Overthinking and Underthinking in Plotting

over-thinking

I often see writers debate about which is preferable, “plotting” or “pantsing.” Plotting refers to diligently lay out your story’s plot before writing in earnest, using outlining or some similar method. True plotters may create outlines so detailed that they are actually incorporated into the work during the writing phase. Evan Marshall, author of The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, should be considered the patron saint of plotters.

Pantsing refers to those writers who write via “the seat of their pants,” without the benefit of a true outline, and sometimes without knowing what the story will be about in advance. Stephen King is a well-known advocate of this method (which is why some critics claimed his early works used to fall apart in the final act). *Bill raises his hand.

I won’t describe these two methods in great detail as they’ve been described a lot, and you can look them up for yourself. Instead, I want to discuss the pitfalls of each and how to find your way in between the two extremes.

Now in truth, few people probably fall into the extremes of either method, and both can be used successfully. I fully plotted my third novel, Emprise, in advance, as it was the conclusion of a trilogy, and I was determined that 100% of the plot lines would close. That is the great benefit of plotting, being able to analyze plot lines in advance, and construct your story so that it is fluid and logical.

It’s also the trap. For some, it’s too easy to start thinking of the outline as your story. The story isn’t written until you write it, and much of it will be in your head before you ever sit down to the computer. Even the most detailed outline should be considered a guide, not a prison. Rigid plotters sometimes overthink so much they are filling in their story’s blanks to the exclusion of imagination.

Pantsers, in the extreme, sit in front of the computer, and make shit up. They let the characters guide the story, moving from one scene to the next without a pre-designed flow. Often, they don’t know what the ending will be until they get there. Plotters, in contrast, often write the ending before they begin the book.

The trap here is easy to see. You can be a Stephen King, 900 pages into a (600-page) book, with no clear way of shutting down the story. (If you’re King, you’re also too big for an editor to back you down.) A less skilled (and most of us are) writer will discover s/he has painted him or herself into a corner. The result is backtracking, massive editing, and often, choppy and uneven writing. Why? Underthinking. You can’t make up a 75,000-word story on the fly and expect it to hold together. Want to know why 1st drafts suck? That’s why.

I’m not talking about wordsmanship when I say choppy writing; I’m referring to pace. I can often tell a pantser’s book because the pacing is uneven. There will be a section rife with action: one, two, three  chapters in a row of chills. And then, suddenly, we’re hit with 50 pages of backstory dialogue at a party. Why? Because the author hadn’t thought in advance how long to be in each scene. That’s the plotting part.

It also leads us to how to use bits of plotting to shore up your work without getting bogged down or ruining your flow. Let’s be scientific here for a minute. If you are a natural pantser, you will likely never shift to the plotter mode. Why? Because it’s determined by your brain and personality type. Plotters are what Carl Jung and Myers-Briggs calls Judging types, who naturally organize their environment. *Bill raises his hand again. They plot, because it helps them to manage the world. Plotters write in Word, because they knew the outline in advance. Pantsers are the Sensing type, who do precisely the opposite. They navigate the world by maximizing their flexibility. Plotting restricts and stresses them. Pantsers write using tools like Jutoh, so they can move whole chapters or sections around after they’re written, according to what feels right.

So, how do you get the benefit of both methods – to know where the story will go, and roughly how to get there, without stopping to use the bloody road map? Easy.

There is a hybrid method. I first began to merge the two in writing short stories, where there is insufficient space for a long plot. Although a natural plotter, I began to see the advantages of letting the story lead – most of all, having the plot twist all of its own accord. More on plot twists tomorrow, but suffice it to say that when you have no pre-conceived ideas for a story (or a chapter) your imagination is freer. It’s writing by brainstorming.

After a few short stories, I tried my hybrid method on a longer piece – my 400+ page science fiction novel, Hard as Roxx. Roxx was the perfect vehicle, as much of the story takes place “on the road,” with things happening to the characters that they have to deal with. As a result, the book would remain fluid even if the lack of heavy plotting bounced Roxx and her kids from episode to episode. I spent more time choreographing the fight scenes than outlining the novel.

So what did I learn from the process? That some structure is almost imperative, for any work much above 5,000 words, unless you are fine with doing a lot of moving around during editing. But too much structure limits the imagination in ways you may not have intended. At a minimum, I’d recommend the following as a hybrid, limited-plotting method.

1. Know who the main character is. This doesn’t have to be very detailed, just enough in your head that the MC is well rounded and consistent. Of course they will grow in your story, and they should, but don’t make them an introvert in chapter 1 and the life of the party in chapter 3.

