Plots or Pants?

I have seen a great deal of online discussion regarding whether or not one should plot. I have largely been on the sidelines of the debate, as to me, this is another “is the glass half-empty or half-full?” argument. (Neither, your glass is the wrong size for your content.)

There are two schools in this debate. First, we have the plotters, those who swear by having a strict outline from which to write. Some go so far as to fill in a lot of the outline before sitting down to write the book. One author bragged about having a 100,000-word outline. That is one heck of an outline when you’re trying to write an 80,000-word book.

One the other hand, we have the seat-of-the-pantsers, pantsers for short. These writers forgo plotting, preferring to allow the story to guide them along their way. Stephen King, at least to some extent, counts himself in this group.

Now, as I’ve hinted, I don’t have a dog in this hunt. Largely, that’s because I do both, for each of my books, to some degree. Allow me to explain.

In my Stream trilogy, there is a continuous plot that feeds all three books. In addition, there are two to four subplots that interweave each of the books. Trusting one’s memory and “muse” to keep each of those plotlines cohesive, understandable, and interesting, is asking for trouble. Odds are, if I had been a pantser, what I would have ended up with is a muddled mess.

Still, the books are about dreams. And, anyone who remembers a dream knows, they are nothing if not spontaneous and changeable. So, locking in a rigid 100,000-word outline would kill the spirit of the book I was intending to write. What to do?

Likewise, my last book, Hard as Roxx, relies both on interwoven plot lines, and spontaneity. Roxx and her family spend a great deal of time fleeing for their lives, and fighting whomever gets in their way. I found the action more vibrant and believable when I no more knew how the fight scenes would evolve than she did. (With a few exceptions, that is.) Again, how to resolve this left brain (plotter) vs. right brain (pantser) dilemma.

Fortunately for me, I am 50-50 left and right brain – a natural compromiser. What I’ve found works is a flexible framework to guide the story, but one which allows for the spontaneity and flexibility that so many writers want. In Emprise, the conclusion of The Stream, I needed to tie up all the loose ends, interweave fresh subplots, and ensure the central theme of the story remains focused. To do all of that meant that each scene had to move the story along.

And there you have the main reason for having a plot framework. The only way to ensure the story did not get lost or bogged down was to know where it was going.  To often, books end up appearing to be a series of events, rather than a plot. True, writers are good at sticking to the Action-Reaction-Sequel framework of plotting (create an event, then show its natural and emotional consequences, followed by what happens next in the story). But with no plot at all, all too often this comes down to “how can I torture my Main Character more?” We end up reading a book about some hapless or wimpy loser.

Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, in their book Writing Fiction – A Guide to Narrative Craft, said it best. They point out one can have a series of chronological events (a plot substitute) that still manages to be neither story, nor interesting:

“Here is a series of uninteresting events chronologically arranged.

Ariandne had a bad dream.
She awoke tired and cross.
She ate breakfast.
She headed for class.
She saw Leroy.
She fell on the steps and broke her ankle.
Leroy offered to take notes for her.
She went to a hospital.”

(Your mileage may vary.) But hopefully you can see the concept illustrated her. Substitute steps in your crime drama, or vampire love-fest, or what have you, but the basic problem doesn’t change. None of these facts (or chapters if you expand on them) moves the story. There is no plot, just stuff that happens.

I think each of us has read a book that seems to meander along, and then, magically, 75% – 90% into the book, there is a climax, the hero battles the bad guy/gal, and we all live happily ever after. It feels like you’ve gone up a 250-page rollercoaster only to have a 30-page rush at the end. Yawn.

Burroway and Stuckey-French explain further.

“When nothing happens in a story, it is because we fail to sense the causal relation between what happens first and what happens next. When something does ‘happen,’ it is because the resolution of a short story or novel describes a change in the character’s life …”

In other words, a plot leads us through the story. How does Ariandne’s fall change her life? Does she fall romantically for Leroy? Does he resent her constant neediness and plot her demise? Does he let her down?

