Plotting for Pantsers and Pantsing for Plotters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Remember the Dionne Warwick song “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” I always chortled at that. It’s about someone who grew up in San Jose, came down to L.A. to make it in the movie biz, and now wants to go back home. So she asks, “Do you know the way to San Jose? I’ve been away so long…”

Wait, what? You don’t know the way back to your own home town? Sheesh! This is California. You get on the 101 and head north and keep driving till you see a sign that says SAN JOSE, NEXT EXIT.

How hard is that? You’ve got to know enough not to head south toward San Diego! Or you shouldn’t be driving.

Besides, it’s hard to rhyme with San Diego.

Do you know the way to San Diego?
Which way do I point my Winnebago?

Ahem.

My post today was inspired by Brother Gilstrap’s recent thought-provoker, which has the following:

As for plot, I have to know where I am going before I start–or at least before I get too deeply into the story. What I discover along the way is the most fun route to take me there. It’s like knowing you want to drive from DC to Los Angeles, but not knowing till somewhere in Indiana whether you want to take the southern route or the northern route. Or, maybe you want to park at a train station and finish the trip by rail.

This is similar to Isaac Asimov’s practice. He said he liked to know his ending, or at least a rough idea of it, and then have “the fun” of finding out how to get there.

Fun is good. It creates energy. It shows up on the page.

So let me suggest how to up the fun factor in a way that will please both plotter and pantser. (And they said it couldn’t be done!)

This post is a long one. Pack a lunch.

Plotting for Pantsers

Now, don’t get the hives, pantsing friend! You probably think of an outline as some gargantuan document that locks every scene into a cold, heartless shape that you cannot undo.

Nay, not so. I’m going to offer a method that will make outlining just as fun—and ultimately more productive—than pure pantsing.

It’s based on what I call signpost scenes. (For a full account of signpost scenes, I shamelessly refer you to my book Super Structure. But it is not essential for purposes of this post. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog.) I’m going to suggest that you brainstorm three—just three—signpost scenes as the basis of your plotting. Here they are:

  1. The Disturbance

This is your opening. This is your hook. This is what will often make or break the sale of your book. We have talked many, many times here at TKZ about that first page. You might want to search for “First Page” and look at some of our critiques. But definitely read Kris’s post on what makes a great opening.

Now, sketch out your first scene. If you want to write it, go for it! I love writing openings that grab readers by the lapels. But you can also sketch it out in summary form. Or do a little of both. Then rework and reshape that summary until it you see the scene vividly in your head.

See that? You’re outlining! Whee!

  1. The Final Battle

That’s right. Come up with a rip-snorting ending!

PANTSER: But wait. I don’t have any idea what the plot is, let alone the villain!

ME: Who cares? You’re a doggone pantser, right? So pants! Just start playing with a big, climactic scene. Let it suggest to you what the story is about. Play around with this sketch. See it in your mind, like a movie. Then have the actors do it again, only bigger and more exciting.

Don’t get the cold sweats! Listen: You can tweak or change this scene all you want as you write your draft. But having this scene in mind gives you something to write toward.

Often—quite often, actually—I’ll have an ending and villain in mind, and a concluding final battle, but will change the actual villain near the end. You know what that’s called? A twist ending!

So now you have a gripping opening and a slam-bang ending, the essential bookends of an outline.

See how fun this is?

  1. Mirror Moment

How long does it typically take you, pantser, to know what your story is really about? It varies, right? You may catch it early, or you may not know it until the end of a draft. Or you may finish a draft and sit back and ask, “So what’s really going on here? How can I make it better?”

Why not figure it out from the get-go with a mirror moment?

This idea occurred to me as I studied the midpoint of great movies and popular novels. (I once again shamelessly declare that I wrote in depth about this in my book Write Your Novel From the Middle. But you can get the gist of the idea by reading this post and this other post, so I won’t go over that same ground.)

Brainstorm at least five possible mirror moments. What is your Lead forced to confront about himself in the dead center of the action? One of the ideas you come up with will resonate. It will feel right. And then when you start pantsing in earnest (assuming Ernest doesn’t mind) you will have a through-line that gives all your scenes an almost magical cohesion. And that is really fun.

Now that you’ve got the big three signposts done—that wasn’t so hard, was it?—I suggest you brainstorm a bunch of killer scenes.

What is a killer scene? One that is stuffed with conflict and suspense. One that a reader will be unable to tear his eyes from. Let your boys in the basement start sending them up (the boys love to do that!)

