As Michelle posted a few weeks ago, outlining and pre-plotting your story can be an excellent idea. You set up a map and course to guide you where you want to go before you even begin. Sounds great, right?
So when is it not?
For some, it is always a good idea to pre-plot. It does, after all, provide structure and outline for a project that may quickly go off the rails.
But for others (and I do include myself in this group), pre-plotting is not only a painfully boring chore, it can derail your project before it even begins.
You see, I am a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants (thus the term). My idea of planning for a novel involves scribbling a few sticky notes with things like “The cat can talk!” and “Why do trains in Serbia always crash?” Then, I pick up my pen, and start writing.
And novels come out.
Do I know where my characters are going? Of course. I am usually a few steps ahead of them. As so should you be, if you want to try pantsing your own story. But knowing where your characters are going (and what is going to happen to them) is very different from knowing, ahead of time, how your characters are going to react. Because therein lies the trick to pantsing.
Pantsing a story means having very well developed characters with strong motivations. Ideally, every story you ever write, no matter how you write it, has strong characters in it. They are the voices that carry your narrative, after all. They need to be strong. If your characters aren’t strong or their motivations are murky (to you, anyway. The reader isn’t here yet, this is all for you, dear writer), they tend to end up spinning their wheels, and the plot goes nowhere.
But when you do have strongly conceived characters, you may find your characters have no problem running full steam ahead towards a goal, and carry you along for the ride. Does this mean knowing what you’re going to throw at them next? Sure. But your characters should know how they’re going to react before you do.
Sometimes, in the times that I’ve attempted to outline, I find myself trying to force my characters into performing in ways they don’t want to. And then my characters end up fighting me. If you ever find yourself in this situation, stop. Listen to your characters. What do they want to do? Perhaps the problem isn’t so much they aren’t following your lead, but you aren’t trusting theirs. Follow your characters, see where you take you. You may be the writer of the story, but you don’t have to be an authoritarian dictator.
Another pitfall of pre-outlining can be what I like to call “pre-emptive catharsis.” Writing is very cathartic for me, and getting to the end of a story especially so. However, if I outline, I more often than not find myself “done.” I’ve reached the end; I’ve found my release of emotion. It doesn’t matter that it was in 200 words of vaguely sketched out ideas and not 100,000 words of detailed narrative—I am done. I now know how the story ends; I don’t need it anymore. And when I try to write that same story, well… why would I want to write the same exact story twice (even if the second has way more detail)? It saps a lot of creative mojo and motivation.
So I pants. If it guarantees me actually getting to the end of a story, then why risk an outline? My characters will tell me where they need to go, and I will figure out every else on the road as we go. That is, after all, what pantsing a story is—hitting the road, walking it with your characters, figuring out the “meaning of life” stuff on the way there, not before it. It’s the journey, man, not the destination.
If this sounds like you, perhaps you should consider yourself a pantser. After all, it’s only the first draft. Who cares how your words get down on paper, as long as they appear?