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Plotting & Pantsing: The Hybrid Method of Writing

Planning vs. pantsing
Guest post by author Cal P. Logan. Twitter: @CalPLogan

I’ve noticed something funny on Twitter recently—the plotter vs pantser debate has been particularly prevalent, perhaps because of the whirlwind insanity of NaNoWiMo.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said either of the following: “I’m a plotter,” or “I’m a pantser.”

We do this all the time, conflating a practice or a belief of ours with our identity. We say “I’m a doctor” instead of “I practice medicine.” “I’m Vegan,” not “I eat a vegan diet.” “I’m a liberal” rather than “I believe in liberal policies.”

"We humans are hardwired to gravitate towards like-minded groups"

Although this may seem like a harmless phenomenon, it isn’t. Infusing our beliefs and practices into our identity means we grow defensive when those beliefs and practices are challenged.

While writing strategies aren’t nearly as inflammatory as religion or politics, and the ramifications aren’t as dangerous, this sort of mentality can hurt your writing.

I get it. It’s natural to want to belong—we humans are hardwired to gravitate towards like-minded groups on both micro and macro levels. I know if I meet another powerlifting metalhead, my eyes light up and I have to resist the urge to bear hug them and spin them around. 

So of course, given the plotter/pantser debate, people fall over themselves to line up in one of two neat little camps. 

Plotting vs. Pantsing

On one hand, you have the plotters: the cold, calculating, strategists who don’t type a single word without considering the far-reaching implications of every syllable.

Character charts, timelines, and diagrams abound. They know every detail of their story, every event big and small, before they ever put pen to paper. Er… Finger to keyboard?

On the other hand, you have the pansters: the free spirits who discover their story and characters as they write. They have no use for the stifling confines of outlines and notes. Writing is art, and art is best explored with pure freedom, with no regard for general narrative structure or a coherent plot.

The problem is that plotters often fall prey to either chronic inaction or inconsistent characters that do whatever their meticulously-crafted plot requires.

Conversely, pantsers will usually end up with a mess of a plot or a flimsy world (less of an issue if you don’t write SFF). 

"The problem is that plotters often fall prey to either chronic inaction or inconsistent characters that do whatever their meticulously-crafted plot requires."

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of talented plotters and pansters out there who have a system that works really well for them. If you’re one of them, please understand I’m not insulting your process. I’m just pointing out the fact that one extreme or the other may not be the ideal approach for everyone.

At least, it didn’t work for me. When I was drafting Sundering, I was running around thinking “Yeah, I’m a total pantser! I just spew out utter brilliance with no need to plan any of it out.” And then I realized two things.

  1. My manuscript sucked.

  2. My manuscript sucked despite having over 50 pages of notes. Pantser, my ass.

The problem was that I wasn’t using my notes in the right way. I was jotting things down—character descriptions used in text, an appendix of names and locations, bits of background information about the world, culture, etc. (I write fantasy)—as I wrote my manuscript, but I wasn’t planning ahead.

Lessons Learned

I had no idea where my story was going besides a few vague, disconnected points. When I started writing, I didn’t have an antagonist, and TWO of my most important characters hadn’t even been conceived of yet.

So I got my act together, wrote another 50 pages of notes including stuff for books 2-6, and began my edits, which included a complete rewrite of the first few chapters, an entirely added plotline, major structural shifts, and a changed ending… twice. 

"...pantsers will usually end up with a mess of a plot or a flimsy world."

I went back and noticed something else. My characters were a lot different in the beginning of the story than towards the end. Not because of a brilliant arc, but because as I discovered more about the characters through the writing process, I wrote them better.

But that left their early iterations, where I was still getting a sense of who they were, rather dull and, in some cases, contradictory to their true nature. I wrote my main character as a pretty chill guy early on, which, if you read him now, is hilarious… Because he’s a white-knuckle, hard-as-nails asshole obsessed with his status and honor.

I just hadn’t seen it yet when I originally drafted him. He was originally fine with his son not wanting to follow in his footsteps. Now, that’s one of the book’s central conflicts. 

"As I discovered more about the characters through the writing process, I wrote them better."

As I wrote and rewrote, I continued to flesh out my notes file, expanding my total to well over 150 pages. The more I outlined, the better my edits went. The more I worked through the muck of my early manuscript, the better I understood my characters, which made figuring out the plot that much easier.

