Plotting, Pantsing, and Building (Writing a Novel)

Most writers fall into one of two camps: plotters or pantsers. Plotters write detailed outlines before they put pen to paper, figuring out the characters, the story, and the world in advance. Pantsers, also known as discovery writers, might have a basic idea of what they’re going to write, but they leave the details to emerge in the process of drafting the novel.

In my heart, I’m a plotter. My fantasy is to have a detailed story bible sitting next to my computer with every beat of the story, every twist and turn, figured out. I think it comes from slavishly poring over the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player Handbook when I was a kid at boarding school. I used to start with that intention, but would get about halfway through plotting the story of a novel when the whole thing would suddenly become stale in my mind and I had to switch gears and start writing or I would run the risk of never getting the novel finished.

Since then, I’ve developed a system for myself that is somewhere between Plotting and Discovery Writing (a much more dignified term for the process than “Pantsing,” don’t you think?). I think of it as “building” a story. I start out with a series of charts and forms that help me sketch out the overall structure and the characters. Then I take the first few scenes and chapters, outline them, and start to write. Then I bounce back and forth between writing, planning, and doing scene and characters sketches to one side that may or may not make their way into the book. I’ve written my last three books that way, and it seems to work. It certainly makes the middle of the book easier to write: much fewer moments of desperate anxiety staring at the wall not knowing what to write next!

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