Battle stations, everyone.
The perennial debate about “the best way to write” between writers misses a fundamental point.
It’s not binary.
Pantsing a book, or writing by the seat of the pants, espouses a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness approach that implies absolutely no thought of character or story arc, just a meandering flow of words that somehow, magically, produces a story.
Plotting, as the name suggests, espouses a very structured approach to story writing. Every plot point is known. There are no surprises for the writer. Plotting takes up as much, or more, time than the actual writing.
But it’s not binary.
Not a single pantser sits in front of their keyboard, no idea where they want the story to go.
And not a single plotter knows every word/every scenario they will experience.
I identify as a plotter, so it’s best I explain from the plotter’s point of view.
I really plot the hell out of a story. I write crime-fiction, so I don’t understand how it is possible to do it any other way. I know what the crime is before I start writing. I know who did it, who looks like they did it, who couldn’t possibly have done it, but knows who did it, how it was done, why it was done and the drips of clues necessary so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when the killer/extortionist/whatever is revealed.
But that plotting is 1) maybe thirty words per chapter and 2) only extends to the first two acts. Until I’ve written those two acts, the sum total of my plotting for Act Three is what the first chapter in the third act needs to convey and what happens in the last chapter.
For each of the chapters in Acts One and Two, I write a few sentences indicating what the chapter needs to achieve (the below are from “Number Fifteen“):
- “Team scours Andy’s last 48 hours — or at least starts the process. Split in the team — youth think cops should do the job, older know that’s not going to be enough”
- “Terry and Kat are decoys for Jason/Rhonda attack. Dan and Stew and Andy show up and it’s a full on battle. Curious fight, no winners on either side.”
- “It’s an ambush — the slap back from The Organisation. Back at home the Organisation attacks Andy’s house — Andy back in the hospital, Kelly is taken.”
Sometimes the note for a chapter (typically in Act One) is:
- “Leave blank for future use”
This is to allow for additional information that may be needed to resolve the story — things that come up in Act Three.
The sentences above (not the “leave blank” one) result in 2000 – 3000 words per chapter. I have only a general idea of what those words are before I write them. I essentially pants the chapter within the constraints of what that chapter needs to be.
So don’t fight, people. Both are legitimate ways of writing.
(If you want to know more about Story Structure, check out my ThrillCraft: Story Structure for Unputdownable Crime Fiction coming out on July 15.)