The characters drive the plot, after all. After jumping back and forth between manic editing sprees and meditative brainstorming sessions for way too long, I have finally devised a system that I find works well for me, and that I’ve been implementing with some success with Sundering’s sequel. 

The Hybrid Method

I’m calling that system the Hybrid Method, because it sounds cool and I had to make up a name for it. I will outline that system below.

I understand everyone has different processes, and I’m not saying you should abandon what works for you and do things my way just because. But if you find yourself struggling with drafting or planning your novel, this may nudge you in the right direction.

As the name would imply, I’m trying to combine the best aspects of plotting and pantsing while avoiding the common pitfalls. 

Phase 1

Step 1

This part is really simple. Determine the following plot elements:

Act 1 (Introduction) (About 25% of manuscript length)

  1. Status Quo: What is life like for your main character?

  1. Inciting Incident: What event changes life for your main character? How do they react?

  1. First Plot Point: What choice does your character make (in response to #2) that begins their journey? This is the point of no return and ends Act 1. By this point, your main character’s goal should be clear.

Act 2 (Rising Action) (About 50% of manuscript length)

  1. First Obstacle: What is the immediate obstacle your main character will face after making the choice they did in the First Plot Point?

  1. Low Point: Towards the end of Act 2, your character should be handed a staggering defeat of some kind. They are at rock-bottom. There are some things between points 1 and 2 that you’ll flesh out later, but this is fine for now.

Act 3 (Resolution) (About 25% of manuscript length)

  1. Twist (if you have one): Big reveals should be planned out well in advance. This may go hand-in-hand with the low point above (Luke, I am your father). That’s ok, put it where it belongs. These are things that change everything for the protagonist, for better or worse. Powerful twists will significantly alter the stakes, their worldview, or their relationships with other characters.

  1. Resolution: Write down the key points of your ending. Not the climax, not how your protagonist wins, but where they are when the story ends. How have they changed? What did they gain? What have they lost? What have they learned?

For Acts 2 & 3, don’t worry too much about how you’ll get to the big points. You should have a vague idea, of course, but don’t get bogged down in the little details. You probably don’t know your characters well enough yet to know exactly how they’ll respond to the events of the plot.

This simple outline allows you to plan the most immediate aspects of the story in detail while having enough of a grasp on later events that you know the general direction in which things are headed. That’s all you need for now.

Step 2

If you want to, write down the 3-5 most important things about your main character(s). Don’t get carried away with webs and charts and diagrams.

Step 3

Write your entire first act. Stop planning and just write it. Remember, this should be about 25% of the total length of your manuscript, and you now have the tools in place to write it.

Phase 2

Step 1

Congrats! You just finished a quarter of your manuscript.

Now comb back through what you wrote, and write down any miscellaneous details you think are important for keeping track of your timeline, worldbuilding, things you may have mentioned in passing that may come in handy later, etc.

You can also do this while you draft IF you can stay disciplined enough to not get pulled down the plotting wormhole. Ignore character stuff for now. 

Step 2 

Write down 3-5 more things about your main characters. Add in any supporting characters that you feel are important to get an early feel for. If you like character sheets/charts/tables, feel free to start one, but don’t fill in the blanks just for the sake of filling them.

Only write down information that you have uncovered throughout the narrative so far, like their values, what informs their worldview, personality traits, flaws, and quirks you want to keep track of. 

Step 3 

Plot out Act 2 in detail and add a little bit of color to Act 3. Act 2s can vary widely from story to story, so you’ll have to tweak things to your own needs, but they should contain some combination of the following:

  1. A series of increasingly-difficult obstacles that your protagonist faces, sometimes overcome, sometimes not.

  2. Subplots introduced, and in some cases, resolved.

  3. Rising stakes. More and more on the line as the pages turn.

  4. A soul-crushing defeat, realization, or loss at the end of Act 2.

Below is a more detailed outline, with the previously-established items from Phase 1 in bold.

Act 2 (Rising Action) (About 50% of MS length)

  1. First Obstacle: What is the immediate obstacle your main character will face after making the choice they did in the First Plot Point?

  1. First Obstacle Resolution: Not a bad idea to have your protagonist win this one. It can demonstrate their skill, resourcefulness, badassery, etc. Just know how they will win, and don’t deus ex machina yourself right out of the gate. 

