Fantasy Literature: Plotting and Outlining

I read a blog a few months back… it was entitled “Plotting vs. Pantsing” or something like that, and it was on another fantasy web-site (unfortunately, I’ve lost the reference). Basically, it was a blog discussing the various advantages and disadvantages of planning your book beforehand. According to the blog, Stephen King is known for “pantsing,” or writing by the seat of his pants, as it were. Brandon Sanderson is known for “plotting,” or doing extensive world-building and plot development before he even begins to type a single word. Both are exceptional authors, and have no need of advice from me. But I thought it worthwhile to examine my own writing in this light. My first novel, “Drasmyr” (and yes, it is my very first novel—the first draft was completed in 1996 or maybe even 1995.) was basically written stream of consciousness. It started out as a short story about a vampire seeking revenge on a wizard. Then, for some odd reason, I decided to turn it into a book. And I cranked it out in about three months time (or was it six?). Bam. Bam. Bam. That was obviously an example of “pantsing.” And it worked remarkably well, in my opinion, for that first book.


Since that first book, though, I have been tending to plot more and more beforehand. Even not counting the world-building, as that was partially in response to the needs of a pen and paper RPG game, I’ve found myself in later years needing to spell things out in advance in greater and greater detail. Maybe I’m just getting older, and my mind can’t perform as well as it once did. Although my skill with stringing words together has increased, my memory and other mental faculties have not.


However, it is worth noting that my plotting is sort of done in a pantsing style. I don’t write a complete detailed outline like we were taught in school with roman numerals and letters and all those subparts within subparts. No, I sit down and brainstorm first of all. I gather my ideas and answer a few basic questions: What will be the primary conflict or goal of the book? How does the story begin? How does the story end? And how do I get from one to another? I usually wind up with a skeleton of an outline, with a long list of chapters and roughly one or two sentences to describe each subsection of that chapter. Then, I start thinking about writing the book. But before I write a particular chapter, I sit down and brainstorm for that chapter, so that I have about a half a page or a page of notes for each subsection. I’ve found this works fairly well. From the get go, I have a decent general idea of where the story is going from my chapter list. Yet, I maintain flexibility in case I am inspired half-way through with a tangent I want to explore. It works well for me, or at least, it has been so far for the next book in the “From the Ashes of Ruin” series.


Anyway, every individual has their own personal style and I wouldn’t want to infringe upon a person’s freedom to chart their own way. But I think it important to try a few different approaches and see what works for you as a writer. Experiment a little. At this point in my life, I definitely do do some plotting. But I wouldn’t say I’m free of pantsing either. My approach is more of a hybrid.


And that works for me.

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About atoasttodragons

The author, Matthew D. Ryan, lives in northern New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the continental United States, famous for the Battle of Plattsburgh and the ever-elusive Lake Champlain Monster, a beastie more commonly referred to as Champy. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world. He has earned a black belt in martial arts.

13 responses to “Fantasy Literature: Plotting and Outlining”

  1. Steve says :

    Speaking of planning and your new books and whatnot, I am starving to here more about the old time when Lucian was still human… Wink Wink lol

  2. Megan Cashman says :

    I wrote my first book by pantsing too, but I’m taking the plotting approach for its follow-ups. Maybe its because I need to have the second and third books out at a reasonable time (as in several months, than a couple of years) so readers won’t forget my first book. Also, I have a full time job now, so I can’t write freely as before.

    However, I am not much of a plotter. I took notes on what I want to happen in these next two books, and the list was long, but that is all. I guess I am half-pantsing/half plotting now to make my writing easier.

    • atoasttodragons says :

      I can’t imagine putting books out in just a few months at a time. I have to edit and re-edit. I’m not expecting to put my next book out until early 2014. I hope I don’t lose readers, but I wouldn’t trust an original draft of mine on the market before then.

  3. Bats says :

    i’m sort of doing the hybrid thing too.

    the writing excuses team (which includes brandon sanderson) did a podcast on “pantsing” a couple weeks ago. you can listen to it here:

  4. debyfredericks says :

    What I’ve found about outlining — at least a little — is that it saves a certain amount of floundering at key points in the novel. But what I try to do is come up with three alternative paths for where I’m stuck. The first one is likely obvious, even stereotyped. The second one will be more surprising. The third one will be reaching a bit. But some combination there will usually get me going again.

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