Thursday, 11 June 2009

PLOTTER OR PANTER?

Are you a Plotter or a Panter? According to the tutors on a recent writing course, novelists fall roughly into one of these two camps.


Plotters (as you may have guessed) plot. And Panters fly by the seat of their pants.


It was interesting to watch these two tutors at work. The Plotter had a list of items to get through in each session, and was rigorous about timings. The Panter would say – ‘shall we just try and fit in a couple of tutorials during the teabreak?’


I’m a Plotter. We Plotters need to know what we’re doing before we start writing. We want a road-map of the territory we’re about to visit. We feel happier and more in control when we have an outline, a step-sheet or even (ahem) a grid. We may feel a sudden, intense need to buy a packet of coloured index cards or draw a complex graph. We feel safest during the preparing and the editing processes. We focus on structure, plan all the twists and turns of the book, pore over character arcs, break down chapters into scenes. Once we have a plot, we feel freer. Once we have a plot, we can breathe out and write. I suspect that Plotters are also those of us who need to ‘get our house in order’ (literally) before we feel able to begin to write. Ironing, washing and cleaning provide us with a clear, orderly environment in which to work. Anal, moi?


Panters are spontaneous. They discover their story as they travel. They may begin with an intriguing idea, place or character which propels them off on a journey into the unknown. They follow breadcrumb trails, listen to the whisper of their intuition. They embrace the concept of the ‘shitty first draft’ – letting it all flow freely, scribbling ‘don’t know about this bit’, leaping back and forth from scene to scene in the book with alacrity. They are not afraid to follow their story wherever it goes, just to find out what happens. As Patrick Gale says, they ‘keep it as loose as possible for as long as possible’. Only then do they begin to edit.


Both Plotting and Panting are valuable and, indeed, necessary during the writing of a novel. Rather like being right- or left-handed, we each have a natural inclination towards one or the other. And just as artists are encouraged to work with their non-dominant hand, it may be helpful for us to learn a bit about our less ‘natural’ resource.


As a natural Plotter, I’m trying a different way of working for my second novel. Yes, I still have a very clear storyline and character biogs, but instead of writing in a linear way, as I did with the first one, I’m experimenting with writing scenes from different points in the novel, and I’ve also tried four different opening chapters. I’m writing more in longhand, and keeping the pages in a loose-leaf binder. It’s strangely liberating, and unsettling too. But I think I’m learning more about my characters and their motivations this way, which can only be good.


Or I may just be losing the plot.


And the result may well be pants…

37 comments:

Lydia said...

I'm definitely lost without the plot. I need to know where I'm going but sometimes a story will change direction mid-way and that's quite liberating and almost always much better than the original idea.

dan powell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dan powell said...

I think I might be a bit of both. I tend to plan in chunks and then weird unplanned stuff happens in the gaps between these blocks. In the last story I wrote a man in an impressive beard appeared in the final scene, slipping in through one of the gaps. Turns out he was absolutely necessary though. But he wasn't on my scene plan.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I agree, Lydia, it's so exciting when something new happens unexpectedly.
And Dan, I think most of us are probably a mixture of both. Love the idea of the strange man with the beard making his entrance in spite of your plan!

Barb said...

I don't feel so bad about my Excel spreadsheet now. I have to plot as it's a murder mystery. That's my excuse for all these post-it notes, anyway.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Ooh, I don't even know how to do an Excel spreadsheet! A whole new world of possibilities for plotting...

Laurie Paulsen said...

i always love learning about how other writers plan their stories--me, i'm a panter. way panter. probably too much panter.
i'm trying to outline the first draft of my first novel now, after i've written the thing. yep. *crosses fingers*
(is wishing for luck a panter thing? uh oh.)

Geraldine Ryan said...

Susie, I read this as "Are you a potter or a planter?" initially and thought I'd strayed onto a horticultural site.

Depending on what I'm writing I could be either. I have to plot because an editor needs to see where I'm going with a serial idea, but if I'm writing a story I don't so much. I see it as knowing where I'm heading -my final destination - but not necessarily which route.

Anne Brooke said...

