Storyville: The Intersection Between Plotting and Pantsing

Some of you may write your stories (or novels) plotting out every detail, with extensive outlines, knowing exactly where everything is going. You, are plotters. The rest of you may have a broad idea of what you are going to write—based perhaps on a genre, theme, concept, or emotion—and write from a place of discovery, unsure about the specific details, but aware of the feeling you want. You, are pantsers. I do both. So let me share the ways you can find the intersection between plotting and pantsing, and how that can make your work exciting for you, the author, as well as satisfying for your audience to read. Shall we?

Where to Start?

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, there are probably a few things you need to figure out before you sit down to write, so let me toss out this list to get us started:

  • Genre: What genre (or genres) do you think this will be? If it’s horror, what needs to happen? How do you create the balance between terror (clues, atmosphere, foreshadowing, and setting) and horror (the reveal, the violence, the truth, and the monstrosities). Mystery needs…mystery. Fantasy has extensive world building. Science fiction has at least one main scientific element at the core. This is a great place to start, as it’s relatively broad, and yet there are defined expectations. Yes, sometimes the genre will shift, and change. Maybe the classic horror story became a science fiction horror story with some new weird elements. Go with it. Just make sure at some point you know what you have, so you can embrace it.
  • Length: Are you writing flash, a short story, a novelette, a novella, or a novel? That can really change how complicated your story is, how may characters you have, the number of POVs, and how deep you are allowed to go, as well as pacing, setting, depth, etc. You may not know if this is going to be 3k or 6k, but you should know if it’s a story or a novel, I think. And yes, sometimes things can change. But try to keep your work in check, right? You are in control (supposedly).
  • POV: Is this going to be one person, one POV, or will you have a split narrative? What about a large cast, with a rotating POV, showing us 5-7 characters? Keep in mind the length and genre, as it’s hard to do multiple POVs in flash, or even under 3k or 5k. The shorter the story, or book, the less POVs, IMO. And don’t forget about a chorus, which can add an additional thread to your story.
  • Plot: Even if you’re a pantser you must have some idea of what the story or book will be about. Is it a cautionary horror story about the environmental horrors that surround us in the year 2022? Is it a transgressive thriller about a distant planet where nothing is what it seems, ancient aliens disguised as humans? Is it an arctic horror novel set in a community much like Barrow, Alaska, where there are long passages of darkness, and a sin-eater who is trying to absolve the transgressions of a group of damaged individuals, while battling creatures that keep coming through a tear in reality? Oh wait, that last one is my latest novel, Incarnate. Let’s talk about that.

How You Might Execute That

If the plotting is the craft, then the pantsing is the art. If the knowledge gives you structure, then the exploration gives you depth.

So, I just mentioned my novel, Incarnate. Let’s unpack that a bit so I can show you what I mean about the balance between plotting and pantsing.

