorite writers, Chuck Wendig: 

Your story hasn’t proven itself, but an outline serves as the proving grounds. You take the story and break it apart before you even begin — so, by the time you do put the first sentence down, you have confidence in the tale you’re about to tell. Confidence is the writer’s keystone; an outline can lend you that confidence. 

This is where I will give my advice, and you can take it with a grain or ten of salt. If you find yourself struggling to finish a novel, or you get stuck in the middle and don’t know where to go, then consider plotting. Consider this tidbit from NYT and USA Today bestseller Melissa de la Cruz: 

So many unpublished first (or second or third or 44th) novels begin halfway through the book because the writer has spent the first 150 pages giving us the background story instead of starting with THE STORY. Know your characters inside and out, where they came from, where they want to go, so that when you begin writing the book, you already know how they will act/react to events in the story. 

The good news is that there are as many ways to outline as there are writers. You don’t have to write a nine-page outline. You might just need to come up with the major story beats and go from there. For instance, Finding Nemo: 

Nemo’s mom dies, Marlin left single dad

  •  Nemo goes to school field trip, gets taken on the boat
  •  Marlin follows Nemo; meets Dory along way
  •  Nemo makes friends in fish tank; finds out crazy niece Darla is going to take him
  •  Marlin and Dory find where Nemo is and pursue
  •  Wacky hijinx
  •   Family reunited

I haven’t included all the fun details about Bruce the shark, or the pelican, or the great scenes in the fishtank. But this outline hits most of the major story beats.

What if your story veers in a different direction? Does that ever happen? Absolutely. I don’t plan out every single detail, and sometimes as I get to know my characters and learn how they think, then I realize that they probably wouldn’t do what I originally planned. It can also happen that I’m fifty thousand words in and suddenly realize that I have driven myself into a giant plot hole. Usually I catch them in planning, but every once in a while I miss one. In that case, I reconsider my outline and decide if it needs to change. I have removed scenes or added scenes to my outline mid-story. And that’s okay! Think of it as taking a wrong turn. Your GPS pipes up and says… “Recalculating.” You’ll still get where you’re going, just not the exact way you expected.

So, to wrap things up, I’m going to leave you with some homework reading.

Until next time, write on!

-- Jessica Hawke, author of Phantom Touch, Crescent Moon Press.
Connect with Jessica Hawke

If you have a question for Dear Author Dearest, email darklydeliciousya(at)gmail(dot)com with Dear Author Dearest in the subject line.


  1. I always enjoy hearing how another writer plots. You make a compelling argument for outlines. Thanks for the tips and the resources.

  2. Recalculating! Love it. Do that a LOT! Great stuff, thanks Jessica!