Can you change from a planner to a pantser?

I’ve tried it both ways.

I’ve followed the advice of screenwriting books and have diligently plotted a film or TV series with my 5″x7″ cards with so many beats per act. I’ve added a sub-plot at the first act turning point, made sure conflict broke out into the open in the second half of Act Two etc.

I once drew a huge, insanely detailed story map on my living room floor that caught the eye of the window cleaner (I think he thought I was planning a bank job).

And then when I was up against a deadline I found I could turn out a horror film in four days, off the top of my head, fuelled by coffee and tea (7am-5pm) and lashings of beers, wines and spirits thereafter. I can’t say which technique worked the best. The horror made less sense the later it got into the evening however and was probably frightening in a way I hadn’t intended.

In the London Writers’ Meetup group last week, we took a vote of the 15 or so attendees – and it was split roughly 50:50 between planner and pantser. Each writer spoke about which approach they found the easiest – and it turns out that no one really has the answers, and each of them was envious of the other camp.

Whether you plot each event carefully or go hell-for-leather with a draft like your fingers are on fire – turns out you most probably have to go back and do the structural heavy lifting at some point.

The novelists among us tended to be the pantsers – especially those writing more character-led stories. But more of them confessed to abandoning novels part-way through, or getting to the end and not knowing what the hell they’d just written.

Not everyone can pull off a Stephen King, who famously said: ‘I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.’ I don’t know why I imagine him sitting on a throne and filing his nails when he said that, but I do.

Ideas screwed up

The screenwriters in the group tended to be the more diligent planners – working out the story to fit ever-changing desired page lengths, but then found they often had to go back and make the story less formulaic in the second and third drafts.

How do you ‘pants’ as a planner?

Despite my brief foray into speed-horror, I’m more naturally a planner. I’ll make sure my story works in a three-act structure, and that the characters lead the action.

I’m currently on the second draft of a comedy feature, and following feedback from my workshop group, I’m tightening up the sub-plot.

As the script is caper-esque I have to make sure that it dovetails with the main plot in a way that is inevitable yet surprising, and not too formulaic. I wasn’t getting anywhere staring at the screen endlessly and trying to plan my way out of it. The more I tried, the more it seemed like an impenetrable maths puzzle.

So in a fit of frustration I took myself into the living room and watched five back-to-back episodes of boat-based reality show Below Deck while pretending to myself that I was still ‘writing’. For some reason, the on-board cavorting of the crew worked a treat, and before I knew it I’d pantsed down a masterful way to solve my sub-plot problem. I’d thrown off the shackles of being a planner and I was free!

When I faced another similar problem with the same project, I pantsed out another idea almost faster than I could write while The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City threw drinks at each other and called each other every name under the sun in the background.

So you can swap from being a plotter to a pantser. It turns out it just takes high-drama US reality shows playing in the background on volume 7.

Take that, Stephen King.

Photos by Nick Fewings and Markus Winkler and Andyone on Unsplash

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