Plot and Plan? Or Plunge in Where Angels Fear to Tread?

James Scott Bell is a published author with a diverse portfolio of fiction, from period short stories about boxing to zombie lawyer novels (don’t ask). Anyway, in the promotional material for his writer’s coaching service, Mr. Bell divides writers into two groups:

  1. Plotters map out their stories in advance, making sure they know how it’s going to end before they even start writing.
  2. Bell calls the other type “Pantsers,” but that’s an unfortunate choice of words. Puts me in mind of bullies yanking down a freshman’s shorts in gym class. Whatever you call them, they just start writing, with implicit faith that their stories will find their way to the end. They plunge ahead. So maybe “plungers?” That’s got an unsavory connotation, too. We’ll have to work on it.

Of course, most writers will find them in both camps to varying degrees at different times of their lives. For the first two published novels of my career, I have definitely been a hybrid of the two.

In the case of Human X, I had been sitting on the back story of my main character for about 15 years, waiting for a storyline worthy of it, so the first two chapters or so almost wrote themselves. They had been percolating in my brain the whole time. After they were written and chapter three had started to take shape, I began alternating between writing and plotting.

For plotting, I don’t use any fancy software, but a web-based service called Backpack from 37 Signals. It’s really nothing more than an elaborate note-taking system, but it allowed me to collect all my thoughts regarding characters and story elements. Most important, it’s checklist feature allowed to do a kind of “free association” plotting, where I jotted down “story waypoints” as items on the list. I could then rearrange them on the fly.

I could map out the story, concentrating on what happens next but also sketching in the later plot points a little more loosely. As the story evolved, I could add, modify, and rearrange the points as I go, but having the novel mapped out gives me the confidence to keep writing, knowing I can poke my head above water and check my bearings.

For Human X, a relatively short and straightforward novel, I didn’t need a hugely detailed outline to keep myself on course. My second novel, The Coat Hanger Railroad, the story involved multiple character and story lines, building toward two different crescendos, plus a love story for the main character and the political backdrop. My outline of this story ended up being insanely detailed, but it worked. As I re-read the first draft, I failed to find any elements where something I said early in the novel contradicted a later story element. Again, the ability to know my heading, the route of my journey, allowed me to plunge forward with confidence.

So why am I a “seat-of-the-pantser” first, a plotter second? Why not just plot the whole story out before starting to write? That might work for some people. Probably works for a lot of people, but by starting to write first, I get a feeling about whether I actually connect to the story, if there’s any “there” there. If I can get two decent chapters out of an idea, I have confidence that it worth my time to start hammering out the rest of the story.

It works for me. Your mileage may vary.

Let me know what you think!