  1. Growth/Change: The protagonist learns something or their circumstances change because of their actions in response to the First Obstacle. What did they learn from resolving the First Obstacle? How will this affect their perspective (and your narrative voice?) How did their circumstances change? What do they want now? What will they do now?

  1. Subplots: If you have any, know when you’re going to introduce them (if you haven’t already in Act 1) and know the general resolution of each one.

  1. Rising Stakes/Action: The protagonist faces increasingly-difficult challenges. An unforeseen Second Obstacle (and resolution) may arise, and even a third or fourth, depending on the pace of your plot and length of your manuscript. Character growth/change should take place alongside these obstacles and mini-resolutions. The main conflict should be in full swing here. Just repeat the process for numbers 1-3 until your main character arrives at #6 below. 

  1. Fatal Mistake: Obviously, your main character doesn’t have to die, but this should be a choice they make that leads them to #7, the soul-crushing blow and their low point. It could be something they overlook, trusting someone they shouldn’t, but whatever it is, make the main character a driving force in their own defeat. (This does NOT mean temporarily turning your protagonist into an idiot so the plot can happen. They can make a foolish decision as long as it’s consistent with their values, the information they have at hand, etc. but your jaded, distrustful main character should not suddenly trust a helpful stranger so they can be conveniently betrayed later.)

  1. Low Point: Towards the end of Act 2, your character should be handed a staggering defeat of some kind. They are at rock-bottom.

Act 3 (Resolution) (About 25% of MS length)

  1. Twist (If you have one): Big reveals should be planned out well in advance. This may go hand-in-hand with the low point above (Luke, I am your father). That’s ok, put it where it belongs. These are things that change everything for the protagonist, for better or worse. Powerful twists will significantly alter the stakes, their worldview, or their relationships with other characters.

  1. Climax: The big pew pew. Epic battles, high-speed pursuits, emotional confrontations, shocking discoveries, and nail-biting, page-turning suspense. Know the apex of the conflict, how the protagonist will triumph, and what the immediate fallout will be. (Mt. Doom erupting when Frodo destroys the one ring, for example). 

  1. Resolution: Write down the key points of your ending. Not the climax, not how your protagonist wins, but where they are when the story ends. How have they changed? What did they gain? What have they lost? What have they learned?

Step 4 

Write the next 25% of your manuscript. This should take you well into the rising action, but your protagonist may still be winning, even if they’re struggling significantly.

You’ve probably also written a fair amount of character development by this point, and gained more insight into what makes your characters tick. Good job!

Phase 3

Step 1

You’re now halfway through your manuscript! Take a breath and hang in there. For now, repeat what you did during the first two steps of phase two: go back through what you just wrote and write down any additional details you need to keep track of. Make sure these are consistent with anything you noted from Phase 1.

Step 2 

Use your newfound understanding of your characters (you should have learned a lot after what you’re putting them through during the rising action) to keep adding to your character chart/table/web.

By now, you should be able to plot the remainder of your novel, because you will have an in-depth understanding of your characters’ psyche and will understand how they pick themselves up from rock bottom. More on that in a bit.

Step 3 

Review whatever parts of Act 2 you haven’t written yet. Flesh the individual items out some more, play with some details, connect the dots. Do this in advance so you’re not scrambling and stopping when it comes time to draft.

Step 4

Finish plotting Act 3. As before, items you completed in Phase 2 are in bold.

Act 3 (Resolution) (About 25% of MS length)

  1. Twist (If you have one): Big reveals should be planned out well in advance. This may go hand-in-hand with the low point above (Luke, I am your father). That’s ok, put it where it belongs. These are things that change everything for the protagonist, for better or worse. Powerful twists will significantly alter the stakes, their worldview, or their relationships with other characters.

  1. Rallying point: How your main character comes back from their low point and. How do they pick themselves up? What do they learn? What skills do they gain? Who helps them? Why do they choose to carry on? How does their crushing defeat change their outlook? How does it change the stakes? Connect your low point to the climax.

    This is your hero’s redemption, their final uphill push against all the odds stacked against them, and the peak of their character growth. Get into their head. It should be a lot easier now.

  1. Climax: The big pew pew. Epic battles, high-speed pursuits, emotional confrontations, shocking discoveries, and nail-biting, page-turning suspense. Know the apex of the conflict, how the protagonist will triumph, and what the immediate fallout will be. (Mt. Doom erupting when Frodo destroys the one ring, for example). 

