Face off. Planning versus Pantsing

The Pantser

The freedom to create without the confines of a plan. Famous pantsers include such authors as Margaret Atwood, Stephen King and Pierce Brown. Melissa Todd is a compulsive pantser.

Do you know what you’re going to write before you’ve written it? I don’t. I can’t plan anything. Well, I can, but I can guarantee that what ends up on the page won’t resemble it. I’ve just finished collaborating on a writing project, Letters, with Matt Chamberlain, and throughout the process my inability to give him clues as to the next piece gave us terrible trouble. He’d send me a poem and say, so what will your next story be about? And I’d panic and say, oh, a touching tearful farewell scene between a mother and child at a railway station, thinking that sounds nice, and doable. And then when it showed up on his desk it would be a cutting political satire about zombies set on a spacecraft in 6000 BC.• Poor Matt. At least it’s over now.

Writers seem to fall into two camps on this – the meticulous planners, and the grab a biro and hope for the best types. If I try to plan before I write I find the writing process itself bores me, and as we all know, if it’s boring to you it’ll be hellishly boring to the reader. I can’t follow recipes either: you never get the same dinner twice in my house. If I know what’s coming, where’s the thrill? I create to escape from the inside of my head, not get wedged deeper within it.

My husband is a playwright. He spends a year thinking about his forthcoming production, then writes it in a weekend, while actually, literally, looking the other way. His creative style isn’t dissimilar to automatic writing, although rather than trusting to spirit guides, he trusts to his year-long thought process. He doesn’t want to know what his hand is going to produce; he trusts his sub-conscious to deliver something sizzling to the page, and blow me if it doesn’t, every time. He’s at the extreme end of the planning spectrum, I suspect, even though the planning happens almost without his knowledge. I admire this technique hugely, but find I cannot emulate it.

For me, writing is thinking. I don’t know what I think about anything until I write it down. I write reviews of plays and poetry events quite often nowadays – I work cheap – and often, immediately the performance is over, when Mr Todd asks if I enjoyed it, I’ll say, Yeah. I suppose. It was OK. Then panic over how the hell I’ll get 1000 words out of that level of enthusiasm. But put a pen in my hand and I find I know what I thought, made all manner of connections, and actually, have quite a strong opinion about this bit or that. It may be that my brain knows I’m no good at talking, so there’s no point coming up with anything clever if I’m faced with a human rather than a notepad. It saves its insights for a more auspicious hour.

Same with emotions. I’m astonishingly inarticulate. I don’t know how people seem to know instinctively how they feel about stuff. I only know I’m getting a feeling, and often not even that. Even when it’s a strong one, churning my guts, caused by an obviously traumatic event. I have to write about it to figure out what it is, rage or contempt or horror or anxiety or gastric flu. That’s why I write my diary every day, or I wouldn’t know how I feel about anything. My pen is my psyche’s crutch.

When I write novels or short stories, half the joy is seeing the characters inhabit their own lives and make their own decisions. Suddenly they start saying things that surprise you, like children when they’re off the nipple and on to forming their own personalities. Suddenly you are God, an initial spark of benevolent energy that gives creations the free will to misbehave and despise you. Who wouldn’t want that?

Melissa Todd

•I made that up. Don’t buy the book then sue over lack of zombies.

The Planner

Creating and working to a plan. Well known planner include J.K. Rowling, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Carol Oates.

Do I know what I am going to write before I start?

Yes, I do, I am a compulsive planner, I create from the ground up. I create the geography of my story, I interview characters, (especially for short stories as the character in short fiction is the story). I create scene lists & I search for a premise that will act as a guiding theme for the story.

For me, planning a work of fiction is as complex as building a machine, but as with every writer, the story begins with an idea, an image, a character, a place. It is a spark that some would call their muse. I kick this idea around for a while before I commit anything to paper. Once happy it is a workable idea and one I want to write about, I convert it to WHAT IF? questions. These will further develop the idea, premise and logic of the story.

So the What If? might be something like, 





*You may recognise some of these questions as WHAT IFs? that could have been the spark for great novels. 

Often, the what if? will indicate if your idea is right for a short story, or if it has the legs to become a novel. Either way, for me, once I have satisfied myself that the idea has merit, and that I can hang it on a premise, and that I have one, or several WHAT IF? questions that will drive the story, I begin to plan.

As a manic planner I use several tools, some apps and some self-made templates.

NOTE: If I was to write about my entire process, I would need to write a novel length article so I will limit this piece to the creation of scenes.

For me, creating scenes begins with a starting point and a finishing point. Why? 

Let me quote a favourite author to answer this. 

“I write endings first. I write last sentences – sometimes last paragraphs – first. (So when I write) I know where I am going

John Irving

Or perhaps I might paraphrase this famous quip on music.

There are two golden rules for an orchestrastart together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.

Sir Thomas Beecham

Of course, in fiction, the reader will care about what goes in between, but Beecham’s point, that the beginning and the end are the most important bits, is equally relevant to a story.

With Irving’s advice and Beecham’s admonishment in mind, I set about creating a scene list. 

Most planners have a process for creating scenes. My process involves mind mapping (A mind map is a graphical way to represent ideas and concepts. It is a visual thinking tool that helps to structure information, allowing you to better analyse, comprehend, synthesise, recall and generate new ideas.) 

That sounds complex but it really isn’t. A mind map may use any number of apps or programs or can be as simple as a diagram written on paper. Excel is a fine tool for mind mapping, as are Post-it notes stuck to a wall which have the advantage that the notes (Scenes) are easy to remove or reposition. I use Scrapple, a tool from Literature and Latte (the same people who created Scrivener, which I also use).

Planning scenes

(Planning scenes with scrapple)

Mind mapping allows me to add layers to plot, to handle multiple characters, to add notes and backtrack when needed.

Once I have built my mind map, I have the full story in miniature. I can see what works and what doesn’t. I can then use scrapple, (or my wall full of post-it notes) to review the proposed scenes, add, delete or move scenes, all working towards my already written final scene. I then use the same mind mapping tool to plan the writing of each scene.

Planner versus Pantser
Using Scrapple to build a scene

I use my own template here with touch-points such as Sensations, Emotions, Opening and closing line (as important in a scene as they are in the entire novel). I ask questions of the scene. Is it too long or short? How does it affect pacing? Is there tension? What is the function of the scene? Can I do without it? plus other questions which interrogate character motivation, balance of action v reaction, etc.

The result of this process is a scene list that will look something like this. 

Once the scene list is complete, I drop the individual scenes into Scrivener (Literature & Latte) and I begin to write. 

I will not argue the merits of Planning versus Pantsing, I feel that each writer will adopt the process that suits them. For me as a writer with ADHD, and Dyslexia, planning is essential, it keeps me on track. However, every planner will also be to some degree a pantser. When writing scenes, I do allow my characters to develop on the page, but unlike the classic pantser, if my characters take an unexpected turn, then I will return to the plan, the scene list and the mind map, and adjust it to accommodate this twist, to make sure it works and that it is consistent with my premise, otherwise I will descend into chaos.

Dave Kavanagh

Are you a Planner or a Pantser?

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