Storycrafting 9: Panster vs. Plotter

Posted on September 24, 2019


In the various writing groups I belong to the question of  “Are you a panster or a plotter?” recycles with regularity. A “panster” is a person who sits down to write without a predefined outline; in counterpoint, a “plotter” outlines first. In my own experience this is a continuum: some stories come to me whole, some I have just the end, sometimes I start from a free-associated list. I always assumed that the black and white dichotomy was a myth, and yet people really seem to self-identify as one versus the other.

Stephen King famously eschews plots.

“You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer — my answer, anyway — is nowhere. I won’t try to convince you that I’ve never plotted any more than I’d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can — I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably. If, on the other hand, you decide I’m crazy, that’s fine. You won’t be the first.”

If you can do this, all the more power to you. I find that the more I practice the more innate and “automatic” writing is. If you are Stephen King and have been writing obsessively every day since you were a kid, then you are probably tending towards this end of the spectrum and aren’t reading this anyway.

On the other hand, J.K. Rowling famously plotted the entire Harry Potter series in a sitting. Here is a good view of some famous plots.

Part of my writing journey was a stint as a Technical Editor for a bunch of geniuses at Microsoft. My job was to developmental edit their brilliant thoughts into white papers, articles, and books so that other people could consume their revolutionary ideas. Oftentimes the ideas were all there, but they could be made into a more cogent argument.

One trick I found invaluable was to just go through the document and give each paragraph a header based on the paragraph’s topic idea. I would do this in Word using a Heading 1 for the topic sentences. Then I would view the document in Outline view. In this view I could more clearly see the argument. You can also drag-and-drop headings and all subcontent in this view to re-arrange the document, including creating subheading. This is enlightening and much quicker than iterating through the document moving paragraphs and sentences around. Only when the topic sentences flowed would I go in and do my line edits.

From this I posit perhaps it’s not a matter of if, but when we outline. When I write, I feel pretty confident to start a story once I have a beginning, middle, and end. I fill in the rest as I solve problems along the way. Again, sometimes I can quickly generate an entire outline, but it’s not a necessity. As I said, it’s a spectrum between what I know and what I need to know.

However, once the draft is “done,” I frequently go through my drafts and put headings in that correspond with one of the story theories I’ve covered in the Storycrafting series. I’m ambivalent about which. If I find I that I’m missing one scene or beat, then I might also find that is part of the story that I’m having trouble with. Or, more succinctly, addressing the missing heading often “fixes” the story. This is particularly helpful for what I call “The 2nd Act Blues.” I also have stories that work without checking all of the boxes. It’s a tool, not a straight jacket.

In fact, I’ve found that developmental editing usually takes me as long or longer as drafting a longer work. This is pretty important because in the self-publishing world, the discussion often revolves around daily page count rather than quality. So if you want to get several books a year out, rather than labor over that one tome for several years, you will need to develop your own toolset that hits your personal sweet spot between speed and quality.

In closing:

  • Write the way that works for you without a label.
  • Use outlines as a tool not a crutch.
  • Leverage the power of Word to “see” your story.
  • Applying story theory when it makes sense in your process can speed your final product without impinging your creativity.
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