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writing process: plotting

April 21, 2010

2. Plotting:

Step two in my writing process is plotting. When it comes to plotting, there are two kinds of writers: “plotters” and “pantsers.”

Plotters write some kind of outline or maybe a synopsis or character sketches. Some plot with index cards, filling out one card for each scene.

Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants,” with little plotting. They have an idea where the story is going, but they don’t write down a sequence of scenes that will happen in the story. For them, the story seems to take on a life of itself. Sarah Ettritch blogged about the advantages of being an “organic writer.”

There is no right or wrong way. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.

Plotting allows you to catch plot holes before you write yourself into a corner. You can foreshadow important events that you know are coming and write with the ending in mind.

Writing by the seat of your pants allows you to keep your writing fresh and spontaneous because you’re not confined by a planned-out structure.

Personally, I’m somewhere between a plotter and a pantser, but more on the plotting side of the continuum. When I start writing, I don’t know every little detail of every scene, but I know my important plot points and some of the scenes that will happen along the way. I have an ending in mind, and I have a more detailed plan for the first few chapters. I also do character sketches that often include facts that will never make it into the story. For Second Nature, I wrote a twenty-page concept of my shape-shifters, their biology, religion, language, and culture.

In the past, I have plotted more intensely โ€“ when I wrote Backwards to Oregon, I had the sequence of scenes all worked out. I don’t do that anymore. But I need an overall structure before I can start writing. If I know where I’m going, I’m more productive. I never had writer’s block.

But I’m certainly not married to my outline. I get to know the characters as I write, so I’ll often adjust the outline, add new scenes, change others.

Some people wonder whether there’s a connection between plotting style and hemispheric dominance.

When I’m using the terms “right-brained” and “left-brained,” keep in mind that we, of course, all have and use both sides of the brain. None of us is totally right-brained or totally left-brained, but most of us lean one way or the other.


Left-brained people tend to be logical. They are detail-oriented and work in a linear fashion. It’s easy to imagine that most left-brained people are plotters.

Right-brained people depend more on feelings and imagination. They see the big picture and might not work linearly. Most right-brained people might be pantsers.

Here’s a link to a program that assesses your cognitive style (left-brained vs. right-brained, auditory vs. visual). Instead of your name, enter “50” so that you get fifty questions instead of twenty. It increases the validity of your results. My results look like this:

Or take a hemispheric dominance test.

Let me know how your cognitive style corresponds with your plotting style.

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16 comments

  1. I couldn’t execute brain.exe (not compatible with my system), but I took the brain dominance test and scored 10 left / 9 right. (I am partially ambidextrous by the way; I can’t write with my left, but I can draw and make rough sketches; I can switch hit as a softball batter, and I can fire a weapon either right or left handed with equal accuracy.)

    You responded as a right brained person to 10 questions, and you responded as a left brained person to 9 questions. You seemed to be comfortable using strategies for both sides for the brain. Your preference may be situational and apparent mainly when stress in a factor. This does not necessarily mean that you are ambidextrous. However, you are on your way to becoming whole brained and will benefit from using study strategies useful for both sides of the brain. When you read the descriptions, look for new strategies to try. However, your learning style probably has components from both sides. Some of the traits associated with the left and right side of the brain are listed in the table. Not all of the traits will apply to you.

    This definitely fits my plotting process. I percolate an idea for a long time, then I write up a summary, finding the most apparent gaps in a logical progression that I might need to research, do that, fill those spaces in, but then I use the summary as a minimal guideline. Each scene unfolds in detail only as I write the first draft, new story questions may arise and my later scenes may veer from the summary as a result.

    My finished first draft has probably about an 70-80% similarity to my summary, but there will be key differences, often including the ending which may be further along, or closer in the timeline than I original considered in the summation of my idea.


    • Lara,

      from your description of your research process, I guessed that you might be more right-brained than I am. In the brain dominance test, I answered 6 questions as a right-brained and 13 questions as a left-brained person.

