Plotting or Pantsing: The Cluster Compromise

I am a man of science.

I believe in order, in logic, in planning and outlining and testing hypotheses with a careful recording of each step of the process.

And then there's this other guy that lives inside of me. He's big, he's green, and he doesn't like to plan. Hulk smash plans. Hulk looks at my careful plot outlines and does this:


And any writer knows that sometimes fate or the natural progress of your narrative, no matter how carefully planned it is, will do that to you, too: you're writing and suddenly an unforeseen idea makes it onto the page and takes your careful plot and thrashes it like a dog with a chew toy. But still, I like a plan. I like to know where I am headed, even though life has a way of throwing up detour signs at us.

So how do I reconcile my need to plan and plot with the Big Green Pants-er Guy inside who just wants to thrash?

I do a little of both.

I have a very basic outline of my WIP, but to be honest, I don't even know exactly how it's going to end. At first, this lack of a plan would hit me in the middle of the night with the force of a thousand gamma rays. What the heck am I doing? I would ask, and think I need a plan. This free fall first draft is going to make me nuttier than Loki on his worst day. But sometimes there are advantages to having an alter ego that lives purely for the moment, for winging it and seeing what happens. Sure, he decimates whole cities, but he also gets stuff done. So with this WIP, I brought out the Hulk.

All stories are made up of a series of scenes held together by an overall narrative arc and when I tried to tell him that he just grunted, "Hulk write backwards." Knowing I would have to fix a lot of the grammar in his draft, I nonetheless let him go at a few scenes and we developed the technique of scene clustering. Together we are writing this draft as a series of scenes, one scene at a time, and seeing where it goes. This is probably only possible (or tolerable for me) because I had a very rough outline in mind, and I've found that when I can concentrate on a scene at a time, I'm not as overwhelmed by the big picture, the whole storyline.

On a series of index cards, I wrote down  all of the things that I knew had to happen in this book, which is somewhat complicated because it moves forward and backward in time. And then I began to choose a scene at a time and just write it, then move on to another one. Instead of the neat document files on my laptop that I've had for previous books, ones with labels like "Chapter One", "Chapter Twelve", I now have a series of much shorter doc files with names like "J tells B at party" or "after the snake scene", which make no sense to anyone else on the planet, but who cares? Stark is not above snooping through my files, but I don't think anyone else is. The first draft, as Hemingway reminds us, is always, um, crap.

I can see the whole thing taking shape already. When I see how the pieces fit into the whole, I make notes and then I'll merge files to put the scenes together. I print each scene out as I go along and put each one in a binder, and because they're short docs (compared to a whole chapter), I can very easily literally shuffle them around into proper order in the binder and then eventually merge the files into the proper order. The macro picture is emerging from the micro, I'm producing a draft while feeling less pressure to have it all ordered from word one, and Hulk is relatively happy, although he still feels there should be 95% more thrashing in the book than I care to add.

So if you're feeling a bit overwhelmed by your outline and the pressure to fulfill it, breaking the entire narrative and the plan into smaller chunks works. Take it from a scientist who demands order and a big green guy who's all about breaking things into chunks. It may appear to be madness, as the line from Hamlet goes, but there be a method in it. And so far, it's working pretty well.

Best of luck with whatever planning method you choose.


  1. I'm a plotter myself. But I've recently discovered that I cut off a lot of creative possibilities if I don't do drafting sans outline at some point. This sounds like a good way to blend the two approaches!

  2. You are the first person that I've ever heard of writing the same way I do! I love writing that way! :D