I’ve been asked this question at every writing group I’ve attended. It’s a good ice breaker, and it says a lot about your content creation style. A plotter starts by creating an outline with important beats, changes, or plot twists laid out. How much or how little detail is included in this plan is up to the writer. A pantser starts by writing, flying by the seat of his or her pants. The writer may have a general sense of the overall plot, but he or she may also start with only a character or setting. You can remember it this way: Plotting is how we were all taught to write papers in high school. Pantsing is the entire point of NaNoWriMo.
When I was young, the idea of outlines was drilled into my head. Content creation began with an outline with subsets, sub-subsets, and even sub-sub-subsets. In English class, the outline was often a deliverable—I mean assignment—all on its own.
So of course I rebelled from this style as soon as I could.
In college, I became a pantser, abandoning the five-paragraph essay and the structured outline. I felt a thrill when I hit return and started a new paragraph after only four sentences. At that point in my life, I used the writing experience as a discovery process. Sometimes, I didn’t know what my point was until I was writing the conclusion. This was great when I was writing short papers days before the deadline, with plenty of time to revise my thoughts after this initial first draft. Just kidding; I was writing them the night before they were due and staying up into the wee hours trying to get them finished. This method fell apart once I was assigned pieces longer than 1,000 words. Eventually, I worked out a hybrid plotting-pantsing style that seemed to work out okay.
That’s not to say that planning ahead is always the way to go. If you’ve spent ages creating your outline, you may resist changing it even if you need to. When your research reveals a new idea you hadn’t thought of before or when you realize you don’t like a certain plot element after all, you’ll be less likely to make the necessary changes if you’ve already invested the majority of your work time in crafting the outline.
Being too stuck to your original ending can make the whole piece suffer. Although I may make enemies here, I agree with J. K. Rowling when she says (spoiler) she shouldn’t have married Hermione off to Ron. Rowling admits that she was too stuck to her original plan, and the story suffered for it. And consider the fan uproar that followed the finale of How I Met Your Mother. This was a show that actually shot its final scenes during the first season. The writers were so dedicated to that shot, to that ending, that they couldn’t see that the story may have taken a left turn, and maybe those characters shouldn’t have ended up in the same place that they were originally slated to go.
We’ve also seen stories that finish with a totally unearned ending. Sometimes, a writer will have an idea for a conclusion but utterly fail to set it up. Maybe the two leads fall in love despite having no chemistry or ever interacting in a loving way. Or maybe the hero wins, but the audience doesn’t really understand why. Or maybe aliens invade the Earth only to have it turn out that they’re allergic to the substance that covers 70 percent of the planet’s surface and regularly falls from the sky, a fact which had absolutely no foreshadowing or set up or logic or signs. Oops. Spoiler.
But, reader, you don’t have to suffer from bad endings. These content creation tips will help you ensure that your conclusions are the natural, satisfying outcome of what comes before.
A good conclusion can make or break your piece. Far from an afterthought or summary, your ending provides the substance necessary to complete your thought. If you try writing or revising with the end in mind, you may discover that your writing holds together and contains more substance that you realized it could.
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