I used to take a stack of 3×5 cards to Starbucks, quaff my joe and come up with 20-25 killer scene ideas. I’d shuffle the cards and look at them and choose the ten best ones. Then I’d ask myself where those scenes might best fit—the beginning, middle, or end? (Gee, sounds like the 3-Act structure, doesn’t it?) I do the same thing now, only in Scrivener (more on that, below).

Pantsers, making up killer scenes on the fly is right in your wheelhouse! You should love it.

Then you can sit back and assess your burgeoning plot outline. Want to change something? Do more cards. You are testing different plot directions without locking yourself into a full draft. Listen to what one former pantser says:

Honestly, I had a hard time believing [outlining is fun] myself until I really got the hang of planning. But really? Planning can be really fun. It allows you to explore all the scenarios and opportunities without having to deal with pages and pages of rewrites.

Imagine a character at a crossroads. Turn left for good, turn right for evil. Up for adventure. Down for home. Which way do they go?

If the author was pantsing, they would have to pick one, follow it, and see where it ultimately leads. This could wind up being a brilliant book, or it could lead to fifty pages of useless material when they realize they would’ve preferred to take a different way.

But not so in planning. In planning, it’s easy to list out every possibility, follow every whim and feel out every thread. It’s possible to try out the wildest storylines and test out ridiculous theories just to see how they pan out. And since you don’t write them until after you’ve planned, you won’t waste time rewriting scenes if, in advance, you see that they won’t work out.

View planning a novel as a time to explore and indulge in all the silly whims you have about your book. Get your ideas out, and then decide which ones make the pages.

After all, what happens in the book plan stays in the book plan.

Pantsing for Plotters

The same method given above will work for you, plotting friend, as you begin to lay out your scenes. Let yourself have fun pantsing your outline, playing with it with the same wild abandon as your pantsing buddies, being free to change things up before you start the long drive of a first draft.

You are more structure-oriented than the pure pantser, so go ahead and lay out your cards with that in mind. I do my plotting on 3×5 index cards. As I mentioned, I do this on Scrivener. My beginning template is made up of my signpost scene cards, waiting to be filled in. I then add scene cards in between as I come up with ideas. I love looking at my growing outline on the Scrivener corkboard, being fee to move the cards around as I see fit. (I know many of you have looked at Scrivener and thought it too complicated to learn, etc. But if you just use it for the corkboard feature, I think it’s worth it. You can learn other bells and whistles later.)

My cards have a title, so I know what the scene is about at a glance. The card itself can hold a synopsis of the scene, or a big chunk of the potential scene. I often write some dialogue for the scene, because it’s fun. I transfer that to the scene card.

Here’s the corkboard for Act 1 of Romeo’s Town:

At this point in the process, I’m just concentrating on the most important scenes. I’m not thinking about transitions or subplots or style. I’m thinking about getting down the big picture of a plot that will deliver the goods.

In days, or maybe a week, I have all these scene synopses. Scrivener lets you print these out so you can sit down and, in just a few minutes, assess your about-to-be-hatched novel.

Need to change anything? Maybe a lot? Maybe the whole book? No problem! You’re not locked into anything. You can try out another route to San Jose! And another.

Whew! That’s quite enough for one Sunday.

Let me leave you with this advice: try something new in your methodology every now and again. Explore other approaches. Give a new idea a whirl. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.

Enjoy the drive.

48 thoughts on “Plotting for Pantsers and Pantsing for Plotters

  1. Thanks for another informative post, JSB.

    It’s timely, as I’m about to start plotting and outlining my next story. As that will be book 6 in the series, I’d like to say that I’d got things down to a fine art by now, but I always need reminders. I can see myself returning again and again to this post in the next week or so.

    PS I have a Kindle full of How To Write books, but far and away the best book I’ve ever read on the subject is Write Your Novel From The Middle, by a certain James Scott Bell. 🙂
    Thanks again.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Lynda. And hey, we all need reminders, no matter how far along the path we are. I was delightfully surprised some years ago by a profile of Dean Koontz. He has a big room in his book house with shelves of all his books (including translations). He says before he writes the next one, he goes into that room, looks around, and says to himself, “I did it before, I can do it again.”

      Write on!

  2. This week I re-read Write Your Novel From the Middle and used it to work on my screenplay that I’m doing for Goalposts. (If y’all haven’t read it, it’s good).

    I always see my beginning and ending. Everything else is “what if?” I treat it as improv sketches. I still work a full-time job and theatre is coming back (finally!) so my directors are calling and I have no time to waste. Index cards are definitely better than scenes to nowhere.

    Thank you for your clear teaching. It’s much appreciated.

    Happy Sunday 😊

    • Thanks, Cynthia. I like your use of the word “improv.” That’s how I like to describe scene brainstorming—let the characters improv in your mind. Toss something into the scene and see how they react.

