When I receive letters or messages about my writing, it’s usually from other writers who are just getting started and who are looking for solutions to their own writing craft problems. And usually those problems have to do with plotting. So, I’d like to share a few thoughts about that today.
Pantsing Versus Outlining
There are basically two kinds of plotting styles: outlining versus pantsing. Outlining is what your English teacher taught you in grade school which you became dependent on for the rest of your educational life. They provide structure so that your scrambled thoughts can actually make sense in an organized flow toward the points you’re trying to make, regardless of whether it’s a science report on butterflies or a short story following a hero’s journey. Pantsing (as in “by the seat of your pants”, meaning spontaneity) was probably never advocated by your teachers, but it is the common term for unplanned creative composition. It’s where you go with the flow of whatever inspires you, even if you have no idea where it leads.
Outliners meticulously map out their plots and subplots so they know exactly what’s happening each step of the way. But the problem with outlines is that they can get boring and predictable and uninspiring. Writer’s block can set in because the writer loses interest. And if the writer loses interest, so will the reader.
Pantsers sometimes need the right circumstances or mood to work. Or perhaps they start with a vague idea and attempt to define it as they go along. Creative expression and exploration drives their work. But the problem with pantsing is … it’s fickle. Writers start with this burst of energy, but when it runs out of steam, they poop-out and hit a blank canvas without being able to budge further. Many stories get started, but not many get finished. Or there is an idea for a scene, but the writer has no idea what to do with it because it’s not an actual plot. It doesn’t go anywhere.
It’s the difference between using a map to plan your road trip directly to a specific destination, and getting in the car without a map to see where the road takes you. In outlining, the destination is important. In pantsing, the journey is important. But … there is more than one way to journey to a destination. And road trips are more exciting when unexpected things happen, or if you plan for a little sight-seeing along the way. Writing doesn’t have to be one or the other. Writers should feel free to mix and match techniques as it suits them. I like to call this third option connecting the dots.
Connecting the Dots
Remember those connect-the-dots colouring books you had as a kid? The page offers nothing but scattered, disconnected dots and maybe a few hints of minor details … like an eye. You know it’s going to be a face if it has an eye, but nothing else is clear yet. You have to draw lines between the dots to connect them before the picture can take shape. Then you can add colour and other details to finish the picture. This is how I write. The eye is the idea for the story. The dots are the creative surges that I know I want to write about. The lines between the dots are the outline that gives it structure as something recognizable. And the colour and additional details are the many revisions I put my “finished” stories through to make them better with each pass. You can do this however you like, but this is how I do it.
I start with the eye — the idea that intrigues me. I “pants” a scene to see where it leads me. Usually, that scene turns into a chapter. And usually that chapter can extend to about three more chapters before I stop and try to see the overall picture beyond my random dots. I am always switched on when it comes to creative writing and ideas, so I can always create characters, explore settings, and imagine dilemmas that need fixing. But eventually I bump up against the fact that plots always need to be progressing toward a destination.
I’m going to side-track a bit here to add a note that, contrary to pop-culture preferences, plot isn’t always necessary. There is such a thing as a plot-less story. It’s more common in Eastern cultures than Western, but one very good example of this in Western culture is the original Winnie-the-Pooh Storybook by A.A. Milne. There is no objective in that book to take the reader from problem to solution. It’s just a collection of sweet scenarios in the life of a little boy’s stuffed toys. It doesn’t have any murders to solve, or mysteries to explore, or quests to accomplish. Pooh is not any better or worse off for having been through the story’s events. He just is. And we enjoy sharing those moments with him. You shouldn’t be afraid to explore a plot-less path if it intrigues you. Just know that plot-oriented stories are more popular, especially among publishers, because they usually sell better.
Okay, back to plot-designed stories.
Once I have several dots, I start contemplating the overall design. That’s when I stop writing random scenarios to draft a timeline. I use a timeline, rather than an outline, because the timeline doesn’t have to have sub-points, yet it’s linear enough for structure. I plot the events I have so far, then I carry them toward a goal at the end.