2. Have some idea of the ending. You can change the details later. However, you should have a good enough idea so that you know when your story is over. (That will already put you ahead of some writers who end too soon or too late.) Sure, you can expect the ending be happy when you’re plotting and then kill all the bitches off at the end, but at least you’ll know it was the end.

3. Decide how long (in words) you want the story to be up front. DO NOT start writing until you decide. You may change (as I have) from a short story to a novelette if you’ve guessed wrong, but you’ll very quickly know your original idea wasn’t workable and be able to adjust before you build yourself walls you can’t overcome.

4. Think in terms of quarters. 1st 25% – we learn the basic story line; the main “what if” or problem is identified. Next 50% – we learn the story and stuff happens to the hero; subplots form. Last 25% – the climax and resolution of plot lines. Don’t think this is important? Watch any of your favorite 60-minute TV dramas. I bet you that the climax happens with precisely 15 minutes to go (right before the last commercial break). The formula not only works, readers come to expect it, even without realizing it.

5. If you have a fun idea, run with it. It’s your story. Not only should you not worry about changing your mind, you should be worried if you don’t. You may write a minor character who’s more interesting than your main ones, and find her taking over the book. Let her; she’s a natural star. You may add to your story, on impulse, a puppy that  a neighbor tried to give you that day, and find your readers “love” that puppy (*cough, Apache!). Give the puppy more work. *Bill raises his hand for the last time.

The point of the exercise is to discover that having some structure is positive and it needn’t get in the way of the story. My web serial is being written with no advanced plotting at all. However, the hybrid method still works, because when I get an idea, it’s easy to plan the next chapter using the method I just laid out.

Give it a try and let me know how you made out.

Don't get pantsed
Don’t get pantsed
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11 thoughts on “Overthinking and Underthinking in Plotting

  1. I’m just getting started but I’m definitely a pantser! I pretty much always have been. In school whenever we’d be told to write an outline and an essay, I’d always write my paper then go back and create the outline.

    1. There’s definitely nothing wrong with that, as long as you know what’s good and bad about it. I have to admit I was a panster in school too. My first draft was my only draft. I only got away from that writing business proposals at work, and when I tried fiction again after several years of doing that, suddenly my writing improved a lot.

      However, I do think some people go overboard. In books, I see each chapter as its own little story, and it’s mostly made up as I go. But the overall outline keeps everything together.

  2. Allyson Mellone

    Bill, I found your writing philosophy on plotting verses pantsing to be informative. I am very interested to know how you create your titles. Is it part of your plotting? Or is it a pantsing? Do you come up with a tile before formulating the story, or later as you are writing? Does your tiles keep you focused?

    1. Honestly, I don’t spend nearly as much time on titles as I should – probably because I hate it. For the most part, my titles are just placeholders – I’d say it’s the main thing that I make up on the fly. There are some exceptions, like the book Emprise, where the title shows the main layout of the book – a grand adventure.

      If it did it the way I thought was right, I’d start out with a working title, and choose the final title based on the flow of the book. Since I usually outline, I don’t have much trouble staying focused.

      1. Allyson Mellone

        Bill, thank you. I find process to be very interesting especially in writing. I’m not a writer myself but enjoy the art created by writers. I ask because I have been enjoying your “Skip Tracer” Web Serial and found the title to set the character well.

        1. Thanks! I’m glad to know you’re reading it and like it. For that one, I actually picked the title first and used it to decide what the main character is about. When I think of it, you’re right, I do use that to focus.

          I usually start with the main character, and everything revolves around them (until they meet their love interest, and then everything spins out of their control). 🙂

  3. This is really informative. It seems I am a “pantser.” And actually I’ve experienced painting myself into a corner firsthand. It sucks. Sometimes I use this hybrid method and sometimes I don’t. After reading this essay, I will approach the hybrid with more seriousness. Thanks for posting this.

  4. I’ve read books on writing where the author suggests that you do a complete bio for the MC, with details like his childhood, schooling, etc. One also suggest that you carry out an imaginary interview with the MC. I can’t really do that – find it too structured. I prefer your suggestion to know MC just enough to be well rounded and consistent.

    I also find your “think in terms of quarters” idea very helpful.

    1. I’ve done that with longer novels, and I actually find it to be helpful and important. But it depends on the situation. I had detailed character profiles where it was a trilogy, so that I’d be consistent. Since they were school age, and part of the story took place in school, I had to know their schedules, etc.

      However, even if you do that, you only need to include important things. Plus, the idea is to create the character in your head, not write their biography. (I’d NEVER do an interview.)

      With all up-front planning, you should never let it feel like it’s structure – it’s really just guidance, brainstorming. In writing, even if you have a profile, change it as you want. I don’t even refer to the profile when I’m writing. I may periodically re-do it based on the changes I made writing, but more often, I don’t bother.

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