  3. This is gold, Jim. Thank you. And it’s not all that long. Pack a snack, not a lunch.

    BTW, my friends…see how Jim broke all of this down into short paragraphs that we could digest in small bites, as opposed to long extrapolations that we would all be choking on by mid-post? That’s the lesson within the lesson.

    Happy Sunday to you, Jim!

    • Thanks, Joe. Writing for clarity in article form is a craft all its own. I try. I reworked this post several times. My model is William Zinsser and his great book, On Writing Well. A high bar, but worth striving for.

  4. Fantastic Advice! I’m about to try and outline my next project and I have notecards and Scrivener ready to go!

  5. I consider myself a “Planster”.
    I have Scrivener, but I can’t even get the hang of the index cards on the corkboard without having to open other sections. So I use sticky notes on a foamcore board. And an Excel spreadsheet for tracking what I’ve already written.

    • Physical stickies and a spreadsheet can certainly do some things, but lack the unity and flexibility of Scrivener’s coarkboard. I refuse to believe that Terry Odell—author, blogger, lip balm provider—could not get the hang of this in a dedicated half hour of playing around.

      For those interested, here’s an intro tutorial. There are MANY others:

      https://youtu.be/iGWTAVknZFg

  6. Not my cuppa. I marvel at those who can know where a story’s going, the plot points, etc., and still write it. To me, it sounds far too much like work, plus I’d be bored out of my mind. Same reason I don’t watch a film or buy and read a novel after someone’s told me the plot. Plus, if I can think things through in advance, so can the reader. Of course, for plotters, Wilhelm’s Law (“throw away your first three ideas”) can help.

    • Well, Harvey, the way I do it it’s not like work. It’s more like playing in the sandbox, then the swings, then the Jungle Jim.

      Also, I don’t buy the thought that because you “think things out in advance” so can the reader. Agatha Christie would drop her tea cup at such a notion. I find that knowing the outcome allows me to come up with a honey of a shadow story, hide or reveal things at will, and keep the reader guessing.

      I do like “Wilhelm’s Law” and apply it to brainstorming. I try to make lists of a minimum of 5 ideas, and almost always it’s one of them after #3 that shines.

      • I’m glad it’s not labor for you. Sitting alone in a room making stuff up should be a fun escape, not work. Different strokes, I suppose. I personally find it easier and more fun to let the characters who are living the story convey it. I’m only their typist. I would no more presume to figure out what they should do next than what my neighbors or anyone else should do next.

        • I hear you, Harvey. Only when we had a family living next door with a kid trying to learn to play rock drums, I would gladly have entertained the power of control!

  7. Thanks, Jim, for another great teaching moment.

    I’m a plotter, but have gradually “evolved” to the very method you are describing here. I use Scrivener, but have never tried the corkboard. Thanks for the link to the corkboard tutorial. Simple enough, and I’ll try it.

    But, I find that using Google docs as a super corkboard has lots of flexibility. I can expand a potential scene and still see the entire “card” all at once. By giving the title of the scene a Heading status, I have a listing of scenes (like Scrivener) on the left where I can click and jump to a scene. I can color code easily. And I can work on the Google doc outline anywhere I have internet, even without my laptop and Scrivener. Also, I keep my Google doc outline/corkboard open while I’m writing in Scrivener, so it’s always right behind Scrivener and a click away.

    Thanks for another great post. Have a great day!

      • I don’t think that Google Docs has a corkboard view. What I’m using is just the normal Google Docs view, giving each scene a title and “Heading one” status (which creates a list of scenes on the left like Scrivener’s binder) and makes it possible to click on a scene and jump to the expanded scene paragraph. Each scene can then be a list, a paragraph, multiple paragraphs, color-coded components of plot that you want to follow from scene to scene, or anything you want.

        It is linear (up and down), but whole blocks of text (scenes) can be easily moved up or down like on any word processing program.

        And this is something anybody can use for free (anywhere they have internet access with a free Google account), and use without using Scrivener.

        I started playing with this idea as a way to work on my outline online when I didn’t have my laptop (and Scrivener) with me.

  8. First off… another timely post, Sir, as my stalled WIP suddenly “suggested” a clearer ending towards which to “wander”… I’ve always wanted to pants it, but my OCD need to have every turn figured out ahead of time battles with my ADHD need to change channels…
    What you’ve described is lot like what my dad referred to as “homing pigeon instinct” — knowing (pretty much), where he wanted to go, heading that general direction, checking the map every now and then, but usually making turns that seemed to offer a better, or at least more interesting, route. What seemed like getting hopelessly lost to Mom (and, often my bride when I go off-Google Maps), always resulted in getting where we wanted to be… with unexpected views and vistas.
    Or as we used to say when riding standby on the airline (and getting bumped) – there’s more than one way to Miami…

    • I like that homing pigeon idea, George. What I’m describing as outlining is indeed like getting a “bird’s eye view.”