Should the whole stupid scene be deleted because we don’t really care that she broke her leg?

Linking the stories’ scenes requires some kind of structure to lead the reader through. And there is the key point, the critical word: reader. Once written, it’s not your book, it’s theirs. We don’t have plots because they are fun, we have them because reading is no fun without them.

“But Bill,” you say, “this sounds a lot like you’re a closet plotter.”

Well, yes and no. As I said, I believe in structure. However, I don’t think it needs to overwhelm your creativity. Think of this as a map. Clearly, a 30,000-word outline is a pretty detailed map of what you’re planning to write. For some, that is more daunting than trying to write a book.

Some detailed plots read like complex maps. It can be easy to get so focused on the sand, you miss the desert.

However, instead of a detailed, street-level view, I’m advocating (for those plot-adverse) a high-level general guideline map. Think trail guide, not GPS. Some chapters have virtually no outline. In others, like critical romantic scenes, my outline pretty much lays out the whole scene, including dialogue.

For the outline adverse, plotting can provide a minimalistic guide through the story, allowing the details to evolve during writing.

In Roxx, an outline for one chapter reads, for instance, “Roxx heads north through the Sahara and encounters a group of soldiers.”

Are they good soldiers or bad ones? Will she fight or join them? I don’t know, I’ll find out when I get there. In order to derive the action naturally, I allow myself to write it partially as a reaction to what happened just prior. The rest I will make up as I go.

However, and this is critical, I will have some idea, because, since I have a plot, and I wrote the ending first, I know what the goal of the scene must be. Said another way, I know this links two parts of my story together. Knowing the before and after, even in the most general of terms, tells me whether the soldiers are friend or foe. I can write it accordingly, and still feel like I’m going from the seat of my pants.

So, this leads to a question: what is the minimum structure I can get away with? The answer is “I dunno, I’m still learning.” However, after four books, the first two of which required six drafts and were originally one book, I’ve learned some stuff that works pretty well, and not so well. I’ll try and tackle my Minimalistic Outline next time.

For you pantser skeptics, I will also talk about how you can write extemporaneously, keeping your Pantser Religion, while using outlining to fit the pieces neatly into a non-threatening framework.


  1. “Neither, your glass is the wrong size for your content” – Genius.

    I am a short story writer and often I wonder if it is because I do not have the energy for an outline for a novel. My characters tend to get lost down dark alleys if they don’t have a map.

    Most of my stories and poems all have a message – the story drives that messsage – I see them as complex multi-leveled metaphors. It helps when I edit to strip them down and remove components that do not drive the message.

    Excellent post Bill – much food for thought.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think what you cited is the hardest thing for writers (at least for me): to take out things that really don’t move the story. It’s especially hard if its good writing. Now, after getting feedback, I’ve learned readers get bored with that stuff because they want to get back to the story. Instead of being bummed, I keep the sections (or chapters) and put them in my “potential short stories” folder.

  3. I am a total pantser. When I have to plot then lose the energy of the story and it takes a while to get it back.

    1. I think that is because people mistakenly think you have to stop writing to plot. I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I use the same energy to create the basic plot line in the first place.

  4. sturner2 says:

    I am neither writer or poet and only recently blogger. I have from time to time written word logs to myself and a friend recommended posting to blog. His claim that if I were writing for others I would be more intentional towards clarity. I dunno. I enjoy penning words for my own strife of concise thinking.

    This morning I have read more on writing than in any year of school. I didn’t mention though I am not much of a student in a classroom and not a fan in the stands. I rarely watch anything on a moving screen of field of green. I don’t do fiction with exception of the one book I tried earlier this year. It proved to me that I don’t do fiction.

    I did actually enjoy your explanations of outing and plot. Likely because you were not shoulding on anyone. I was fascinated to find a shapely dancing woman. She danced left and right for me; it is my charm rather than any brainery. 🙂

    1. Thanks for commenting. I think your friend is right. We do tend to write differently when we think others will read it. I liken it to handwriting … we don’t scribble as much when there will be a reader.

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