The Nature vs. Nurture Clash (aka Plotters vs. Pantsers) … by Jim Heskett

JimHeskettAll across the internets, published and unpublished writers blog about how to write, edit, and market material. I find many commonalities and universal truths… show don’t tell, don’t be afraid to be bad in first draft, don’t join a critique group that meets on Wednesdays, etc. I might have misheard that last one, but I think you get my point.

If you spend enough time researching writing advice, one Nature vs. Nurture clash always recurs: Plotters vs. Pantsers.

The Plotters spend time before starting Chapter 1 (or the Prologue, if they're about to sit down to a 300,000-word epic fantasy) writing about what they're going to write. Outline, character interview, story arc, plot twists... most or all is designed before the first line of the story lands on paper (or keyboard. Or tablet. Or papyrus)

The Pansters skip all that careful planning and launch into it. They'll have an idea, or two intersecting ideas, and then let the story create itself on the page. The author has only some, little, or no idea where it will go once she begins.

As for me, I'm both. Boom. I just blew your mind.

I plot my story. But I pants my characters. (gross). What I mean is: I sit down beforehand to decide the sequence of events in the story, which somehow involves a character seeking a goal with obstacles in the path of that goal. Then I think up one or two details about each of the characters, give them desires, and determine arcs for them. Then I lock myself in my basement with plenty of bottled water and caffeine pills and just go.

I don't know my characters until after my first draft, or at least partway through.

My first draft goal is to get the story on the page as quickly as possible, so I can read it afterwards and see it as one whole work... find the plot holes, things that aren't foreshadowed properly, and the common themes. What I often discover is that the characters reveal themselves to me through the story. They create themselves. I'll find myself reading over a scene and think "oh, she wouldn't do that," because my original plotting conflicts with the character who grew into being during the process. So I adjust my outline.

So, you might ask, why bother plotting at all if I'm destined to make major changes to the story?

First of all, I write plot-twisty fiction. Planning where those beats are going to occur alleviates a lot of the pressure by reducing the scope of rewrites in subsequent drafts. Second, my protagonist’s arc and the events in the story are linked, so I have to think them through simultaneously.

So, I'll know in scene #463 that male antagonist Dastardly Devin is going to try to convince female protagonist Innocent Imogen to give up the location of the launch codes. And I know whether or not Devin will succeed. But when I'm outlining, I don't know what method he’ll use to persuade her, or how Imogen will resist or succumb. That's the joy of Pantsing my characters... there can still be discovery and surprises for me as I go along.

Do you Pants or Plot, and how has it worked for you?


Jim Heskett is a writer of short and long fiction, currently slaving away at a laptop in an undisclosed location in Broomfield. His next project is a novel about a woman who hikes into Rocky Mountain National Park to spread her father’s ashes, but she discovers something inside the urn that could put her life in danger.

For more information about Jim and his writing, visit his website.  His movie and book reviews blog is hidden away here. He can also be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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10 thoughts on “The Nature vs. Nurture Clash (aka Plotters vs. Pantsers) … by Jim Heskett

  1. Jim, I enjoyed reading your post. I’m also a combo writer. Since I’m writing a series, I know some of my main characters–but they always have something new to show me. As for plot, I generally know what started things and how things end–it’s that dread middle that nails me. So I usually start writing and let people ramble around, talking about, going about their business, whatever they choose to do, and then about 30-35,000 words in, I suddenly realize I can’t ramble forever. So I sit down and write a sentence or two describing each chapter I’ve written and then start brainstorming what is going to happen between the happy muddle I’m in and the clever, beautifully-written book that I yearn to produce. Like you, I’m only interested in laying out the plot so that I don’t end up painting myself into a corner (which I’ve done more than once.)

    • Thanks Terry! I dread the dread middle… I’ve written pieces I’ve had to abandon because a boring middle doomed me. I think as long as you set up an escalating series of try/fail cycles and use the “Yes, but” and “No, and” method of What Comes Next, it’ll help build toward an exciting climax

  2. I used to claim to be 100% pantser, but that’s no longer true. I like to jump into an idea and let it flow for a few chapters, but then, especially if the story is complex, I need to stop and work out a chapter outline for the rest if the story. Excellent post, Jim. Thanks for being here today.

  3. I’m a pantser all the way through. I even attempted to do some sort of plotting with scene cards and found myself of schedule halfway through the first card. I tossed out the cards and went about my merry way.

  4. Thanks, Jim. This inspires me! I’ve always been a pantser, but I’m trying to incorporate a little more plotting into my writing. It always scares me because I don’t want to feel constrained. But that’s silly, right? I can just change the plot if the character changes it – genius!

    • Thanks Darla! I thought of an example from a project I recently worked on:

      I had an antagonist whose main goal was to reconnect with his ex-wife. He blamed the protagonist for his divorce. I THOUGHT his motivation was love for his ex-wife. After reading through the first draft, I saw that based on his actions, his motivation was much more about a lack of control, and underneath that, fear. So in second draft, it became much easier to plot his own try/fail cycles based on his driving need to control things in his life.

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