Fiction, NaNoWriMo, Writing Tip

Pantsing vs Plotting vs Planning

I used to be a fan of the notion that no plot was no problem when it came to writing a book. I took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) because that mantra spoke to me. After all, I was a pantser at the time. I spent that November typing out 50,000 words. Notice I said, “words.” Because at the end of that month, while I did have a certificate to show that I completed the challenge, what I didn’t have was a story. At least not a cohesive one that would land me a book deal.


That pantsing approach created a story that was such a mess it resulted in a learning experience and little else. I printed the manuscript, placed it in a file folder, and stowed it away in a drawer, never to look at it again. I didn’t even attempt to edit it. Why? Editing would be a larger task than initially writing it was. It lacked character development, story structure, and really just about anything that would interest a reader. The manuscript was a failure. 

So, if pantsing didn’t work, then what about plotting?


This school of thought requires developing a story through focusing on the rising action of the narrative. Since I prefer to write and read stories that focus more on character development, crafting an idea around the action has been a task I’ve yet to complete. I’m not saying that my stories are void of plot. It’s just that plot is not the means through which I create the story.

So that brings me to where I’ve landed as far as story development is concerned and what I recommend authors do before typing the first word: plan.


I come to a story through an historical situation, and develop a character who exists within or is affected by that situation. For example, in my debut novel The Last Carolina Girl, the situation was the practice of forced sterilization and the character became a 14-year-old orphan who was fighting for her future. In my second novel, The Girls We Sent Away, the situation was the Baby Scoop Era when unwed pregnant girls could be sent to maternity homes. The character became the  17-year-old girl-next-door whose world turned against her. 

Before we start planning, it’s important to remember the essence of story. I’m a believer that story does not equal plot. Readers don’t come to a story and get emotionally vested because this happens and then that does. Instead, they become engaged when there is an interesting character with a struggle that readers can’t help but see play out. (I give Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel credit for the inspiration here.)

Character struggle creates a compelling story. In other words, story is how the plot affects the main character and how she internally changes. Every element of the story must impact the internal struggle. This creates a plot focused on rapidly impending consequences and helps create a cohesive story that propels the reader onward instead of an episodic book.

How to Plan

If you’re considering participating in NaNoWriMo or if you’re just trying to get a novel idea off the ground, I suggest doing some story planning. Start by asking these six questions:

  • What’s the overall question the book is asking?
  • Whose story is this?
  • What’s at stake?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Who/what is standing in the way?
  • Why should the reader care?

Of course, there is more to developing a 50,000-word or more manuscript than answering just those six questions. But, they are a start to understanding what and who your story is about. Once you have this figured out, you’re on your way to not just writing a string of words, but in developing a compelling novel that readers (other than just your mom) will want to read.

Need help with a story idea? Have questions about the publishing industry? Then book a 25-minute chat session with me. Or, if you’re ready to take things to the next level, I also offering book coaching and editing services. Click the button for more information.

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