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Plotting, Pantsing, and Identity

September 9, 2019


"Oh, I don't outline that way because I'm not that kind of writer." – a writing friend


"[Plotting a novel is] the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” – Stephen King


This discussion isn't so much about outlining versus spontaneity. I am a fan of doing whatever works for you.


Also, when I have a project, I don't approach each one the same way when it comes to planning. The thing is, while the core considerations I take when writing are the same—what the character wants and how it drives them—I don't follow the same outlining method every time, nor do I always stick to an outline I've created if it feels as if the plan would be unnatural and forced. A story can require different considerations depending on the viewpoints, focus, and length.


What exactly is "plotting"?


To me, "plotting" is a misnomer when speaking about outlines, as it assumes the plot, a list of literal events that happen, should be the core focus of preparing a story.


Outlining isn't about plot; it's about story. Lisa Cron covers this well in her book, Story Genius. I'll do a summary:


Plot = what literally happens externally


Story = the struggle that occurs internally within a character because of their wants


The story drives the, well, story. The plot can drive this along and complicate things. My own formula is this: Story = Character + Plot.


Character = what the main character wants and believes (the belief may get in the way of the want, such as someone wanting an intimate connection but believing they are unworthy of love because of a past event or are afraid because of a previous loss that taught them such things aren't worth the emotional consequences of attachment)


So, when you outline, I'd argue that only writing out what literally happens is a misfire. There should be something deeper at play. Each scene is building up to something and adding to what has already been sown.


Don't get me wrong: do what works for you. It's not that plot points can't be in an outline, of course, but that's like putting the amounts in a recipe without the actual ingredients. Knowing what happens is important, but what's the point of all these events? What is the thread holding them all together? (My cooking metaphor has fallen apart.) If there is a big fight, what's at stake and how does it connect to what comes before?


But this isn't what I wanted to write about. Let's pose a question: how do we, as writers, frame our identities? Who are we?


A big question perhaps, but I thought about it when I noticed writers tend to form identities. Plotters. Pantsers. The -er suffix means these actions are ascribed to a person. "Are you a plotter or a pantser?" an article may ask you. "If you're a plotter, follow these steps!" During National Novel Writing Month, you have badges where you can self-describe as a plotter, pantser or plantser.


All this is likely harmless, and maybe this is influenced by my more fluid approach to outlining depending on what the project needs, but it makes me wonder whether it is beneficial for writers to box themselves into these opposites, a dichotomy. I know writers who feel married to how they work for every project, sometimes because of what an admired author says, and I fear this may lead to more frustration than creativity.


"I don't use the three-act structure, ever," I've heard a few people say. "I have to write 2,000 words a day or I'm a failure. Stephen King said so."


My thing here is . . . don't feel pressured into assuming an identity and feeling as if you must stick to that routine when writing. It takes some work to find out what works, and some experimentation that may lead to finding out a celebrated method isn't for you.


You're not a failure if you use one method and then realize it's not working on another project. Don't feel compelled to concretely define yourself as this type of writer over others. Just a gentle urging.




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