Such an important topic - and so lovely to hear you say there's room for both approaches. I've had to mop up the pieces for some of my beginner writing friends on conferences who've been told they've HAD to do it one way, when their true writing talent lies in the other direction. It just makes me very cross when tutors are so prescriptive!

By the way, I'm a panter when it comes to writing. Which is most strange because in every other part of my life I plan absolutely everything and aim to be in total control. Writing is the only part of my life where I can live (or rather HAVE to live, as plotting kills it for me!) in the freedom. It's totally scary but also rather exciting.

:))

Axxx

Anonymous said...

I used to think i was a pantser, but I'm a plotter too. Like Dan, i tend to plan in chunks.

But losing the plot? Writing pants? oh i can relate to that . . . . .

Bomber said...

Panter, every time. I tend to have an outline in my head for a couple of weeks. Sometimes just a line of dialogue.

The rest just happens.

Anonymous said...

From poppy (above) - can't ever get my google account to work on this site . . .grrrr . . .

Roderic Vincent said...

Susie, thanks for a really stimulating post. Each time I tell myself to do more plotting, with spreadsheets and flipcharts galore. Especially the character biogs (but is that the same as plotting?).

Now you've got me mithering about whether the truly creative way is just to start writing.

Jeannette said...

I want to plot.... It all sounds so good in theory.... But then when I start to write the pants take over!

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Fly by the seat of my pants most of the time. Then I stop and read it aloud, add a little plotting here and there and then its back to the pants. Makes me dizzy sometimes but it seems to work.
The thought of completely planning something wouldn't work for me. I also love the way characters do something completely unexpected, sort of take on a life of their own?

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Actually just to add to Anne's point...I too am a control freak in every other area of my life and I think this is also one of the reasons I 'love my pants!' Writing this way is a totally liberating experience, unlike anything else in my life which is planned to within an inch of its life.

Rosy T said...

Interesting post! I'm a definite pantser. In fact, I have recently decided that the process of writing, for me, is very much the same as the experience of reading - of that doesn't sound too weird. The story can only unfold and the characters develop the way they do when I am reading someone else's book. For me, that's how novels work - they are something you discover as you go - and though your mind might leap ahead and guess at endings or future events and 'what ifs', you can't actually find out until you get there in the natural way - via the medium of the story.

CarolineG said...

Brilliant post, Susie.

I'm in a dilemma about this, because I don;t think I have really found my 'way' yet. I think I plot as I go through. But I don't think I've been brave enough to try one way or another. So on the one hand the idea of the NaNoWriMo competition frightens the pants off me [what if there really was nothing in my head!] so also does the idea of a very detailed plot. Hmm...this is all very interesting.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I love all your answers - thank you. And can really relate to what Anne and Fionnuoala say about being control freaks in their lives and 'panters' in their writing. I suspect I may be closet panter... As so many of you have said in different ways, there's such a joy when the story 'tells itself'.

Diane said...

I'm a plotter/planner too - I can plan for England, but I still don't set it all in concrete.

I want a spreadsheet now too. Be interesting to know how that works for the poster. (Barb.)

I can't remember how I stumbled upon you (I've been lurking for a few days), but I've added you to my blogroll. Hope that's ok.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Very glad you've joined us, Diane!

Gillian McDade said...

I always feel there is a danger in being a panter. I view my chapters as small boxes, and once I have one written, I review it carefully and make sure I haven't ventured into pants-land! It reminds me of going to Marks and Spencer without a prior shopping list - dangerous ;) This is only my view though, and it's how I work. It doesn't suit every writer.

Samantha Tonge said...

I'm a mixture of the two now. I was a panter with my first novel and consequently stopped at 90,000 words - i'd only written 4 long chapters!

I therefore planned my second book meticulously but i can see now it was all a bit flat and derivative.

My present book, i planned roughly but go with the flow, especially on the re-write.

Great post!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Maybe different novels require different approaches, too. Or maybe it reflects where the writer is in her/his life in some way...

debutnovelist said...

