Writing Advice on When to Plan and When to Fly by the Seat of the Pants

Don't let your story turn into a bridge to nowhere.

Aspiring fiction writers who research how to write a novel will very quickly run into two main approaches to plotting a work of fiction. The first plotting technique takes a formal approach that involves planning and outlining. The second technique is called flying by the seat of your pants or making it up as you go along. Shorthand for this duopoly is “plotter or pantster.”

Because I have a very fuzzy mental outlook that considers all shades of gray, I tend not to think of things in terms of “one or the other” or “black and white.” I see planning and flying by the seat of the pants as two ends of a spectrum. Where I fall on that spectrum differs depending on where I am in the writing process.

Planning Matters for Your Plot

Before I start writing a novel at all, I ponder the broad strokes of its plot. I map out the macro-level essentials of what happens to who and what it leads to.

Essentially, I have the END in mind before I write so much as one word of the START. I think novelists can fall into the trap of coming up with a great idea and a cool opening, but they have not really built a story.

Since I began writing novels in 1997, I’ve fallen into this trap a few times. I’ve had to back out of it and start over or put a partial novel on the scrap heap of failures.

Basic story mechanics require a beginning, middle, and end. Think of the basic 3-act play. I envision this basic structure as a bridge. It starts on one bank, crosses a middle, and reaches another bank.

If I don’t know how the story ends, then my writing runs the risk of building a bridge to nowhere.

As long I think through the foundation, frame, and roof of the story, including a climatic ending, I can proceed with the actual composition of the novel with much greater confidence.

When Do I Fly by the Seat of My Pants?

The “making it up as I go along” happens when forming the small details of the novel. These are the beads that are strung together to form a complete necklace.

I don’t make an outline for each scene. I let them unfold organically as I think of them. I consider this free-form approach to be writing in the moment. I tap into my inspirations of the moment and listen to the characters as they develop. Carl Jung would describe this as connecting to the unconscious. In this way, I stay open to fresh thoughts and even serendipity as I build the bones and muscles and skin of the novel. Flying by the seat of my pants is the lightning that brings the Frankenstein’s Monster to life. If I was strictly working from an outline on the micro level, I would shut myself off from the part of the process that is the most pleasurable, which is entering a flow state where creativity can flourish.

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