A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.

Ruth Warburton on Plotting vs Pantsing – or – To Plot. Or Not?

To plan or not to plan?

As Hamlet didn’t ask.

Or, to put it another way: are you a plotter or a pantser? I recently said this to a writer friend and she looked back at me with a face of horror and whispered “What’s a plopper? And what do they do with their pants?”

Well, for the uninitiated a plopper – sorry, I mean plotter – is some who plots out their books before they start. The opposite is a pantser – someone who flies by the seat of their pants, ie makes it all up as they go along.

So which are you, which am I, and what advantages are there to each kind of approach?

First of all I would say there are two different kind of plotter; ones I would call true plotters (ie they have the bones of the story plotted before they begin) and more hard-core ones I’d call “outliners” which is to say, they have every single chapter pretty much pre-planned and writing it is more like filling in the blanks. One very successful outliner is Cassandra Clare who has written about her technique here .

There are specific advantages to this approach; as she says, it’s much easier to do foreshadowing and misdirection if you know what you’re foreshadowing. This is particularly important over the course of a series or trilogy where the later books may be unwritten when you publish the first. You can go back to rewrite a first draft, but you can’t go back to a book that’s on the shelves in your local book shop to change the main character’s hair from black to red because you need to signal that actually she’s the secret unacknowledged daughter of the red-haired antagonist.

It’s also often far quicker when you sit down to write the story because you know what’s going to happen in each chapter so you don’t have any of that sitting-there-mouth-open-staring-out-the-window stuff on page 244, as you ponder exactly how someone might recover from a stab wound to the abdomen in time to scale a rope ladder. And you also get the opportunity to iron out any plot holes in advance – although sometimes these don’t become obvious until the writing.

The disadvantages are obvious: the planning takes a big commitment up front, and a lot of time. Sometimes you get the characters on the page and they insist on behaving in different ways; the main character slaps the love interest when she’s supposed to be kissing him, for example.

More practically, as a writer you need to be interested in your books. I write very much as I read; from A to B, first chapter to last, editing as I go, and part of the reason I keep writing is because I want to know what happens. If I knew exactly what was going to happen in Chapter Ten I might not feel the same urgency to get there.

For that reason, I’m not really a plotter but I’m not a true pantser either, because I do have an idea of how the plot will unfold. The late, great (very great) Diana Wynne Jones wrote this, in a piece about the different ways of planning a book:

“When I start writing a book, I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle. Often this tiny picture is so different from the beginning that I get really excited trying to think how they got from the start to there. This is the way to get a story moving, because I can’t wait to find out. And by not planning it any more than that I leave space for the story to go in unexpected ways. Sometimes things happen that I never would have thought of, just because the story wants them to happen.”

This is more or less exactly how I write. Which I was strangely pleased about because I adore Diana Wynne Jones and think she is one of the best speculative writers I’ve ever encountered. (If you haven’t read her, do so! Now! Why not start with either Charmed Life or Fire and Hemlock? Both are wonderful).

But to return to the point in hand, I think of my own plotting technique as a bit like a journey through an unknown land I’ve heard about but never visited. I know the starting point of the journey, and I know where I need to end up, and I’ve probably heard about a few exciting sights I’d like to take in on the way. But the exact route and what else I will see along the road is up for grabs – all those things I don’t find out until I actually make the journey. Sometimes if I’m going through hilly country I can see the top of a far-off hill, but not the road that lies in the valley between the two. I have to navigate my way through the valley to get to the next high point. The whole point of the journey is the excitement of not knowing how I’m going to get from A-B and what I’ll see along the way. It’s probably the same reason I’ve never booked a package holiday but always end up winging it to my destination.

When I started writing A Witch in Winter I had a “what if” starting scenario, and an ending in mind (which I can’t reveal as it would be a massive spoiler!) The “what if” was this: what if a girl cast a love spell on a boy and then couldn’t take it off?

That starting point and the ending never changed but the rest sort of grew organically between the two poles. And I had a few bright sparks of scenes which I pretty much knew were going to be in there (not all of them were actually, a few got edited out) but the rest was up for grabs.

That was how I wrote book one and most of book two, A Witch in Love. Book three, A Witch Alone, was a little different because halfway through writing book two, I got an agent and she wanted to try to sell the whole trilogy. So I had to sit down and draft a synopsis for book 3, which was a little weird, as I’d never worked that way before, and even weirder when I sat down to actually write the book. At first I worried that it would make me feel rather stifled – but in fact the synopsis was pretty loose (barely half a page) so there was plenty of room for manoeuvre.

What I love about writing this way is the capacity my brain has to surprise me. All sorts of detail which I put in just on a whim turns out to be majorly important in the final execution. For example in A Witch in Love Seth gives Anna a ring at the beginning of the book, and Anna gives him a compass. At the time it was just because the book was set over Christmas and I had to make them exchange gifts, otherwise it would have been a bit weird. (Anna initially gave Seth a shirt but I changed that almost immediately as I knew he would think that a totally pointless sort of present). When I wrote it I had no further thoughts about how or even if those presents would ever get mentioned again. But as I wrote I became aware that both the ring and the compass were becoming major plot points. The ring plot point is resolved in book two (at the very end) but has echoes in book three. The compass doesn’t come into play until book three, in a way that was never included in the synopsis.