Hi and well done Susie on going against the grain. I think I'm a natural panter and discover my plot through writing. The downside to this is that I had to write my first novel several times to get the plot! With Book 2 I resolved after the 'sfd' to have a plan, made it, stuck to it for 20000 words then found I was totally bored. However I may take a leaf from your book. About to start my first ever historical, I feel the need to hang off until I know more about where it's going. But spreadsheets? Pass me a bag to breathe into!
AliB

Susie Nott-Bower said...

LOL! :)
Good luck with it, Ali.

Susannah Rickards said...

Lovely post Susie. I'm definitely both. For short fiction i just write and see what comes and then shape it, and love doing it that way.

But for a novel, the idea of writing 100k of pure pants scares me, so I like a lot of planning and plotting and yep even an excel spreadsheet. It does free the chapters up to be written in a pant-like way if I know roughly where they need to be by the end.

Recently I went back to writing shorts and had to unlearn the plotting element. I was pushing a story through to the ending I knew it was going to have and realised it had no intention of going that way and the pants took over. But that's Ok with only 3-5k to play with. I deeply admire people who wander into 100k territory without a map!

Derek Thompson said...

Great ideas Susie and great responses too. I suspect I'm a case of big plot and little pants. Which is not of course a very attractive image.
I think a loose framework can help for pinning things (characters and dialogue) on to if you have fixed points to work to in a novel. Too much pants can leave you with 10k of unusable material if you write yourself into a cul-de-sac.

Chicklit Addict said...

Hi *waves* I'm new here. I dabble in a mixture of plotting and panting. I have a loose idea of where I'm going after an intense period of plotting, but after that, I prefer to see where the wind takes me. Writing would lose all pleasure for me if I were to over-plan. I'm a binge-reader, so I have a similar writing style!

Samantha Tonge said...

*Waves back*!

Yes, i find if i do ever plan right down to the last detail, my characters decide they aren't having it and take me off in a different direction.

I think planning is fine, as long as you are prepared to change almost anything if needs be. There must be a degree of fluidity.

I've re-written my current wip so many times and am just about do to so again, tweaking two of the characters.

The hard part is to when to stick with what you've got.

Samantha Tonge said...

is to KNOW when

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Hi Chicklit addict! *waves too*
Sounds as if the whole plotting/panting thing is a bit like a pendulum - if it swings too far one way, we get lost!

Olivia Ryan said...

I'm a panter by instinct - I've never known what was going to happen in a story, I enjoy the excitement of that, and have always hated writing synopses for that reason. I've been known to change my mind about who the heroine will end up with, (quite a serious consideration!)about three-quarters of the way through a novel! But recently I was asked to write a full synopsis before beginning a project, and it was a (scary at first but) interesting experience. The more I worked at it, the easier I found it becoming, and writing the story does seem quite a doddle now I know where it's supposed to be going. So maybe there's a case for a lifelong panter becoming a novice plotter. The fact that I don't know where this comment is going to end, shows where my natural instincts still lie, though, I think ...
(OK, I'll end it now!)

Susie Nott-Bower said...

LOL, Olivia - will be interesting to see whether your finished novel remains true to your synopsis!

Cassandra Jade said...

I'm definitely a little bit of both. I plan characters well, and I generally have a loose overview of the plot, but by a couple of thousand words into the project, that plan is extinct. I have to go back and tie it all in together at the end. The thing is, ideas always sound better in my head than on paper and so once it starts flowing, I'm not going to keep fighting the story to stay on a losing course.

battypip said...

What a fabulous post. It puts into words beautifully some ideas I've been wrestling with for a while.
From the comments it seems most people are a bit of both, but if you start by plotting you're more likely to end up panting. I'm definitely like that - I have to have some idea to start with (which is often quite vague, but it has to be there) and then once I've started the story does its own thing, and usually something totally unexpected. Which is great, but quite disconcerting sometimes!

Rebecca Connell said...

Sorry to come so late to this! I'm definitely a plotter, and feel stymied if I don't have a plan. I do think there is certainly a lot to be said for experimenting with the approach that comes less naturally, though. Although heaven only knows what my MS will turn out like if I do let go of the plotting reins...