Writers: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

Give it a listen!

Yesterday, I watched a lecture posted by Flash! Friday here from Mary Robinette Kowal, who has won multiple Hugo awards (the annual award for best science fiction or fantasy works of the prior year), about the writing process. As I’ve long said, there is always more to learn and a poisonous idea in any profession or field is to think you have achieved all the answers and knowledge. With that open mindset, I went into the lecture ready to engage and learn from Mary. And I have to say, it was rather challenging!

With my writing process, I’m used to just … writing. I’ve never been an organized writer, aka, the “plotter,” someone who plans out their novel or in this case, flash fiction. The word for what I am is a “pantser,” aka, someone who “flies by the seat of their pants.” As I’ve written before, I mostly come up with an idea, the first sentence, and just write. I rarely think about writing structurally at the granular level that this lecture did. And thinking about it in that way was informative, interesting, and as I said, challenging.

It’s probably bad form to rarely step back and go, “Okay, so what situation is my character in? What can I do to foil their way to get out of it? What is that character trying to achieve? Why are they failing at that?” and so on. But I also think I naturally intuit and implement that while writing? I often also write character pieces, so that’s perhaps easier to intuit and implement naturally with the flow than a different form or thread.

Mary’s whole thing was narrative structure, or as she called it, the M.I.C.E. Quotient. I momentarily freaked out when I saw the word “quotient,” but it breaks down how you might expect:

The M.I.C.E. Quotient for Writing

  • Milieu: The character enters a place and exits a place, but in so doing, runs into difficulty getting to the exit, which creates the conflict of the story.
  • Inquiry: The character has questions, and the story ends when the question is resolved. A whodunit is an example of this sort of story. But conflict arises because the character can’t find the answer.
  • Character: The story is driven by the character’s angst, and ends when they’re happy (I would also think there are ways to subvert this, or any of these). Coming of age is an example of this sort of story. Conflict arises when the “woe is me” reflections kick in toward the middle. The key is that the story is internal, as opposed to the next story type.
  • Event: The story is centered around some sort of action, where the status quo is disrupted, and the story ends when the status quo is restored. Conflict arises when you disrupt your character’s attempts to restore said status quo. As indicated, this is juxtaposed to a character story, where it’s “external.” Something external is happening to the character.

Of course, some of the greatest stories ever told, and Mary used The Wizard of Oz as an example, implement and weave through all four of these threads. Dorothy’s character angst, which was resolved by the end. She went through a milieu, from Kansas to Oz and back again. She had questions, or an inquiry, for the Wizard. And of course, the Wicked Witch of the West was the “external” event happening to her. (For all the order-oriented people out there, I wrote the “M.I.C.E.” out of order, and so offer my apologies.)

The Beginning of the Story

As I mentioned in the flash story write-up, Mary’s lecture was interactive: She wanted us to try to do a M.I.C.E.-inspired story at 250 words, and really break it down on that granular level. The three elements to start out with in the first couple of sentences is based around the concept of orientation. She said readers wanted to be oriented: Who (what is the character doing, and what’s their attitude?); Where (self-explanatory, but she did say try to include a “sensory detail”); and Genre (specific detail as fast as you can get it in there).

Again, I don’t tend to think this granular, particular as it regards “genre.” I’ve never considered myself a genre writer actually. I tend to think I write “gritty realism,” which every angsty writer probably says, and maybe that’s considered a genre? Nonetheless, Mary then gave us three “prompts” to go along with those orientations: the character is a jockey, the object is a coaster, and the genre is science fiction. The wiggle room is how we interpret those prompts.

For the orientation, we got three sentences (bonus if we could do it in one not-too-long sentence) and three minutes to do so. Challenging! The challenge for me is I feel like I’m writing to the structure rather than just writing. “Well, okay, here is the part where I gotta insert the genre point so people know.” It’s quasi-forced, but still an interesting exercise.

Mary makes the correct point that writers need to be economical with their flash fiction. A simple way to think about it is that the more characters you introduce and the more “stages” you introduce, the more M.I.C.E. threads consciously or not, you need to wrap up. And before you know it, you have a 2,000-word story instead of the sweet spot of 750.

The Middle of the Story

With the next sentence or two, Mary said we should introduce the conflict. What is your character trying to do and why? What is stopping them? My problem I had was I felt like my character, Frankie, was in a milieu (this wormhole), but also trying to answer a question (what is this?), and he’s also unhappy. So I had three threads to wrap up, but three threads to initially screw him over on.

There are two ways to do that, Mary said:

  • Yes, but (progress toward the goal, but are pushed back).
  • No and (did not make progress, and pushed even further back).

It’s all about creating that try/fail cycle, she said. She suggested we go for the failure of “no and.” We got five sentences and five minutes. So in my story, Frankie tries to use the reins to somehow catch/stop his fall, but instead, ends up darn-near hanging himself.

The Ending of the Story

Now it’s time for the resolution of the story. Five sentences and five minutes again, but that’s still not an ending. Even though the problem is solved, the story is not satisfied yet. The ending few sentences are “mirroring,” or as I like to call it, bookends, with the beginning: You’re back to who, where and genre. In other words, now that we’re at the ending, orient the reader again. She gave us three sentences and three minutes.

My Final Thoughts as a Pantser

Mary said these are all basic “rules of thumbs,” which help to establish definite beginnings, middles and ends, something I’ve also written is a must in flash fiction writing.

The first time I did this, I actually hit 286 words, and in revisions, had to shave off 36 words, which proved necessary. Some of my sentences were too long in trying to cram these elements into the story. I’m not sure if I can implement this going forward in terms of consciously planning out and thinking through writing a story in this “plotter” way, but I appreciated the exercise all the same. It’s useful to step back and think, “Who is my character, what do they want and what’s stopping them?”

I also think Mary is correct to say:

“Writing is fractal. Once you understand how something works at one length, you can apply it to other lengths as long as you understand the principles involved.”

This M.I.C.E. structure is indeed applicable to a 250-word story, a 250-page novel, a 90-minute film script or anything else.

As I’ve written before, I want the reader to feel something. To get them to feel something, you sort of have to put the character through the wringer, whether that’s through an external action, internal strife, a classic journey story or trying to solve a problem/answer a question.

All of us writers should do that, in one way or another. The real question peels back to, are you a plotter or a pantser? For us pantsers, this is like making us do an outline, but it’s a worthwhile exercise! I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for a plotter — giving them 20 minutes to write a story with a couple prompts and telling them to not outline or think too much, and just “go with the flow”? That would be interesting.

So, what do you think? Do you think about writing before or as you’re writing in this granular way? And the proverbial writer question: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Creative Commons photo.

4 thoughts

  1. Better advice: just write, man. The end. I don’t really needs tips or advice. I know what I’m doing. At least I think I do. This approach of overthinking a story reminds of golfer. I’m a very mechanical golfer which means I’m always tweaking and thinking about swing plane and having the club face square, the steepness of my swing, the inside out swing etc.. When I focus on those things I tend to play bad. When I simply just swing the club (just write) I play better. Nice post, though.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This was a great post. I hadn’t really considered writing in these two ways before. I’m not sure which camp I fall into. Maybe these things aren’t as diametrically opposed as they seem? I get really excited by new ideas and let them form freely in my mind before I sit down to write. The creativity is free and unbound. But when I sit down I consider the audience and that’s when the plotter side appears. How much of the process is one or the other isn’t really clear to me. I don’t know how much of what I consider spontaneous is just years of learning and practice becoming second nature. Maybe none of it is. Spoken like a true plotter! Thanks for the article.


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