      OCD v. ADHD sounds like the basis for a short story…or perhaps the backstory for a hero or villain in a full length novel!

  9. Happy Sunday, Jim. This post is right up my alley. I began as a pure pantser, then went over to the outlining side of the writing force, and more recently have edged back toward pantsing, in part because my outlining process had slowed way down and become unproductive. I think treating your outline like draft zero is a great approach. My writing mentor Mary Rosenblum once told me she treated plotting like playing with Legos, in an approach similar to your scene building and swapping.

    One problem I have is changing plot and story elements as I draft, sometimes dramatically, because my subconscious has come up with something I roll with. I’m currently finishing revisions on a twenty five thousand word novella, and I did exactly that when drafting it, which makes for a messy first draft. Since this novella has two POVs with converging storylines (breaking the “rule” of one POV and storyline for a novella), I made even more work for myself with changing things up in each story arc.

    Letting your subconscious plan in the planning stage and then generally sticking at what you’ve arrived at would be one way of avoiding this. I tend to see too many options. How do you avoid this problem while drafting? Do you listen to your subconscious if/when it comes up with a new, different idea, or have you trained it to do that during the planning phase? (I suspect the latter 🙂

    Have a wonderful day. It’s back to the revision factory for me.

    • Yes, Dale, listen to all the bubbling ideas in the planning phase. When it comes to the writing, look for originality within the already plotted scene. That’s the way I try to roll.

  10. When I first started writing, I first envisioned an opening scene and the end, but my story always flagged in the middle. I tried other suggested plotting methods and became overwhelmed with so much detail I couldn’t write. Your books on Super Structure and the The Mirror Moment, helped immensely. Your post just swept away more of the cobwebs surrounding planning. Thank you!

  11. Best tip I picked up from you, as a pantser, was brainstorming key or cool scenes on index cards and working from there. It’s been highly effective and enjoyable. For example, if you’re writing a mystery, you know you’ll need some interrogations scenes, red herrings, finding the body, etc.

    • Great to hear, Philip. Glad I could help in that regard.

      My early training was in screenwriting, and the index card method. It’s stayed with me all these years.

    • Cool, Maggie. You know, there’s a free app that has scene cards, corkboard, etc. You can check it out at Hiveword.com. (Note: I have an add-on feature there, but it’s not necessary to use the basic program.)

  12. Wow. You hit it out of the park with this post, Jim! Outstanding. You’ve even convinced me to veer away from my Excel spreadsheet and give a Scrivener a try. Wish me luck!

    Hey, I heard Sony Michel got traded to the Rams. I’ll miss him on the Pats, but now he gets to play in that amazing stadium. Say hi for me! 😉

  13. Good morning, Jim! Thank you for another bookmark-able lesson in writing! Thanks to you and others at TKZ, your description is pretty much the way I “plantz.”

    I also use Scrivener, and I love it. In addition to making it easy to keep track and move each chapter/scene, I like the outline feature. I use it to keep track of the number of words in each chapter. I transfer that info to a spreadsheet to calculate the percentage of the way through the story for each scene.

    I like Scrivener’s cork board feature also, but I much prefer attaching post-it notes to my three-door closet. I use different colors for scenes, characters, suspects, themes, etc. Primitive, but effective.

  14. Jim, Super Structure and Write Your Novel from the Middle are two books that finally cemented the concept of basic story structure in my brain. I still pants (is that a verb?) and trust my subconscious to come up plot twists and surprises. But at least I have a destination to work toward.

    My WIP, Until Proven Guilty, has three different plot lines linked to a common theme (the good, the bad, and the ugly of DNA evidence). Right now, it feels like trying to braid the arms of a flailing octopus. Scrivener intimidates me but I may have to try the corkboard to tame the octopus.

    • Ha, Debbie…we’ve all struggled with “the octopus” at times. I do like the order Scrivener offers, while still leaving us room to play.

      Note: My big brother once did an oral report in elementary school, on the octopus. At one point he said, “The octopus has eight testicles…” He couldn’t understand all the laughter, especially from the teacher.

  15. Yep. But instead of a corkboard, I take a whiteboard and drive to the Outer Banks (North Carolina) each winter to work on the signposts of my next book. Nothing like freezing my a** off after a cold-water swim and then studying my board while drinking hot chocolate. Great summary, Mr. B.