So much for The Winter Trilogy then. What about my new series, Witch Finder? Well, book one was roughly plotted and sold on synopsis. Book two was not really plotted at all and was just sold as “sequel” and the title, Witch Hunt, but I had a clear destination in my head. In fact this time it’s slightly different because I had two slightly different endings in my head and have been wavering between them for more than 130,000 words. I think I’ve come down on one side (or rather the characters have) but you’ll have to wait and see. I might change my mind! It depends how cruel I’m feeling on the day.

In the end, I think you probably have to try a bit of both ways, and find out what works for you as a writer. What’s more important, the fun of choosing your course, or the confidence of knowing you’ve got a map in your pocket? Either way, the most confirmed pantser probably needs to pause every now and again and make sure they’re heading in the right direction, and the most hardcore plotter has to make sure they leave a little bit of room for detours and diversions. After all, you never know what might be lurking over that next hill.

Ruth Warburton c I Harrison Ruth Warburton
YA fiction: A WITCH IN WINTER (Hodder, out now) A WITCH IN LOVE (Hodder, out now) A WITCH ALONE (Hodder, out now) WITCH FINDER (Hodder, January 2014) WITCH HUNT (TBC)

More resources: Emma Darwin on plotting vs pantsing – does it need to be so binary or are we really just talking versions of the same thing?

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun – if there is a gun on the wall in act 1, someone damn well better fire it in act three. But you don’t necessarily have to know who and why when you put it there. Or indeed if it remains unfired, you could edit it out in the final draft.

An excellent discussion of L.A. Weatherly’s Three-Act Structure. This works for both plotters and pantsers, but you will approach it in different ways according to whether you’re proactively plotting or retroactively checking your structure.  It’s also very useful for writing a synopsis.

7 comments on “Ruth Warburton on Plotting vs Pantsing – or – To Plot. Or Not?

  1. Jessica
    June 24, 2013

    I like your description and I think it’s very similar to my method. I start a story knowing a few vague things about what’s going to happen. For example, in Child of the Hive, the book starts with Drew hunting for Will. I knew there was going to be a confrontation between these two characters because otherwise there’s not much of a book, but I didn’t know exactly what would happen up to that point. There were also things that surprised me. The character of Rachel didn’t exist in my initial plans – she just turned up because I needed someone to talk to my protagonists. By the end of the book, the plot wouldn’t work without her.

    It’s a bit different with the trilogy I’m working on (first book to come out next year) because I had to do foreshadowing in book one that will pay off in book three. I still don’t know exactly what will happen in book three, but I went into book two knowing exactly how it had to end, which was a first for me.

    I know what you mean about writing to find out what happens next. I occasionally write myself into dead-ends and need to back-track, but I think plotting too carefully would kill half the fun for me (the times I’ve tried it, I’ve never got beyond chapter two).

  2. ruthwarburton
    June 24, 2013

    I’ve definitely taken wrong turns too. I’m getting better at working out when I’m on the wrong track faster – luckily – but I have written whole chapters in the past before realising I was heading down a dead-end or just going through some extremely boring countryside.

    Thanks for commenting 🙂

  3. kateormand
    June 24, 2013

    Fantastic post, Ruth!

  4. I wonder if you’d like to comment on serial plotters. Those who constantly outline stories but never actually write them. I ask on behalf of a close friend.

  5. ruthwarburton
    June 25, 2013

    Well, my dear close friend’s friend 😉 I suppose it depends if your friend is bothered by this situation. If he or she is happy with it as a pass-time then I should let him or her enjoy his hobby.

    Assuming however that they would like to get over this hurdle and write the novel, I would say perhaps they should take the plunge at an earlier stage and see what happens. As I said above, one of the reasons I write is to find out what happens. It’s possible this is the case for your friend too, that he or she fulfills the creative urge by finding out what happens in outline and thus has less impetus to write the novel.

    The other issue is that writers above all people, I think, are terrible procrastinators. I’m not sure why this is a peculiarly writerly affliction but it does seem to be. People procrastinate in different ways. I find I have to read the whole of twitter, or arrange my emails in order of how long I’ve known the sender, or something equally productive. Other people are more successful at disguising their procrastination as preparation to work – an example might be the people who become serial course-goers, taking writing course after writing course, but never actually taking enough time out to finish a novel.

    It is possible that your “friend” is using the outlining as a procrastination tool – we all suffer from the fear of the blank page, and too, there is the phenomenon described by Sadie Jones in this interview where she says: “You imagine, before you start, there’s a cathedral, and the moment it starts on the page, it’s a garden shed.”

    Perhaps it’s natural for us to want to go on dwelling in the cathedral in our heads for as long as possible – and there may be nothing wrong with that. Only you know how much you want to build that shed. But until you get it down on the page, you’ll never know how beautiful it really is.

  6. zdmarriott
    June 25, 2013

    Ruth this is RIDONKULOUSLY fascinating. I love reading about other writers processes! I just find it really inspiring, the ways that each of us individually goes about doing this job. Brilliant post.

  7. ruthwarburton
    June 25, 2013

    Thanks Zoe! And Kate 🙂

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