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Panster or Plotter: the best way to get a novel onto the page by Alex Morrall

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Alex Morrall

Alex Morrall

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‘How do you write a novel, do you plan it out or make it up as you go along?’ seems to be the most common question I’m asked, whether by friends, or fellow writers and there’s no small amount of opinion to be read on the topic. One freebie e-book I read, advised taking your plot, breaking this down into chapters, each chapter into scene and from there, believe it or not, into sentences. 

Needless to say, this was an incredibly boring book, despite being quite short.

Twitter reveals a divide amongst writers, who label themselves ‘seat of the pants’ (pansters) or plotters. Perversely, despite my list-loving, chart-changing, time-tabled lifestyle, I definitely identify with the ‘seat of the pants’ segment of the population. After all, even if you’re scheduled out to the hilt, you can still struggle with that very first line of the book which is where many would-have-been-fantastic-novelists might have been lost and deprived the world of all the great stuff that was going to happen right after the opener. A quick unscientific dip into the Twitter population seems to indicate that pansters rule, at least in numbers).

Michelle Lovric, the evocative author of The Book of Human Skin says, “all my books start with a voice in my head. That voice has a problem and there’s the plot”. Like Michelle, pansters find it easier to get fingertips to keyboard because the idea pulls the writer in. Action becomes inevitable in the chemistry of the atmospheres and personalities that have brewed

But if it’s not written down, does that mean that there is no plan? Regardless of whether its character, theme or plot that wakes up a writer in the middle of the night wanting to catch an idea onto paper, they will have to bring all three of these elements into play. In Helen and the Grandbees, I wanted to portray one character as having such a deep discontentment that she continually changed husbands and partners to the despair of her family. One of these partners was to be very bad news, and profoundly tied to her life by fathering one of her children. But I didn’t realise until half way through the novel, that my ‘bad news partner’ would play such an intrinsic part of the story arc as a whole.

In John Boyne’s psychological novel, Ladder to the Sky the entire plot centres around the concept that a writer is only any good if he starts out with an effective story. This idea infuriated me (although the book is a terrific read) – most stories are repeats of age old ideas. It’s the telling that makes the difference, maybe some updates and extra twists, but not the bare bones that might have sat in a flow diagram somewhere.

Bizarrely, while I can believe that plotters might feel that they are more action driven, pansterism still brings a driving impetus because panster-ism is ‘in the moment,’ reactive, and dramatic. I found this, writing most of ‘Helen and the Grandbees’ in four weeks. This outpouring should by all accounts have been utter drivel. There are no end of writing courses that tell you to get everything out all on the page… and then throw it away because the story starts now. However on the reread this proved to be the most compulsive portion.

None of this means that there aren’t pros and cons to both methods and switching against your initial inclination might bring some benefits.

Becoming lost in the mind of a character can work for a time, but it is possible to suddenly hit a rock. Somehow, I recently found myself in a complete conundrum about how to get a character out from the loft into the kitchen. My flow stuttered, and I started mindless surfing of the internet whilst cereal-imbibing. My characters innermost motivations, and personality traits didn’t seem to drive the narrative down the ladder and along the stairs. Well why would it? Most of us manage everyday tasks regardless of our inner values. The manuscript lost its excitement for me when compared with a bowl of cornflakes and twitter. This is where I think the planning shines. Planning no longer allows characters run away with themselves; the planning says, ‘this is the point that the character talks to her friend in the kitchen. Don’t get het up about how she gets there, just (horror) put her there….’

Pansterism might leave a writer completely stuck on a just one word or image, because they forgot to double check what the average twenty-year-old was wearing in the nineties before sitting down to free flow write. It’s harder for a panster, to decide that a chapter will suddenly open five years later.

What pansterism will never achieve is plotting clever hints and twists that cleverly develop into an unforeseen and yet totally credible denouement creating a punchy conclusion. To divert into television briefly (because why would that be any less educative in the plotting stakes?), when the world became somewhat obsessed by the seemingly unguessable explanation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Pink, a very early scene showed Holmes and Watson chasing down the killer only to find they had lost him in a sea of taxis. The re-watch makes it impossible to understand how this scene didn’t make the killer’s job identifiable before the opening credits even rolled. This sort of plotting is the pinnacle of a well crafted story. It’s not impossible for a pansters to achieve, but it’s usually going to take one of those redrafts that requires a set square, compass and sextant to achieve.

So what is the ‘right’ approach out of panstering or plotting? Intuition, or logic? Like the equivalent ‘nature or nurture’ conundrum, the answer is that you’re going to need both. Make whichever gets pen to paper your driving force but be sure to pepper it with a good chunk of the approaches from ‘the other side’.

(c) Alex Morrall

About Helen and the Grandbees:

Forgetting your past is one thing, but living with your present is entirely different.

Twenty years ago, Helen is forced to give up her newborn baby, Lily. Now living alone in her small flat, there is a knock at the door and her bee, her Lily, is standing in front of her.

Reuniting means the world to them both, but Lily has questions. Lots of them. Questions that Helen is unwilling to answer. In turn Helen watches helplessly as her headstrong daughter launches from relationship to relationship, from kind Andrew, the father of her daughter, to violent Kingsley who fathers her son.

When it’s clear her grandbees are in danger, tangled up in her daughter’s damaging relationship, Helen must find the courage to step in, confronting the fears that haunt her the most.

Told in Helen’s quirky voice Helen and the Grandbees addresses matters of identity, race and mental illness.

‘Breathtaking and moving’ Awais Khan
‘Authentic and tender’ Carmel Harrington
‘If you liked Eleanor Oliphant or Ove then you may also enjoy this… this would make a perfect book club read’ Silver Linings and Pages Instagram

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Alex was born in Birmingham and now lives in south east London, where her voluntary work inspired this novel. She enjoys working using both her creative and mathematical background. She has a maths degree but paints beautiful city scenes and landscapes in her spare time.

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