  16. I have two WIPs in play. One is getting the final touches for self-publishing and one that I’m entering the third act. In the second one, I had some problems. For my second book, I had a beginning, middle, and end as per your instructions in Writing from the Middle. Then I ran into a problem and went from plotter to pantser trying to figure things out.

    I came up with a cool mirror moment for WIP #2. My lead has a potential enemy in his gunsight and is struggling with pulling the trigger. This is because in the first WIP he killed someone in self-defense and is haunted by it.

    So I thought this was cool and my story was going to resolve itself. However, I didn’t have an ending to work towards that I was happy with. I found out, even though I plotted everything carefully, my second book was coming out majorly unbalanced. I could feel it—even though there was an outline, I knew it was wrong.

    I use the word unbalanced as in my pacing was off, my third act was going to be way too long, my middle was going to be too short, and the tension just felt off. I put things away for a two-week vacation with the family. I actually went into the previous posts on the KZB to get some inspiration. I wrote some scenes using the seat of pants and made a new ending that I loved even more. Thankfully, I got back on track.

    What a difference. I actually found a new character to bring with me with for a follow-up book in doing that. I hope that decision will save this book—however it has to be excited about has to be a good thing.

    • It’s good to develop that “sense of balance” Ben, as it will keep getting stronger and more useful. All good writers get that feeling from time to time—outlining, pantsing, writing, revising. Experience and craft knowledge = fix.

  17. Mirror moments!** I’ve only seen that concept here. Must use it sometime, maybe today. I write mostly stage plays, just putting down anything relevantish that pops into my brain: A scene, a line, a prop, a setting, a character, a gesture, a costume. After I get enough of these, I connect the dots, and, viola!*, the whole play is there in skeletal form.
    I’m sure the boy band in the basement (or the Guardienne in the limbic system) doesn’t work as logically as the conscious mind. If you’re a plotter, your band may be pantsers, or v.v. Motifs are their language. They sometimes leap ahead 50 pages, look around, then go back and plant something for purposes unknown to you until later. Symbols appear repeatedly as motifs, reverberating between motive (McGuffin) and metaphor.

    *Yeah, it’s voila.
    ** Maybe related to the “I Want” song in a musical?

  18. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for the great post. I’m comfortable with creating a beginning and ending but struggle with the middle. After reading your book about the mirror moment, I am finally grasping how to structure that part of a story.

    Like Cecilia, this post cleared the rest of the cobwebs away. Your post was simply stated but packed a punch.

    Thank you for sharing your corkboard. That was great seeing how you put your scenes together. My confidence level has moved up a few more notches. Again, this was a really great lesson. I’m finally grasping structure. Thank you so much.

    • Darlene, that is music to my ears, when a writer starts getting a better handle on structure because of something I wrote. It was a long, hard road for me to figure it out, so I love being able to save writers some time and labor!

  19. Great post, Jim!
    I feel as though Scrivner is lauded a great deal at TKZ (this blog is certainly where I first learned of it!), but after reading responses here, I wonder if you are the sole source?

    I definitely want to give it a go. It sounds powerful. I use a version in Word (a laborious distant cousin to the Google Docs idea) and would love to upgrade. However, it sounds like I would have to upgrade my writing platform first.

    I use a laptop for all writing (save napkin scribbles, of course), but it is not internet capable. I chose that on purpose after a previous incarnation died of a lengthy battle with malware, taking some unsaved data with it. (And yes, Dad; the laptop was “using protection.” Just not powerrful enough protection, evidently.)

    I keep my smartphone by my side for the inevitable research jaunt, but otherwise, I am writing in a protective bubble. To send chapters to betas, print hard copy, etc, requires a usb drive. (That alone gives me nightmares about joy-riding malware!)

    Long route to a short question: it sounds like Scrivner is not the kind of program that can be downloaded as an app to a phone?
    If not, I’m stuck with Word version (which has worked great for years) until I take the upgrade plunge.

    But I appreciate the plotter/pantsing discussion! I’m a proud hybrid, myself. And your Mirror Moment has been an invaluable tool.
    I’ll be sharing this post with my writer’s group!

  20. …that is music to my ears, when a writer starts getting a better handle on structure because of something I wrote.

    You have the heart and soul of a teacher, Jim. Thanks for this post . . . yet another pantser (me) ventures (slowly and carefully) into the world of plotting (limited version, of course).

    I like to start with the story nugget, then proceed to write a sentence or two summarizing each of the three acts (*gasp* . . . structure!), then proceed with writing the opening and brainstorming the ending. After that, it’s time to let myself go (with the girls in the attic by my side), fingers flying over the keyboard. Kinda like this comment.

    🙂

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