Friday 17 January 2020

Writers’ Questions: Should I write an outline (plotters vs. pantsers)?

In the last two posts in my Writers’ Questions series I dived into the business side of being an author with posts on finding literary agents and how to query them. Today, I’m returning to craft, with a discussion of how writers approach plotting out lengthy and complex novels.

G.R.R. Martin (1948- )
First, let’s start with some definitions:

The plotter: The writer who prefers to plan their novel meticulously before typing “Chapter One”. They may follow a specific novel planning method (you’ll find many for free online) or their feeling for plot may be instinctual, but either way they create their own map to take them from beginning to end of the writing process.

An outline: The plotter’s map and their secret weapon. This can vary in length and structure but it’s usually a document that sketches out the events of the novel, chapter by chapter, hitting all major plot points. Other plotters may eschew written outlines and plan using post-it notes or whiteboards (think: the murder detective’s office in a TV drama).

The pantser: The writer who prefers to fly by their seat of their proverbial pants. They make up their story as they write and may have little to no idea about where or how their novel will end at the outset.

Discovery writing: What the pantser engages in. Writing is an act of exploration where the writer is “surprised” by the events of their own novel.

Architects and Gardeners: Game of Thrones author G.R.R. Martin’s preferred terms for plotters and pantsers respectively. The only key difference here is that Martin sees gardeners as planting seeds, which bloom later on in their stories. This suggests a little more forethought than simply “pantsing” it.

The ARCs (advance reader copies) of Bronte's Mistress
The plotter vs. pantser debate is one that divides writers—and not along neat lines of success. Some swear by outlines, others feel they’d limit their creativity. But, if you’ve never outlined before and any of the following statements are true for you, I’d advise giving it a go:

You’re super organised in other areas of your life
Your calendar is colour-coded, your inbox is empty, you keep lists of birthdays and set reminders on your phone? If so, outlining isn’t just something that might be helpful for you—you might even enjoy it!

You’ve been writing the same novel for YEARS
Maybe an outline will help you see the finish line.

Your novels are never long enough
If you’re making the transition from shorter fiction to works of a novel length, outlining in advance could help you see if your plot is really complex enough to stretch across 70,000-110,000 words.

Your story loses its way
Your middle is slow or you’re getting feedback that your ending doesn’t quite map back to your opening. An outline could be an answer to your woes.

For my upcoming novel, Bronte’s Mistress, I acted more as a plotter than a pantser, although I’ve played with both approaches to writing. Because my novel is historical, and about real people, I started with a spreadsheet of all known events, categorised by whether they were important to my protagonist, the men in her life, her children or the Bronte family. I used this list to determine the best opening, climax and ending of my novel and then played the fun game of “fill in the blanks”, inventing the imagined events that would fall between those history had recorded.

A sneak peek at my early planning spreadsheet for Bronte's Mistress
Using Scrivener, I then noted the (real or made up) events I was sure would be scenes in the text sections where I’d go on to write them. I also inserted any snatches of prose (usually dialogue) that had come into my head during this plotting process to ensure I didn’t lose them.

My outline then was less of a standalone document than the sketch an artist applies paint over or bones later clothed with flesh. There was still so much I “discovered” along the way (especially related to flashbacks about events before the novel started and the characterisation of more minor characters), but my map kept my ship on course, not dashed against the rocks.

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. Do you have a favourite outlining technique? Or do you love to invent as you go? As ever, if there are any other topics you’d love me to cover in my Writers’ Questions series, let me know—here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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