On the Horseshoe Theory of Plotting vs. Pantsing

It’s one of the first questions writers ask each other upon meeting for the first time:

Are you a plotter…

(outliner)

(architect)

…or a pantser

(discovery writer)

(gardener)?

The difference between the two techniques—planning out the story upfront vs. just sitting down and free-writing—often creates defensiveness among proponents of one or the other method.

I once went head-to-head against a fellow writer to advocate for the essential merits and righteousness of plotting.

But that was three years ago.  I was never wholly against pantsing to begin with, but now I really couldn’t give a flying fig what method a writer employs.

Largely because I now recognize that once you go so far in either direction of either method, they basically become the same thing.

Horsing around

For those unfamiliar, horseshoe theory is an idea from the field of political science.

It argues that the far left and the far right, rather than being diametrically opposed along a linear continuum of political affinity, actually have more in common with each other than either does with the center.

To be clear, it’s in no way a notion I personally espouse.  So too has horseshoe theory been largely discredited as horse- something else when it comes to interpreting political ideology.

However, I can see clear applications of horseshoe theory in writing craft.

The reason for this is because both pantsing and plotting involve the same underlying motivation: getting words on the page in order to reproduce a story that exists in the writer’s head.

It’s this latter part right there that helps prove my point—the fact that every story exists in a writer’s head before it exists anywhere else.  That a writer has to think about it before they can actually write it.

Thinking about writing, in my humble opinion, is a form of plotting/outlining.  It may not contain bullet points or be in chronological order, and the time between thought and action might be little more than a few seconds.

But the pre-planning is definitely there.  Even if the writer hasn’t yet seen all the way to the end of the story.

Seeing to the end ahead of time may seem like a key distinction between plotting and pantsing.  But consider a case of what might be referred to as extreme plotting.

In other words, the type of plotting I tend to do.

Inside the (out)line

My historical fiction WIP’s “outline”, such as it is, was 23,000 words.  Similarly, the first five or so outlined chapters I have for my next novel, set in Ancient Greece, is already 9600 words.

Both of these outlines have bullet points, just like they teach you in high school.

But rather than nice, orderly summary sentences for each scene and chapter, they also have every plot point, bit of dialogue, character moment, and backstory explanation that I wrote in a feverish panic of freestyle punctuation, lest it all vanish from my head forever.

Case in point: the 900-word excerpt from my WIP that is posted on this blog.  Even when redacted for later spoilers and ideas that were eventually discarded, the original outline for this scene is still a quarter the length of the scene itself.  This is what it looks like:

  • Aline … winds up … encountering Edward (who has mismatched eyes—one pragmatic brown … and one blue; the individual colours of each eye on its own is rather unimpressive and average, yet together, the effect is very striking) …; Edward corners her in some secluded spot … and asks Aline to help make him baron of [place name], for his succession is not assured (“Make me the baron of [place name], at all costs.”); upon hearing this, Aline asks how she’s supposed to accomplish such a task … to which Edward replies she will use her various formidable skills as Peak Castle’s Lady of the Household
  • Aline asks Edward why he doesn’t get a man to help him become baron, to which Edward replies he already has one (the commander of his army), however he also recognizes the political importance women represent in keeping the various holdings of the kingdom afloat; he then tells Aline to name her price, promising her that if she does his bidding, he’ll personally give her anything save making her a baroness (i.e. through marriage to him); Aline tries to get too excited over the fact that Edward believes her capable of such a difficult task (I didn’t delude myself into believing he held my abilities in any great esteem) … but ultimately fails

This is what all my outlines look like.  So detailed are they, in fact, they’re essentially pantsed zero drafts that I come up with while sitting there writing whatever shit comes into (or has previously come into) my head.

From zero to one

I learned the concept of a zero draft from thriller author Catherine Ryan Howard, although I first saw the term “zero draft” used by SFF author Chuck Wendig (Ryan refers to it as a “discovery draft”, or more elegantly, a “vomit draft”).

Ryan describes a discovery draft as follows:

You sit down and upchuck everything you know about the novel, filling in ideas for the bits you don’t know in between.

She goes on to share her own experience writing the discovery draft for what eventually became her debut novel.  For her, the value of this draft was in determining what she didn’t already know about her story and getting it on the page.

Notably, Ryan concludes her discussion with the following:

At the end of this I had about 50,000 words—but what I really had was the skeleton of the novel, the framework on which I’d build the book itself.

This sounds an awful lot like an outline to me.

Chuck Wendig, similarly, describes his zero drafts:

This is you writing the whole novel. Except not. You are going to write the book with little sense of what’s happening or any outline — in fact, your shit-ass half-ass draft will become your outline. 

A sufficiently detailed outline is thus little different than a pantsed draft of the story.  You never know what’s going to happen in your outline until you … outline it.

As a result, a lot of the common criticisms against outlining—that it makes your plot formulaic; that it takes away one’s ability to be surprised while subsequently writing the book—start to sound a little specious.

Formulaic plots result from formulaic thinking, not from pre-planning.  They come from going with the first well-worn story beat/plot twist/motivation that occurs to you, rather than digging deeper and using possibility #10.

Meanwhile, the thrill and surprise of discovering the story as you write it only ever occurs the first time you go from beginning to end.  For some writers, that first start-to-finish is shorter and faster.

Similarly, when pantsing, not only are you plotting in your mind each time you sit down to write, you’re also creating an outline upon which subsequent versions of the novel will be based.

So the claim that pantsers don’t have any sort of plan and that their stories lack structure ignores the fact that the plan is being formed and the structure being worked out in real time.

Both methods of writing are ultimately doing the same thing, so the smug superiority that one way is better than the other is unnecessary.

Plotter?  Pantser?  Really, who gives a crap?  Just write and rewrite and rewrite some more until all the words are near enough to perfect.

Where do you fall on the plotter/pantser horseshoe?  Does one’s writing method even matter for anyone other than the individual writer?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1 – J.G. Noelle, #2, #3, and #4)

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2 thoughts on “On the Horseshoe Theory of Plotting vs. Pantsing

  1. I guess all my stuff is unrefined outlining then 🙂 Here goes NaNoWriMo (for a second time) to kick-start my habit of writing regularly.
    I’m surprised you know the author Catherine Ryan Howard, a Cork (Ireland) girl. I read her travelogue ‘Backpacked’ which was brilliant, but not her fiction work as yet.

    Like

    • Good luck with Nano, Roy. I’ve never done it but now that I think of my outlines as zero drafts, I could see myself knocking one out some November in the future.

      I can’t recall how I first became aware of Catherine Ryan Howard, but I’ve been following her on social media for years. I’m happy for her that she’s finally achieved the traditional publishing success she’s always wanted.

      Like

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