      It’s a pity that the brain.exe program didn’t work for you. I would have loved to know whether you are more auditory or more visual as a writer.

      I think it’s a wonderful thing that writers are so different from each other. My critique partner is very visual, while I’m not, and it makes for interesting feedback ๐Ÿ™‚ But in the end, it produces a more balanced novel.


      • I’ve taken similar tests before. I am more visually oriented, though only slightly. Part of it is physiological; I have had trouble hearing much of my life, so my first impressions of most places are not its sounds, but its sights.


  2. I believe a common term of endearment for us left-brained folks is “anal retentive” ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Part of my struggle as a balanced thinker (I’ve known this since my teens as well) has been allowing disorder to be an acceptable mode forward in problem-solving, or planning.

      Another was settling on a major in college — literally everything interested me, and I was usually exceptional at anything I tried, up to a point. Somewhere around second year, I’d falter, the methodology insisted upon in whichever discipline not flexible enough, or not regimented enough, for me to continue successfully. Five majors later, I finally graduated with a Journalism degree.

      I grew up with a very left-brained person in my father, and a rather right-brained person in my mother, and their very different methods of getting things done was quite the example. I’ve always been comfortable with either one.


      • Lara,

        so it seems you profit from the best of both worlds. That’s great.

        Viewing disorders as strategies for problem-solving is a valid psychological theory, by the way.

        Very interesting what you say about the connection between hearing problems and being more visual. It’s similar for me: I have very imperfect vision, and that’s probably why I’m not a visual writer. That’s also why I get lost so easily. The neural network in my brain just never learned to connect the images.


    • As a behavioral-oriented psychologist (not a psychoanalyst), I’d call it obsessive-compulsive ๐Ÿ™‚

      I always say that if I develop a mental disorder, it would be OCD ๐Ÿ˜‰


  3. I scored 16 right brain and 3 left brain. Guess that’s pretty definitive, huh? LOL My partner calls it scatter-brained. Anyway, I’m a “pantster” when it comes to writing. I tend to do my research along the way instead of in advance and having it all at my finger-tips. My characters “talk” to me while I’m driving, walking, or washing dishes – usually when I have nothing to write with or it’s unsafe to write. I’ve discovered a small digital recorder helps, but then you have to be sure you A) know where it is, B) it has batteries, and C) you remember how to use it. Great subject! Thanks, Jae.


    • Glenda,

      how interesting. So would you say you’re a more auditory than visual writer?

      Oh, and don’t I know how it is to have an idea or a line of dialogue and be in a place where you can’t write. Like a lot of writers, I have great ideas in the shower. If someone could invent water-proof notebooks for writers, they could make a million ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. I’m definitely a pantser. I’m not sure I buy the left-brained/right-brained connection, at least for me. I didn’t run the brain application because I don’t run stuff on my machine that I don’t absolutely trust. I took the hemisphere dominance test and scored 11 left/8 right, but there were a number of questions that I really wanted to answer by selecting both options, since neither option was dominant for me.

    My professional life (not writing) is definitely left-brained oriented. It’s about as left-brained as you can get, according to the definitions in your post. But I’m not a plotter (right-brained?). I also write linearly (left-brained?).

    I completely agree that writers are different and all write in their own way. Interesting post!


    • Interesting. This shows that hemispheric dominance is just a tendency, certainly not a rule or even a skill or inability.

      People who write non-linearly and also people who work on several stories at the same time amaze and baffle me. I could never (or wouldn’t want to) do either.


      • I rarely write non-linearly. Have I ever written a scene out of order? Sure, but I can count the number of times on one hand. I do work on more than one story at at the same time, though. I’m doing so right now.


  5. Must figure out how to insert the word “pantser” into a conversation at work today…


    • Let me know if you found a way ๐Ÿ™‚


      • Almost worked it into the conversation, but got distracted and forgot. OOPS!


  6. […] writing and learning style May 23, 2010 In the past, I blogged about how being “left-brained” vs. “right-brained” influences […]



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