From Pantser to Plotter

The more I write, the more of an outliner I become. I literally started the first draft of What’s Left of Me with nothing but a blank word document and Eva’s voice in my mind. The world-building, the other characters, the plot, all developed over the course of that first draft.

Of course, that meant the first draft wasn’t very good. Characters switched names halfway through. Plot lines were dropped, changed, or added. Settings morphed from scene to scene. The second, third, and fourth drafts were wobbly as well, as I slowly distilled all those rambling words into a coherent story.

For a long time,I figured that this was just how I wrote. I’d tried outlining, and it just didn’t seem to work for me—one attempt, in particular, had scared me away because it all but killed my enthusiasm for the story I’d been trying to write. I was definitely an exploratory writer, and watching a story fall into place was one of my favorite things.

But as I started writing more, and started needing to write faster, I began reconsidering things. Unlike a lot of writers, I’ve often enjoyed revision more than drafting, because it wasn’t until I started revising that the story started becoming clear. Not only that, but I was beginning to feel frustrated by how many words I’d always end up throwing away as I wrote draft after draft.

So I decided to give this outlining thing a second whirl. And while it’s a work in progress, I think it’s going pretty well. The trick is to find the right kind of outlining for you.

Here’s a collection of “beat sheets” (the term comes from screenwriting, I think, but as I’ve said before, there’s a lot novel-writers can learn from screenwriting craft) to get you started:

If you scroll through those, you’ll see that there are beat sheets for internal conflict, external conflict, romantic arcs, character-growth arcs, etc, etc. Personally, I don’t use any one exclusively, but it’s nice to keep a roadmap in your head while you outline, even if you end up going off that roadmap a bit (it’s okay to break rules, after all, as long as you know what you’re doing and why).

Nowadays, I’ve figured out that my old outlines were less than useful to me before I focused too much on external events. It was a lot of “And then they do this, and then this happens to them, and then this happens, and then they travel here…” rather than internal motivations. So when I started trying to draft based on these outlines, I felt frustrated because it felt like shoving my characters from one situation to another without any natural progression.

Now that I’ve changed my outlining to focus on not only external conflict, but internal conflict (and, even more importantly, how the two tie together), the whole process has become a lot more useful. Not only that, but I’ve come to enjoy drafting way more than I did before, because all the waffling and exploration (and resultant dead-ends) now happen during my outline process, when it’s a lot less heartbreaking to set aside 1000 words worth of outlining than 10,000 words worth of drafting!

What about you guys? Any more pantsers-turned-plotters? Anyone sure that they’ll never be tempted down this plotting path? 😛



21 Responses to From Pantser to Plotter

  1. Reg Jan 9 2015 at 6:28 am #

    It’s funny, I was going to say I’m a pantser, but that’s an evolving position. I used to be someone in favor of minimal notes, but now I’m very big on meticulous notes to help keep track of details, such as character names, and personal details, set descriptions, and whatnot. The plot just gets broad strokes in my notes, because that part I do like to let evolve organically within whatever framework I’ve set out.

    • Kat Zhang Jan 9 2015 at 3:43 pm #

      Keeping track of those details can be a lifesaver sometimes, especially for longer works! 🙂

  2. jeffo Jan 9 2015 at 8:13 am #

    I am a discovery writer by nature, but on my current project I had a really hard time figuring things out. I sat down this fall and sketched some things out, wrote down some ideas and mused about where each of my characters might end up. Also, I often began my writing sessions not by writing, but by sketching out an idea: “Joe and Velma sit in a coffee shop. Joe tells Velma he wants a divorce. Velma is upset. Throws coffee in Joe’s face.” This sort of sketching often led me into full blown writing, and at the end of the session, I’d go back to the beginning and flesh out the outline-y portion and blend it into the rest of the scene. Not a true outline, but not pure winging it, either.

    I think the important thing for writers is to be flexible. It’s easy to declare yourself one kind of writer or another, but sometimes it helps to shake things up a bit and try something new.

    • Kat Zhang Jan 9 2015 at 3:43 pm #

      That’s exactly what I do! Especially when I’m working on a story I don’t already have a detailed outline for. It really helps give structure to the writing session 🙂

  3. Natalie Aguirre Jan 9 2015 at 8:19 am #

    I like to know the main plot points, like the inciting incident, the midpoint, and the climax before I write. Then I outline as I go. I’ve read of an author that just outlines a few chapters ahead of what he/she is writing and I think I’m going to try that approach. You’re giving me hope that I could move more into outlining. Thanks.