This is important because if you don’t have an end goal for your plot, you might never finish the story. It doesn’t have to be a predictable or good ending, but the story has to end somewhere. And this is hard to do sometimes because stories are actually the “middle” segments of a continuum for those characters in their world. Something always happens before your story begins. And things will continue to happen long after your story ends. As an author, you are cutting out only one segment of time to show what happened. So, your story must have a beginning and end, even if your imagined world and characters live on.
When I have my beginning and end defined, I am free to add as many dots/plot points as necessary to get from A to Z. Or, I am free to go back to pantsing, using the timeline as a generic guide for directing the story toward its end. I give myself permission to go back and forth between outline and creative flow at that point because I feel both are necessary to keep the plot progressing toward the objective without restricting inspiration when it strikes. In other words, plans should be flexible and allow for change. Just because my timeline originally kills off a character, doesn’t mean I can’t find a reason to save him when I get to that scene. And just because I had no intention of killing off a character in the beginning doesn’t mean I won’t do it later if I think it will create a more interesting challenge for the protagonists.
Usually, the only time I hit writer’s block, which is rare, is when I know of a dot I need to connect, but get stuck on how to incorporate it based on where I stand at the moment. It feels a bit like coming to a “Bridge Out” sign and wondering how I can leap to the other side. Logically, I know I’m going to need stepping stones based on what’s already been written. But how many options I have to explore before I find what works can be a challenge. Should the characters chop down a tree to cross that gulf? No, they have no axe. Should they swim? No, I already said one of them was deathly afraid of drowning. Are they part dragon so they can fly? You get the idea.
This stage of composition might mean altering small bits that I’ve already plotted, or finding ways to accommodate inconsistencies I don’t want to change. Maybe I back up and add a dot where a character spots an axe in the car trunk. Or maybe the fact that the one deathly afraid of drowning must overcome her fear becomes a subplot challenge she has to resolve. But major changes, like suddenly deciding I want my characters to be part dragon just so I can give them wings, are not to be taken lightly. I’ve written stories that required major overhauls, and they are exhaustive to rework because every single mention of every plot thread affected must be sought out and dealt with accordingly. That’s actually part of the reason for the delay in the publication of The Dragonling. I made some major changes that affected the entire script. It’s very time consuming and laborious to make major changes in revisions like that. But if it makes the story better, sometimes it’s necessary; you just grit your teeth and do it.
Overall, this is how I write until the story reaches the end objective. I draw a few dots, add a few lines, and where the lines don’t curve the way they need to, I add more dots and draw more lines, erasing anything that’s no longer relevant, and so on. If I get stuck for inspiration on a fight scene, I skip a few lines, type “FIGHT SCENE” in red font, maybe jot down ideas I have for it (example: “Recall dagger lesson Aija learned from Trizryn in earlier chapter.”), but then I move on to the next scene. I don’t make myself compose in a linear fashion. I don’t waste time on scenes where there is no inspiration. If I get stuck, I work on the timeline and other aspects of organization, like character development or world building. Eventually, the big picture takes shape into something I can consider as a finished draft. Then each revision cleans it up a little more, whether the changes are big or small. I consider the story “shareable” when it’s clean enough that I’m not making very many changes. And then I consider it “publishable” when several other “fresher” eyes have read it without flagging flaws.
Good stories are constructed with a balance between structure and creative inspiration. There is no exact measure for this balance. Each writer (and reader) will decide what feels right for them and for each individual story. Don’t approach writing feeling like you have to do it the “right” way. Staring at a blank page while waiting for inspiration or hoping for perfection because you feel the first draft has to be “done right” usually ends up in writer’s block. There is no “right way” to write. Give yourself permission to be non-linear in the creation stage, but acknowledge that structure is helpful in guiding you around the big picture to the end. How you mix and match structure with creative whim is entirely up to you. The journey of a story has to reach its destination eventually, but connecting the dots off-road — with unplanned flat tires, ice cream stops, ratty hotels, flying tumbleweeds, and all — can make your plot-trip more interesting, memorable, and fun. 🙂