I find this subject really fascinating. I think almost every book I’ve read on writing craft mentions plotting vs pantsing. It certainly gets people fired up!
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Writing Without Pants – Does Outlining Kill Creativity?
I’m not wearing pants. However, when writing novels, sometimes I like to sit in my jeans or maybe pajama bottoms. Wait a minute. I know what you’re thinking. “Is he really going to talk about the benefits of writing with or without pants?” Well, I was going to…
I think the more appropriate question might be, “How do you write?” Do you write with no pants (aka “seat of the pants writer” or “pantser”) or do you write with all your clothes laid out (aka “outline writer”)? This is an age old question that is often batted back and forth between writers of all types. When it comes to fantasy writing, boy, do you have a lot of work to do.
I’ll go point by point (with no pants), explaining why just making stuff up as you go along vs. outlining and world-building every minute detail can be both a pleasant and horrifying experience: like getting drowned by mermaids.
1. Is Pantsing for You?
“Pantsing,” or making everything up as you go, can be quite the liberating experience as a writer. A lot of people participate in National Novel Writing Month with just an idea and write furiously with no safety net. It can be quite a blast. As fantasy writers, however, some would say it’s near impossible to make up a whole world, fill it with wondrous creatures, develop magic systems, and all that jazz without at least pre-planning something. To which I say, “Hoo ha” and “Rikalummy Doo.” See I just made up “Rikalummy Doo.” It’s the sound a harpy makes when it lays eggs. Harpies don’t lay eggs, you say? Well, they do in my story. Why? I just made it up, that’s why. That’s pantsing.
So yes, I think it’s possible to pants your way through a fantasy story. Do I recommend doing it all the time? No. I think it tends to work better for short stories or maybe even individual scenes. If you’re taking a more “micro” approach to your fantasy writing (starting at a small place and then going outward), I think there is more leeway.
For instance, if you’re writing a story about a village that is attacked by a vicious goat man, we probably only need to know about the village, the goat man, and some of the characters. We don’t need thirty pages of exposition explaining why the goat man hates the village because they like feta cheese. If you’re planning an epic with 19 kings fighting a war over the dwarf princess’s hand because she has the one of the Three Keys of Dunkmar, then maybe you need to plan a bit of that (which I am already doing, don’t steal my idea).
A. Why Pansting is Good
- You can just write and have fun.
- You can explore wherever your mind takes you.
- You can always go back and edit later, so get some stuff down on the page.
B. Why Pantsing is Bad
- It’s harder to pants exclusively in fantasy writing.
- Your writing may be a garbled mess of minotaur space pirates fighting intergalactic squids, Martian ninjas, and comet-spewing trans-dimensional spider dragons.
- You can’t write outside because someone may call the police.
2. Is Outlining for You?
Outlining seems to be something a lot of professional writers harp upon and for good reason. Having an outline and good world-building can save you a major headache when it comes to actually writing your stories or novels. If you have a great outline, you can just sit down, fully clothed, and hammer out your story in a flash. Well, then why even try any other way?
Because, outlining is hard. But it doesn’t have to be.
Depending on how much detail you want in your world, you can do a rough outline or a really rigid outline. A rough outline may look something like this:
I. Chapter 1
A. Jarlag slays the rabbit demon
- The town exiles him because the rabbit demon brought them carrots.
- Jarlag leaves to go on an adventure to find a new rabbit demon for his village.
Yeah, that’s pretty rough, but it gives you an idea what you need to do instead of just making it all up.
Fantasy tends to lend itself to lots of world-building. I think a lot of great fantasy writers do this with success. However, world-building is like a candied apple. It’s good, but if you have too much of it everything gets sticky and your mouth can’t open. Huh? Anyway, take it easy on the world-building. Too much world-building can restrict you. If you’re writing and suddenly say, “Wait, I can’t do that because…” then you could be holding yourself back.
Rigid outlining can be your friend, but it can also be a nightmare. If you follow a really strict outline point by point, it poses a danger of stifling your creativity. Try to follow your outline, but give yourself room to breathe. If Roland the Green Octopus Knight isn’t supposed to show up until Chapter 7 in your outline, but you get the urge to introduce him a tad earlier as a possible love interest, then do it. The outline can be changed. Even if it snaps at you and tries to take your fingers off, your outline can be tamed. Down, outline, down, boy!
A. Why Outlining is Good
- It’s great for fantasy stories with a lot of information to keep up with.
- It provides you an easier way to get the actual writing down.
- You can do it anywhere without the fear of arrest. (OK, that was the last pants joke.)
B. Why Outlining is Bad
- It can choke your creativity flow if there’s too much cow-towing to it.
- It can take away the mystique of writing and exploring your story gradually.
- Too much world-building can cause the world to spin out of orbit and become a rogue planet.
In conclusion, there are obviously benefits to both styles of writing, but you have to find your own happy medium. If you’re a free-wheeling panster, then sometimes a little outlining might help bring order to your chaos. And if you’re a stodgy outliner, maybe loosen your belt every so often and veer off course.
I echo Mythic Scribes question:
What’s your preferred method? Writing as you go or plotting everything out beforehand? Leave your answers in the comments below!