    • Kat Zhang Jan 9 2015 at 3:45 pm #

      No problem, Natalie! And I’ve heard of that method, too. I think it’s the “Headlights” method or something (about how you only need to see as far ahead of you as you can by a car’s headlights). It can work really well 🙂 Thought sometimes, I still end up writing myself into corners 😛

  4. Katie Jan 9 2015 at 9:53 am #

    I have had more of the opposite happen to me. I’m a very meticulous plotter. As much as I love to write, plotting is actually my favorite part of the process, because it’s fun to watch the road map start to fall together. (Writing adds a new layer to that, too, because I get to see the details of that map–like planning a trip, and then enjoying the scenery of a city once you get there.) For a while I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do discovery writing, because I felt like my characters were too listless and the plot didn’t go anywhere. That said, my most recent story is fairly uncomplicated in plot compared to my other stories, in part because it’s for a younger audience and there are fewer interconnection plot-lines to keep track of. Rather than planning each step of the process, I decided to go more for what Natalie described and just sketch out the major turning points. While writing I’ve let the flow of the story and my characters decide how they’re going to get to each one. The discovery writing part has been so much fun, and I’ve been amazed at what awesome, whacky ideas I’ve come up with just by allowing my characters to do the discovering for me. So I’m a super-plotter turned semi-pantser, I suppose 🙂

    • Kat Zhang Jan 9 2015 at 3:46 pm #

      “like planning a trip, and then enjoying the scenery of a city once you get there” is such a great way to describe it, Katie! And allowing characters to do the discovering for you can turn out wonderfully 🙂

  5. Pat Jan 9 2015 at 9:54 am #

    I always admired those who were panster writers, to just open up and let it all go wherever the story was meant to. As for me, I’m too much of a “control freak” when it comes to my stories. That being said, however, when I plot my novel, I know the beginning AND the ending and make points (not necessarily chapter points) of what I want to happen throughout the story. These are key plot events that change the travel course of my characters. As I go along, I refer to my list and think about how each plot point will affect the characters motivation and the residual effect of their action (in other words the characters tell me what to do!) But I’m still in awe of authors that can fly by the seat of their pants. Seems more fun, in a way.

    • Kat Zhang Jan 9 2015 at 3:46 pm #

      Well, us pantsers are jealous of you plotters! (at least this semi-pantser is!). Seems like you have a great set-up to write tightly-plotted books 🙂

  6. Marc Vun Kannon Jan 9 2015 at 10:04 am #

    Pantser all the way. I constantly reread my story, to know where I’ve been and get back into the flow for what’s coming next. The only way for me to plot my story is to write it. Not to mention, since I have almost a reflex by now to never copy what I’ve already seen, if I did plot something, I’d be almost compelled to write something different when I finally got there!

    • Kat Zhang Jan 9 2015 at 3:47 pm #

      Haha, yeah, that would be rather a waste of an outline! 😛

  7. Kristin Russo Jan 9 2015 at 10:43 am #

    Thank you for this! Just what I needed to read today as I push through the beginning of a new project. I would say I’m a hybrid pantser-plotter. I’ve started writing summaries of each chapter before I write the full out chapter just to make sure the story arc and payoff is there in each one. From there, I let my pantser side take over. Happy Writing!

    • Kat Zhang Jan 9 2015 at 3:48 pm #

      I’m glad it was helpful, Kristin 🙂 And it seems like quite a few of us like writing summaries/outlines of chapters before diving into the actual drafting. It’s a great technique!

  8. Lily Meade Jan 9 2015 at 4:22 pm #

    I used to be a pantser and now I can’t even start the first draft without a detailed outline.

    • Kat Zhang Jan 13 2015 at 3:14 am #

      Good to know I’m not the only one making the transition 🙂

  9. Stephanie Scott Jan 9 2015 at 7:00 pm #

    You nailed it when you said you tie internal and external motivations together. That’s what’s working for me too, former pantser, now somewhat-plotter. Michael Hauge’s screenwriting book has some great stuff in it about character ID vs essence, the ID being the false identity they start with, and their essence, their potential and who they strive to be, and the push and pull of those throughout the story. That pairs with the external forces. I think just understanding those concepts helps tremendously with character and plot. Still learning!

    • Kat Zhang Jan 13 2015 at 3:14 am #

      I’ll check out that book! 🙂

  10. Jami Gold Jan 13 2015 at 2:06 am #

    Thanks for the shout out to my beat sheet, Kat! I hope people find them helpful!

    And I’m a pantser all the way, but my knowledge of story structure keeps everything ON the rails. 😀

    • Kat Zhang Jan 13 2015 at 3:15 am #

      They’re very helpful, Jami! Thanks for collecting them (And coming up with them!)

  11. Kimberly May 11 2016 at 2:20 pm #

    Kat, this is fantastic! Thank you. I am a definite pantser. I wrote 90k+ by the seat of my pants only to realize that this isn’t how I want it to go. But, like you, it helped me develop and see my characters a bit. And change some names of course. Lately, I have been struggling trying to really get my plot going. I have that idea and I have the characters (mostly) down. I am going to take a look at those sheets and try to do more outlining involving, not just action, but their inner thought and direction as well. Thank you!

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