How to Pants like a Plotter

Pants like a plotter

NaNoWriMo’s coming in two weeks, and many of us are facing one of the biggest dilemmas of writing: to plot or to ‘pants’?

If this is the first time you’re hearing these terms, plotting simply refers to planning out the events of your novel before you write it, and pantsing means writing with little or no idea of what you’re going to write at all, or ‘writing by the seat of your pants.’ Both avenues have their own virtues and vices.

Let’s use a road trip metaphor. Think of plotting as planning out your route in advance, including all pit stops and attractions.  Pantsing is like getting in your car to see where the road takes you, stopping only when something looks interesting or to take care of bodily needs.

Most of us probably land somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, even if we sympathize with one side more than the other. Though I consider myself to be a plotter, there are always places in my outline where I just can’t figure out what’s going to happen before I start writing, or what I planned turned out to not be viable.

Like when you’re following a map, but the road you planned to take is closed due to construction.

At these times, I have to pants, and try my best to hold onto my plotter values.

Combine the benefits of plotting with those of pantsing

But why would you want to pants like a plotter? The biggest reason is that you can still be creative in the moment while retaining most of the benefits of plotting. Here are some of the benefits you can have by pantsing like a plotter:

  • Less likely to face writers block
  • Less likely to write scenes that you will cut later
  • Less likely to over-write scenes
  • Can write faster
  • Revision will be easier

Not knowing what you’re going to write next is the biggest cause of writer’s block – so doing the littlest, tiniest bit of pre-planning at the scene level can be crazy helpful.

Pre-plan each scene before you write it

Here’s the game plan – before each scene, you’re going to spend 5-15 minutes making a mini-outline of all the things you want to happen. This small investment of time up front ensures that you’ll be able to write quickly without getting stuck or pausing to think about what happens next, what you can see illuminated in the headlights of your imaginary writing road trip-mobile.

This outline can be as detailed as you want it to be. It can merely consist of a bulleted list of things that will happen, or you can follow the Scene and Sequel structure.

If you can, also try to figure out the following before you begin writing:

  • The scene goal
  • The scene conflict
  • Whether this scene is a ‘Scene’ or a ‘Sequel’
  • What it adds to the story (character development, moves the plot along, gives reader info, etc.)

Of course, you might not know the answers to all/any of these questions. That’s ok – just answer all that you can and put question marks down to answer later, after the whole thing is written and you can go back and look at the story as a whole.

I always type this up at the beginning of each scene in a different color so that I can easily differentiate between the story text and the outlining. Another idea is to create a comment on the heading of each scene.

plottig vs. pantsing roadtrip metaphor

Reverse-engineering your plot

Of course, just because you wrote these notes doesn’t mean you’ll actually follow them, or even that you should. One of the best parts of pantsing is that when you get that unexpected idea or plot element in the middle of the scene, you get to write it and see where it goes.

But how do you keep track of all these plot changes?

The answer is to reverse-engineer your plot. This means that you create an outline as you go, rather than wait until you’ve finished the whole thing. I first heard about this concept in a workshop by author Anissa Stringer, and it makes so much sense, especially if you don’t like to plot. It seems a heck of a lot easier to do it while it’s fresh than trying to slog through and make sense of the plot in revision.

After writing each scene, just create a working scene title and type a few quick notes about all the important beats that happened. You can do this in a separate word doc using headings, in excel, or on physical index cards. Whatever works for you. When you’re done writing, not only with you have a shiny new manuscript, but also a shiny new outline that will make editing so much easier.

Even if you’re a plotter through and through, I recommend editing your outline as you go to reflect any additions or changes. That way you can also reap the benefits of having an accurate outline.

If you’d like, you can download my printable Scene Cards here, or my Plot Bones Plotting Worksheet. If you plan to use index cards, check out this article from Book Country: NaNoWriMo Prep: Plotting Your WIP with 90 Index Cards.

Go (pre-)write!

What are you waiting for? Go and plan that novel! Or not. J

Want more NaNoWriMo stuff?

NaNoWriMo Plotting Resources

NaNoWriMo Character Resources

NaNoWriMo World Building Resources

NaNoWriMo Resources: Inspiration (Coming Soon)

NaNoWriMo Resources: Beating Writer’s Block (Coming Soon)

NaNoWriMo in the archives

The Writersaurus’ NaNoWriMo Board on Pinterest


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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

4 comments for “How to Pants like a Plotter

  1. April 6, 2017 at 11:54 AM

    But I also let it go where it wants once I get started and frequently have to go back and fill in the holes although, admittedly, I do plot out how I fill in those gaps.

  2. June 24, 2017 at 5:09 AM

    Simply put, a plotter is someone who plans out their novel before they write it. A pantser is someone who, “flies by the seat of their pants,” meaning they don’t plan out anything, or plan very little.

  3. August 10, 2017 at 7:50 AM

    I m a little bit of both, I tend to have my ideas planned vaguely out but complete and my endgame, but when so write I can just abandon my plan for another, or just make tweaks to it. I never have the issue of actually having to redo everything as my outline is like a fluid roadmap with scenes bare enough for me to remember and take it down without having to look back but allows me to pants some twists which I only see halfway through the novel or maybe while I m writing the chapter itself.

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