  1. Falling action: What is the secondary fallout from the climax? What happens when the dust settles? The falling action connects the immediate aftermath of the climax to your resolution.

    In some books, this is rather short, in others, this can be several chapters, depending on how much you need to untangle after the climax. Broader, more epic stories need more time to slow things back down.

    I’m pretty sure that if GRRM ever writes A Dream of Spring, the entire book will be falling action because of how much is left to decompress after 5000+ pages of action. 

  1. Resolution: Write down the key points of your ending. Not the climax, not how your protagonist wins, but where they are when the story ends. How have they changed? What did they gain? What have they lost? What have they learned?

Step 5 

Write the remainder of Act 2.

Phase 4

Step 1

First off, good job finishing Act 2 and putting your beloved protagonist through the ringer. I know it hurts. Stuff the pain down (I do it with whiskey) and let’s get back to it.

Revisit your miscellaneous details sheet, add and expand. Check for consistency, especially now that you may have written your twist. A little foreshadowing sweep never hurt anybody. Just make sure the trail of breadcrumbs is there, don’t get sucked into further edits. 

Step 2 

Fill out any remaining blanks of your character sheet. You should have an in-depth understanding of nearly all of your relevant characters. Not just the basic stuff like what they think, but how they think. Dig and pry into their value systems, analyze the very roots of how they perceive the world.

Step 3 

Review your outline for Act 3 and, like you did with Act 2 above, flesh out, expand, add detail, and make sure the dots are connected clearly and cohesively before you begin writing. 

Step 4 

Write the damn thing. You’re ready. Finish what you started.

Phase 5 (Only if you’re planning a sequel)

Step 1 

I know what you’re thinking: there’s a Phase 5—what the hell? Yes, there is, and we’ll get to that. First of all, congratulations! You’ve just drafted your manuscript, and it probably feels amazing. It should feel amazing. Celebrate! Then put the manuscript away and don’t look at it for a long time.

Step 2 

Outline as much as you possibly can about the sequel. Every. Single. Little. Thing. All three acts, every step all over again in whatever capacity you can manage. Just crank it out.

Give yourself a few days off, then review it with fresh eyes to make sure it all holds up reasonably well. When the time actually comes to write the sequel, this outline will change, and that’s perfectly fine. But thinking about the next step in your character’s journey will give you even better insight and perspective when you go back to edit from the very beginning.

Step 3 

When you’re ready to review and edit your manuscript (that you took time away from), do so while referencing your plethora of notes, including the outline you made for the sequel.

I don’t want to dig into the editing process because that’s a whole article in and of itself (that I’ve already written), but always aim for brevity, consistency, and clarity. If you did a good job with your earlier outlines and the sequel outline, this shouldn’t be as miserable as it usually is. 

Wrap-Up

I’ll keep this section brief, because this post is already growing lengthy. I’d just like to reiterate a few key points. 

First and foremost, you can integrate this into your own process however you’d like. If you want to follow it to the letter, feel free. If you want to deviate or only use parts of it, be my guest.

And of course, the individual components within each act can be different. In fact, your outline should look different, because it’ll be tailored to your story. This is just a tool. 

In the same vein, keep in mind that plotting and pantsing are just that: tools. Each one allows different parts of your story to flourish, and it’s my hope that in combining the two methods into a seamless, fluid process, you can avoid the common pitfalls of straying towards either extreme.

Plan your major plot points in advance so you understand the direction of your story, then write freely and discover some things about your characters and the world they live in.

"Plotting and pantsing are just that: tools. Each one allows different parts of your story to flourish."

Use that newfound knowledge to plan your approach in more detail, and like many good processes, rinse and repeat until you’ve got a nice, shiny manuscript.

If you’re a hardcore plotter or pantser and it works for you, power to you. Like I said earlier, calling myself a pantser and winging it just didn’t work for me.

Neither did trying to plot everything out without being able to write in large chunks in order to explore what I had just planned. It’s my hope that authors like me don’t get sucked into the whirlpool of one identity or the other simply because other people are doing it.

We already do that too much in everyday life, and if there’s one thing I know many of us writers have in common, it’s that we write both to escape and create an escape for others.

In distancing ourselves from the habit of merging a practice with our identity, we can perhaps find the best way forward in both our stories of escapism and the stories we live day-to-day.

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Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

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