On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes writes about plotting vs pantsing, and why sometimes you might need to abandon a carefully crafted plot to follow where the story is naturally leading.
Written by JJ Barnes
Planning your story well can make the writing process easier. You won’t wander off on side adventures or get muddled as you build to the climax because you’ve already decided where you’re going. A story plan can make sure you go in with characters already developed and ready to move, and plot twists ready to construct. However, even the most carefully built story plan can become more of a burden than an aid. I’ll be exploring reasons why you should be willing to follow your story as it develops, rather than stick rigidly to a pre prepared story plan.
Plotting Vs Pantsing
Plotting your story means planning it in advance. You work out your beginning, mid point and climax. You work out who your characters are and what they want. Then you write your story following those rungs on the ladder. Pantsing means you wing it. You have an idea for your story, maybe a Protagonist or a world you’re writing in, and you go for it. See where it goes.
Plotting does not mean a lack of creativity. It’s not writing by numbers. Plotting means you’re doing your creativity out of sequence. Your crafting of the story ladder is creative, you work out all the details and craft that story. Then you go back to the beginning and fill in the gaps with prose and dialogue.
Pantsing, on the other hand, doesn’t mean a lack of structure or control. Often the structure and control is what you go back and develop later. You edit it in when you’ve discovered where your story is going and what you’re going to be building to.
There is no superior way of working out how to get from Chapter One to The End. It will depend on the writer, and it can vary from story to story. I am more likely to plot in advance a film script, more likely to write freely with a book. But I’m not fully dedicated to either.
Why You Might Want To Ditch Your Plot
Plotting a story can be as challenging as writing one, so abandoning it can be painful. You stick to it because of how much effort went into building it. However, sometimes that plot can become a weight around your story.
When you’re writing, if you realise that it would be really exciting for something to happen, but you haven’t plotted for it, which should you abandon? Do you abandon the exciting twist that you’ve just been inspired to create? Or do you abandon the carefully built plot that is directing your story towards a satisfying climax?
Deciding whether to ditch your plot isn’t easy, but it might be tempting. Creativity is fluid, and stories can develop around you. If you see the potential for something wonderful to happen that you didn’t pre-plan for, the desire to follow that idea will be hard to ignore. So don’t ignore it.
Why Your Characters Can Change Your Story
The characters we plan in advance might change. You might realise that chemistry is developing between two people that you didn’t anticipate, and you find yourself writing that relationship change. You might see potential conflict between characters that is driving them apart. Characters are people and people can be unpredictable. The better you get to know them, the more your opinions of them can change.
As these people develop through your story, you might find your story is changing. Your choice, again, is do you force them back onto the pre-prepared story line? Or, do you follow your story and let these characters breathe freely and grow as your story moves forwards?
When To Ditch Your Plot And Follow Your Story
I am a firm believer in being flexible with your plotting. If you’re too rigid, you will miss opportunities to explore the full potential of your story. If something occurs to you that takes you away from your plot, my advice would be to follow your story.
It can be devastating to abandon a carefully constructed plot, but what matters more? The plot you’ve prepared that nobody will see, or the story you’re actually writing?
If you realise that your plot is the inferior version of your story, then be brave enough to step away. Follow your creative truth and let your story develop into the best version of itself. Trust your instincts and follow your story as it grows with you. You crafted that plot, you are in charge of it, not the other way around.
When you follow your story and let it develop naturally, you can discover incredible things. Your brain is immersed in this story now, rather than plotting it from the outside. You’re living it and breathing it so you can see potential story paths filled with excitement all around you. Your brain is doing something special. Believe in yourself.
What If It Goes Wrong When You Follow Your Story?
Sometimes, pantsing vs plotting can go very very wrong. Without the control of your story structure to follow, you can make a mess. Send characters off on side adventures that felt like they’d be exciting but soon dry up and leave you lost. Write yourself into black holes of conflict where nothing is going on and you don’t know why.
For the most part, you can edit a mess and make it work. Editing is how you turn a mess of a first draft into a beautiful construction that looks like it was planned that way all along. Just be willing to be merciless and if something doesn’t serve your story, be willing to remove it.
However, sometimes following your gut instinct doesn’t improve your story at all. Your gut instinct when you plotted was right, and you realise you need to go back to that plan. Again, be merciless. Delete what isn’t working and go back. It might feel frustrating, but your story matters and you want to create the best version of it that you can. And, at least now you know. You won’t get to the end and wonder if you could have done it better.
Follow Your Story By Being Flexible With Your Plot
Ultimately, my advice would be to be flexible. Plot as much as you feel you need to in order to write your best work. Be flexible enough to step away if you feel it isn’t working. Be willing to go back and delete anything that isn’t really working. And edit. Edit it thoroughly then edit it again. Fix anything that isn’t working and turn that story into something that looks like you knew exactly what you were doing from the get go. And your audience will go along for the ride, with no idea how many times you went wrong or changed your ideas. They’ll just experience the final result.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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