  • Genre: I knew I wanted this to be horror. My last two books (Disintegration and Breaker) were reality-based, and were more neo-noir, transgressive, thrillers. So I definitely knew I wanted Incarnate to be horror—and specifically Arctic horror. I also knew I wanted sin-eating to be at the heart of the story, and that there would be both monsters and human evils. So that’s where I started. This worked well with my desire to write maximalist stories—heavy on setting and sensory details. Also, living in Chicago, I had some knowledge about cold weather. So I tried to think about the broad expectations of this particular genre, as well as what I needed to do for any secondary genres, or subsections of horror.
  • Length: In talking to my agent, she said we had to get to at least 75,000 words. So that was the goal. (It ended up coming in at about 78,000). I knew that it was going to be three acts—with the first about the sin-eater, the second about the mother monster, and the third about the boy wonder. So, in order to hit my word count goals, I divided the three acts into six chapters, and each chapter into four scenes—each scene needing to be at least 1,000 words. So when I sat down to write each day, I had a goal of 4,000 words for the day—essentially FOUR flash fiction stories of 1,000 words each. With each scene, I’d write what felt like about 1,000 words and then I went back to check my word count. If I was over 1,000 I gave it a quick read and edit for obvious mistakes, and then moved on. If I was under, say at about 800 words, I had to add more. Now, I’m an expander, not a contractor—meaning I typically go back and add more to my scenes. For me that is typically setting, atmosphere, mood, tone, sensory details—all elements that tie into the maximalism of what I do. Beyond that, I add more character, or clarity, or depth of emotion. I ask myself if I need to do more—get weirder, more original, more abstract (or concrete). But it’s always easiest for me to expand a few hundred words, rather than cut down. The meal the sin-eater is having, the monsters he is birthing, the Arctic setting around him—those are places I was allowed to play and expand the narrative.
  • POV: I knew there would be three perspectives—Sebastian, the sin-eater, an elderly gentleman who lives in an Arctic town, somebody the community relies on; the mother monster who is through the tear, in a desert wasteland, trying to protect her own monstrous children, as we dig in deeper to her true identity; the boy wonder, Kallik, who takes over for Sebastian, making important changes to how the absolution will work moving forward. Instead of weaving together three split POVS, this was going to be three acts, essentially three novellas woven together (kind of like The Giver) to take the baton that is handed off from one character to the next. The hardest part of writing this book was in trying to make sure that I didn’t lose the reader going from one act to the next, and that the audience cared about each character, equally.
  • Plot: Going into the first act, I knew there would be at least three meals, three times we would see the sin-eating going on (rule of threes, right?) and so that was set up. I also knew I needed to build the world, the community, and really see what this arctic setting was like. I knew that Sebastian would birth into the world some unholy creatures, in order to battle what was coming through from the other side. So I’d say about 50% of the scenes were already in my head, or at least the general idea of them. For example, the meals. I wanted to tap into food that I knew, that I cooked, so that the foodie in me could share that knowledge, and create an immersive experience that started out delicious and savory, but then most likely turned sour and disgusting. I knew body horror would be a part of this novel. The first dish was chili—something I make all the time. So I unpacked every main ingredient—beef (in this case, venison), onions, tomatoes, spices, three kinds of beans (yes I use beans), several peppers, as well as a few weird secret ingredients that the character uses for her prize-winning recipe—a splash of coffee, a chunk of dark chocolate, and a spoonful of peanut butter. The second act I knew a lot less about—the mother monster and her children, the dying hellscape, the desert location, as well as a cave with secrets, and all kinds of horrible beasts that are trying to kill her. I might have known 25% of the plot here. And then the third act, as Kallik takes over, reversing the concept of sin absolution, working at a diner, his family, and how his conjurings must look different than Sebastian’s—again, the rule of three, building to a climax. I’d say going into this book I knew maybe 50-75% of the broad ideas, and then of those 72 scenes, some were very clear to me, and others I had no idea what I was going to do. So when I got to those moments of exploration, I just thought about what would be fun to write, what fit the story and character, what felt weird and original, and how that might play out. Once I created one sin-eating episode, I had to top it with the second and third. Once I birthed one creature into the world (the first time not being what you might expect), the second and third had to have variation, again, building to a climax. If one scene was dark, the next might be light; if one scene was success, then next might be failure; if one scene was violent, the next might be peaceful and introspective. One foot in front of the other, one brick stacked on top of the next, one board nailed over another.

DISCOVERY

What I want you to consider as an author—whether you plot or pants—is allowing yourself room for discovery. Create a world with rules, yes, and understand the genre (or genres) you are writing, along with those expectations, and hammer out some semblance of a plot—with signposts, tentpoles, forks in the road—however you see it, or want to label it. But also allow yourself room to play, to have fun, to explore. If you are a maximalist like me, you can expand the setting, the sensory details, the physical explorations of this world, tapping into your strengths—nature, horror, body sensations, food, weather, etc. As you build a house or wall or castle or spaceship you have to stack one brick on top of another, bolt down one metal panel next to a second, and create something—but how you do that is up to you. Lean into your voice, your traits, the essence of the genres you are in, the vision of your characters. That hero of yours should be heroic, yes—but what does that look like? Are they physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual? Do they overcome the enemy with violence, do they outsmart them, does emotion drive their actions, is there a peace that drapes over everything, a calm that hides their immaculate abilities? And then what happens when that hero is not a hero? What scares them, stops them, pulls them up short? Play in that space as well. The softer side of Leon the professional hitman is what makes that film sing, IMO. The confidence that is exuded in martial arts masters, everyone from Bruce Lee, to Captain Levi Ackerman, to Biscuit Krueger. When it comes to discovery in your fiction, allow yourself room between the lines, between the framework, between the skeleton you are building to hang the meat, to add the wiring, to color in the emotions.

IN CONCLUSION

Whether you are a plotter or pantser, a maximalist or minimalist, writing horror or literary fiction, the intersection between plotting and pantsing, between knowing and discovering, can be the most exciting part of your writing. If the plotting is the craft, then the pantsing is the art. If the knowledge gives you structure, then the exploration gives you depth. Use both the left and right sides of your brain to craft your next story, and I think you’ll find that your hopes and fears, your instincts and knowledge, will guide you to something special.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include The Best Horror of the Year (Volume Eleven), Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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