The joys of being a plotter

In November last year, I was involved in a “plotters versus pantsers” debate at Genrecon. I’m a long-term devoted plotter of books, which means pantsing (making it up as you go along) is really not for me. Here is my speech.

An unplanned ice sculpture

An unplanned ice sculpture


Exhibit A: what you are looking at is not a glass of water, but a poorly planned ice sculpture.

Pantsing is better than plotting? Are you mad? Can you imagine if any other field of human endeavour throughout history thought this was a good idea?

• Bridge design. “Ah let’s just chuck up some poles and gaff a few popsicle sticks together and see where it takes us, hey? We don’t want to be too anal.”
• Psychiatric experiments. “Oh, just poke them a bit with electric rods and write down what happens, and we’ll see if something emerges and if not, well… no great harm done, right?”
• Brain surgery. Let me tell you, there weren’t enough marshmallows and tomato sauce sachets for me to make my unplanned brain surgery exhibit.

Why should writing be any different? Do you want your stories to resemble a bucket of beige slop with sickly curds floating in it and some kind of fart-smelling froth on top? Ladies and gentlemen, the difference between plotting and pantsing is the difference between success and disaster, between the sublime and the abject.

Pantsers are an odd bunch of people. They like to paint their laziness as noble unconventionality, I think. They say stuff like, “But plotting is so uncreative,” in between harvesting their mung beans and knitting their own yoghurt. I’d like to remind them that I still have to make my stories up. Being a plotter doesn’t mean you’ve succumbed to some evil overlord who chains you into your office chair and kills puppies if you don’t do as you’re told. It just means that you can consider the ideas more carefully, place them more precisely, and overuse your adverbs more thoughtfully.

The other panster go-to move is, “How do you motivate yourself to write once you know what happens?” To which I’d respond, “How do you motivate yourself to do all that editing once you’ve written a big amorphous turd?” By then, you also know what happens, and you’ve got to wrestle with it for months if not years. By contrast, plotters write stories that, like well-formed stools, come out the right shape and the right colour with minimal clean-up required. And don’t tell me you don’t know the value in life of a well-formed stool.

I sense the room would rather I moved on to a more palatable metaphor, so here it is. Writing is like travelling. Pantsers are those people who say, “Oh I just like to put on a backpack and see where the spirit takes me.” Plotters are those people who book their connecting flights and take the stress out of travel. Pantsing is, in effect, turning up at the airport and choosing a plane based on its colour; spending too much of your money on it and not really knowing where you might land; finding yourself in a city where you don’t speak the language and then wandering the streets for hours looking for a nice place to say, to find the last vacancy is in a hotel on a street where cars are regularly set fire. There you climb up the eight flights of stairs to your crusty room, only to find there are pubes on the sheets and you can hear the guy in the next room pissing.

Plotting, however, is knowing where you’re going to go before you leave the house; packing appropriately, knowing how much to budget so you don’t run out of money before you come home, and then stepping on to a German Inter-city express train. It’s really fast, it’s super comfortable, it’s even a little sexy. And it arrives on your editor’s desk, precisely on time.

Finally, I want to finish with this thought. In the last 15 years, I’ve published more than 2 million words of fiction over 22 books. Your argument is invalid.

11 responses to “The joys of being a plotter

  1. I would never had finished my manuscript if I had not followed your advice on plotting. But it does require intense concentration, which, as you say, did allow me to consider my overuse of adverbs much more thoughtfully :)

  2. An interestingly apt post… just as I’m working on how to organise my plotting so that it actually resembles plotting and not pantsering…

  3. Well said! I thought a tight plot would stifle my creativity – until I took one of your novel writing boot camps. I left with an understanding of how I could actually shape my ramblings into a coherent shape that someone else would want to read.

  4. Just when I’m thinking I don’t need to do Story Structure, a module in my Professional Writing course, along comes this post. I do plot but I’m having trouble with an ending and I’m wondering if there is any use doing that module, or perhaps, there is a book I to read that will serve as a short cut. Any ideas?

  5. I think we can all benefit from revising story structure! Just don’t let anyone get too prescriptive on your ass. Beginning, middle, end is enough.

  6. About to start writing my third book, and I find I’m relying more and more on plotting. When I started out, I thought it’d stop the characters and story developing – boy, was I wrong! I never want to go through the heartache of ditching 10,000 useless words just because I didn’t plan properly – ’nuff said!

  7. Love the speech and love the examples used. (especially photo of the glass)
    I have always wanted to be a writer and haven’t done much for a few years. i wrote when I was younger and have resolved to really get serious about the craft. That indeed requires plotting. I met my share of pantsers in workshops many moons ago and their main argument was the scene in Dead Poets Society (great flick) where Robin Williams’ character rubbishes the academic article on traditional poetry/writing. They misread that scene. I too believe like the character that one cannot be too reductionist when analysing any sort of writing. However, the pantsers throw the baby out with the bathwater and fail to see that even in the humanities there is some method (and dare I say science) involved.

  8. Forgot to say that when there is method involved it negates the cliched argument that there is “no such thing as bad art”
    Yes there is. I am sure most of us would agree that there is such a thing as bad writing

  9. Wow. I was directed here by a commenter to my own blog, and as someone who falls in between and is in the midst of a mega-plotting session, I came to check out what you have to say. Thought I’d find maybe some inspiration, but nope. Only hostility and judgement. Ah well.

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