Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Plotting or Pantsing

For participants in Nanowrimo, it’s the ultimate question: Am I a plotter or a pantser? In other words, should I develop a detailed plot outline before I start my novel, or should I wing it, letting the words flow in a stream of consciousness like jazz improvisation?

George R. R. Martin had this to say on the subject. “I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows. And I'm much more a gardener than an architect.”

In my experience it helps to be a bit of both. Instead of being an architect, I consider myself an English cottage gardener. I’ve tried being an architect (or a plotter) before. I found the rigorous need to follow my plan too restrictive. The result was a boring story, lacking in inspiration. I’ve tried being a gardener (or a pantser) as well. That story never did have a coherent ending.

These days I chose to do something in-between. I lay out the framework for my story before I begin; the way a cottage gardener decides which section will contain herbs and which will contain flowers. The details are left for later. They spring up by themselves as the story grows. Sometimes they take over, and I need to give them a section of their own. That’s okay.

Once I have an overview of my novel, characters, settings, and a premise, I consider the many conflicts which will drive the story. Conflict can exist between different characters, such as a Man versus Man type of conflict. Sometimes the conflict is internal to the main character, like a crisis of conscience. Here are the most common types of conflicts:

RELATIONAL — Man vs Man OR Family vs Family
SITUATIONAL — Character finds himself in a dangerous situation.
INNER CONFLICT — Character is conflicted about which choice to make.
PARANORMAL — Character must face paranormal entities.
COSMIC — Character must face a universe at odds with his values and/or expectations.
SOCIAL — Man vs Society
NATURE — Man vs Nature

Once I’ve identified the conflicts which will define the story, I consider how each will be resolved. At this point I only develop a basic outline of what action will take place in order for resolution to occur. The specific details will become clear as the story is written.


In future posts I will explore commonly used exercises for developing both story and plot, starting with the popular Freytag’s Pyramid.

All of the brainstorming exercises described in this blog series can be found in my Scrivener template on Google Drive at
For non-scrivener users, Personal Noveling Assistant (PNA) pages are at

For more about my stories, check out my author page at

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