Methods of Writing: Plotter, Panster, or In-Between

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
Some writers are plotters. They thrive on planning out their books in great detail, making outlines, filling out note cards, and making story boards.

Other writers are pantsers. They write by the seat-of-their pants. They start with a blank slate and let the story and characters take them where they will.

I’ve seen both types of writers—plotters and pantsers—do very well. If you were to read their final manuscripts, you likely wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They both end up in the same place—with a delightful well-told story.

With that said, however, I will admit I’m neither of the above, that I’m really more of a combination. You might call me a plantser (plotter + pantser).

Before I start my first draft, I do a TON of research (as in weeks of reading and scouring books). But most historical writers have to do that. It’s just part of the nature of writing a book set in a different time and place.

And before I begin writing, I also do a TON of brainstorming. I pull out a new spiral notebook and jot down ideas as they come to me or as they arise from all my researching. I fill pages with lists of all kinds of wild and crazy possibilities.

Eventually I narrow down my plot and come up with a very rough sketch of how I’d like to see my book progress. I write a few brief ideas for each chapter. But usually those ideas are fluid and vague.

Of course, I also get to know my characters before starting the first draft. I need to have a good grasp of each of my characters' backstories, their personalities, quirks, goals, etc.

Once my characters come to life, I usually begin to have the feeling that I’m ready to write the story. I have a pretty good idea of the plot and where I’d like it to go, but I’ve also left plenty of room for the story to develop as I write (and my characters too). For me that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing—seeing the story and characters become bigger and more dynamic than I could have ever initially imagined.

Yes, I love the freedom that comes from not having things too planned out. That’s the pantser in me. But I also need a simple road map for my story. And that’s where the plotter in me comes out.

As I begin the actual writing of the story, the pantser in me likes to go off on detours, try unexpected twists, and meander at times. But to help me from getting too far off track as I'm writing, I take a little time before I start a new scene to write a brief sketch of what I hope to accomplish with that scene.

Here are some of the things I jot down in outline format before I write a scene:

Time and Place: (This helps me keep track of the story timeline and how well I’m varying my setting.)

Point of View: (This helps me monitor how often I’m switching POV; I try to keep it fairly even throughout the book.)

Hook: (How can I initially grab the reader’s attention at the beginning of the scene?)

Intensity: (Will this scene be high action or more contemplative? I want this to vary.)

• Read on Prompt: (How will I end the scene so that I make the reader want to keep going?)

Mood: (What kind of mood do I hope to portray and what kinds of things will help with that?)

Sensory details: (I brainstorm ways I can get most of the five sense into the scene, hopefully in ways that will match the mood.)

Goals: (This is where I list any and everything that I hope to write in the scene including character details, plot points, minor characters, etc.)

Once I pencil these details out, then I refer to the “outline” as I write the scene. It helps give gentle direction and keeps me from leaving out important points. By doing the plotting in small increments as I go, I’m able to allow the story the breathing room it needs to develop, but I’m also able to keep myself on track with where I need to go next.

How about you? Are you a panster, plotter, or a plantser? What’s your method for getting through the madness?

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