I recently received an email from a woman who was writing her first novel, who stated: ‘I’ve already written over a 150,000 words, and I realised today that I’m not even a quarter of the way into my book. Help!’

At this rate, she was heading towards a 600,000 word book – and no, this wasn’t a series. So I asked to look at her plot. She didn’t have one. She explained she’d come to the conclusion that she wanted to be a ‘pantser’ [someone who doesn’t plot – they just write and see where it takes them, ie: writing ‘by the seat of their pants’] She didn’t like the ‘restriction’ of having to stick to a plot, and preferred the ‘freedom’ of ‘just writing’. So how, I asked, did she know she was only a quarter of the way into the book? Well, she had all these ideas, and and and…

So I used the analogy of her wanting to drive from Brisbane to Perth. Would she just get in her car and drive in whichever direction she felt like on day, turning left or right as the mood struck her, or would she look at a map and decide, at the very least, whether she wanted to drive via coast roads or whether she preferred going through the centre of Australia? And if via coast roads, would she prefer to go via the top end of Australia or via the southern end? Because if she chose the first option, she’d certainly clock up thousands of kilometres, but there was no guarantee she’d ever get to Perth. Whereas with any variation of the second option, she’d continuously be going in the right direction, and there was no law that said she couldn’t take a detour if she found something interesting along the way.

I believe this not wanting to have to stick to a plot, and preferring the ‘freedom’ of just writing, is a common misconception pantsers have, believing writers have no freedom to deviate from their plot. But many stories fail because the writer had a great idea, but no clue of where to go beyond that. Or they had a lot of ideas – like the woman who contacted me – so they just wrote and wrote and wrote, but somehow never reached their destination, ie: the end of the book. But if you do plot, remember there’ll be no one looking over your shoulder ready to tell you off for ‘taking a detour’, nor will there be any reason for you not to change the plot if a better idea comes up as you map out your story.

I’m not saying writing without a plot is impossible, and I’m sure many books have been written thus. I would argue, though, that you’re more likely to get stuck if you have no idea what comes next. In addition, I believe you’ll still be plotting, but you’ll be doing it as you go along, and I think this will take a lot more work than if you’d already had an idea of where you were going.

For example, you’ve written half the book when you decide having your main character reject his/her love interest will make a more interesting story than having them get together. Great idea! Except that now you have to go back and foreshadow this in the first half of the book, otherwise your reader will think What?! How did that happen?! And they’ll stop believing in your story, and worse, in you as a writer. Whereas if you’d plotted your story, you would have realised at the half way mark that the story sagged somewhat here, and you’d have spent time thinking up a solution… what if your protagonist rejects his/her love interest? Yes, that could work… But then maybe you should foreshadow this earlier, and so on. Plotting your novel, at least a little, has many advantages, such as minimising the chance of writer’s block, avoiding saggy middles, avoiding plot holes, reducing the number of rewrites and so on.

I began writing The Yellow Papers as a pantser, but about a quarter of the way into the book, I got stuck. A lot of thinking later, and discussing it with some of my writing friends, I realised my story would be a lot more interesting if I’d started earlier, ie: I had originally started with Chen Mu [one of my main characters] being attacked in the deep south of America. But as one friend said, why would anyone care about a young man they know nothing about been beaten up? Fair point! So I decided to start when he is sent to Connecticut as a small boy. I was then able to show his fears, his loneliness and so on, giving my readers a reason to care about this character. But as I thought about this, I realised I would need to think of things to fill up the years from him being a small boy to becoming a teenager. Or did I? That’s when I decided to write down plot points, to find out if I could think of enough things to fill this space [I didn’t]. But then I realised that the two or three things I had thought of, that would make his earlier life interesting, could be hinted at by having him mention them later as an adult.

This encouraged me to plot the whole novel, and I found there were a number of parts where nothing interesting happened. That was okay – it showed me where I could skip years, where to start new chapters and so on. Did I stick to my plot 100%? Of course not! A few times as I wrote, new ideas came along that not only affected the chapter I was writing, but would affect future chapters, so I just went back to my plot and altered things there.

I now believe I could not have written that novel by the ‘skin of my pants’. So if, like the woman who contacted me, you find you are writing and writing and writing but not moving forward, or if you have a germ of an idea but are not sure where to go with it, why not read my post on plotting, and give it a try? After all, there is no law that says you have to stick to it rigidly.

And if you’d like to learn more, I suggest two books I found useful:

  • Robert McKee’s Story. McKee is a much sought-after lecturer in screenwriting, whose past students include Akiva Goldsman [A Beautiful Mind, I Am Legend], Sir Peter Jackson [The Lord of The Rings Trilogy, The Hobbit, The Lovely Bones], Dame Jane Campion [The Piano, Bright Star], the writers of Pixar Animation Studios, and many more.
  • John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. John Truby is Hollywood’s premier story consultant. He is a screenwriter, director and screenwriting teacher who has served as a consultant on over 1,000 film scripts over the past three decades.


What I particularly like about these books is that they not only explain the foundations of story, drawing on a broad range of concepts, but also focus on form rather than formulae, using the breakdown of actual films as examples. And though these books are mainly aimed at screenwriters, pretty much everything in them also applies to writing novels.

So are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you tried writing the other way? How did that go?

Update: After going through the hundred thousand odd pages the woman who’d contacted me had written, we agreed that many of her ideas, though interesting on their own, were just space fillers, while others would make interesting stories but had no real use in that particular novel. She agreed to give plotting a go after I emphasised she could toss it if she so chose. She not only ended up with a plot she is now excited about – and a whole lot of material she could take out of what she’d already written – but in what she’d taken out she found two clusters of ideas that formed the germ of ideas that had the potential of becoming great novels on their own.  #writingtip  #pantsing  #plotting

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