To Plot or to Pants?

27 Jul

It’s the great question of our times. When I’m writing my novel should I plot it out to the Nth degree, or just get on with it (fly by the seat of my pants) and see what happens?

When I wrote my first novel I plotted it out to the Nth degree. The main reason I did so was because I hadn’t done anything quite like it before, so I figured I needed as much help as possible. Think of it as akin to being a kid and riding a bike with stabilisers. Something that’s plotted out in detail gives you a very good framework to write to, and you always know exactly where you are. That is, until a character does something you don’t expect. If you’re working with paper-thin characters, then you can just beat them over the head and tell them to get back in the box and do as they’re told. They play second-fiddle to the action. However, I found that once my characters had developed character, they took on a life of their own and started dictating their own terms. Orders to get back in the box no longer worked. The next problem you encounter is having let a character get away with misbehaving once, they won’t stop. Before long, your carefully plotted story-line has gone by the wayside and you’re in uncharted territory. And that’s exactly where I ended up, two-thirds of the way through novel #1. This time, with novel #2, I decided I didn’t need the stabilisers and instead I was going to pants it a lot more.

Pantsing is great fun, but you have to be able to trust yourself to get to the end at the right time, with the characters and story still intact. This time I only knew the rough story in advance. I knew it involved a 10-year old boy trying to figure out what life was all about, and why was it that grown-ups insisted on making simple things complicated. I knew that he didn’t understand girls, but had fallen for the new girl in class. I knew that he had a gang who were going to get in trouble. I knew that his dad was involved in black-market shenanigans, and that this too was going to cause trouble. I knew the dad was a Tory/Republican and the mother was a Labour/Liberal teacher. I knew that the boy was going to be continually presented with two points of view and he was going to have to decide which parent was right without upsetting the other. Finally, I knew that one of the gang was going to become our hero’s sworn enemy and cause him a lot of trouble in the last third of the book, resulting in him getting thrown out of the gang unjustly. The framework I chose for the story was a school year. This gave me some rigidity whilst also allowing flexibility.

By allowing myself a lot of leeway I was able to develop the characters and go with them. By not being so rigid with the plot, the story developed very organically. At the outset, I thought that the gang of kids was going to encounter bigger gangs of kids and have to fight them, in a sort of computer game ‘big boss’ set of scenarios. After the first gang encounter, I realised I’d put quite a lot of work into developing the character of JJ, the rival gang leader. He really was a chaotic and nasty piece of work. Hence my solution was as follows: in the background, he moves between gangs, taking them over, so that when our hero encounters the different gangs he keeps on running up against his old nemesis. This becomes a much scarier proposition than fighting an unknown. To my mind, this is the ideal mix of plotting and pantsing. I was able to allow my characters to develop their own personalities whist ensuring that all the key events happened at the right time. I also had the added flexibility of being able to change who did what to whom. This allowed me to keep the palette of characters to a minimum, which in turn meant more screen time for my favourites.

The key point is enjoy your writing. If you have to plot in order to do that, then plot. If you have to pants it, then pants it. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it come to art. Be the best writer you can. Go and produce the best work you can, using whatever method works best for you.

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