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Writer’s Den: Plotters vs. Pantsers

Keyboard by heartsandlaserbeamsThere are two types of writers in the world: those who plot out their writing, and those who write by the seat of their pants. Plotters and Pantsers. (Yeah, yeah, I hear you shouting about hybrids, we’ll talk about that later.) But who has it better? Who has an easier time pumping out those novels, and who sees the greatest success? Which method of writing is the best?

The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer. Writing a book isn’t about being the best. It’s such a subjective industry that no single person could ever be deemed the greatest, and no single method of writing could ever be the “right” way. Everyone is different. So rather than duke it out over this question, why don’t we explore the pros and the cons of each?

Plotters

Plotters make outlines, event trees, character profiles, personality charts and explore every aspect of their novels on paper before they ever write a single word. Okay, this is extreme, but those are some of the tools of the trade (not by any means an exhaustive list). What makes this a good method? Well, it has the advantage that if you lose track of what your characters were supposed to be doing or where they were going, or what events were going on at that time, you have handy charts and outlines and such to help keep you on track. Some people use these things to avoid the dreaded writer’s block. It keeps their stories structured during the writing process and gives them a road map to show them where the story is going.

The downside to being a plotter is that if you over-plan the story, you might already feel like you’ve written the book before you start the actual writing. This can be somewhat demotivating, as nobody really wants to feel like they’ve done the same work twice. Also, stories that have been over-planned tend to be rigid and lack the organic feel that makes a good book feel natural. Sure, you can try to fix this during editing, but it will take a lot of beta readers to spot these types of problems.

Plotting can be very useful, but not everybody has the time or the patience or even the desire to plot out a whole novel before they start to write. It requires discipline, determination and a certain amount of innate ability in order to do this.

Brandon Sanderson is a documented plotter.

Brandon Sanderson

Pantsers

Those in the UK and elsewhere that refer to underwear as “pants” will get this term right away. But for others, a quick explanation: a pantser is somebody who writes by the seat of their pants. There is little to no plotting before they start to write, and they let the characters and the settings tell the story. It’s a very organic way to write, and the stories written like this tend to take more twists and turns, and often end in a place you never would have expected.

Pantsing your way through a story might be fun, but there are downsides to this method as well. Authors who write like this are more prone to writer’s block, and tend to get frustrated with their characters if they suddenly decide they don’t want to do what you thought they were going to do. This can lead to unfinished stories, sidetracked stories, or books that have so many twists and turns that they are confusing to read. Again, heavy beta reading will help weed these problems out, but one must be aware that they can and will show up in your work if you aren’t careful.
I’m a pantser myself, and allow the stories to come out how they come out.

Stephen King is a notorious pantser.

Stephen King

Hybrids

Recently, I’ve had people speak up and say that they do both. They plot part of the book, or loosely plot the whole thing, and then pants their way through the gaps. Or they might pants their way through portions, but plot other, more difficult scenes to help them keep track of things or to get through it without stumbling or sidetracking.

Write Fine Art Print by creativelifebydesignCertainly, using a hybrid approach to writing gives you additional tools to keep the words flowing, and if you get stumped on a scene, you can always try switching methods and see if it helps you get through it.

There aren’t many tips or tricks in this installment of Writer’s Den, and it’s because I believe that a person is, by nature, one or the other, and only a select few can do both effectively. If you’ve been trying to plot out a novel, and find that you are having trouble, try just writing down whatever comes to your head and pants it for a while. Conversely, if you get stuck pantsing it, try plotting out the next scene and that might help you get moving again.

Whether you’re a pantser, or a plotter, keep writing and have fun no matter what you do!

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Writer's Den: Plotters vs. Pantsers, 9.5 out of 10 based on 26 ratings
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26 Comments

  1. Dan D. Jones says:

    I’m a discovery writer – what you call a pantser. For what it’s worth, my experience with writer’s block is just the opposite of what you say here. If I try to plot a story in advance, I sit there with the brief beginnings of an outline and say “Uh, OK, so what happens next?” I have no clue. The ideas simply don’t come. The story and the characters are just cardboard figures I’m trying to manipulate. They’re lifeless. But when I just sit down and start writing, the characters come alive in my head. They tell me what they want to do next. They take over and drive while I just try to keep up with the words on the page. I have to sometimes pause and take control back in order to figure out which ideas I want to follow and which I want to discard because I can’t include them all.

    Everyone is different, of course, and for many people it may very well play out just as you said. But for me, writer’s block is all about me trying to force a story where it doesn’t want to go. If I just let the story go where it naturally wants to go, I’m almost never blocked.

  2. I’m definitely a hybrid. I have to pants the first scene of a work and sometimes other scenes. Then I go back and do some plotting to make sure things work well. After that it’s character development and possibly some more pantsing of scenes. When I’ve got enough plot, characterization and scenes collecting then I feel ready to start.

  3. I’m usually a plotter–I write out a full outline for each novel, break that down further into a chapter-by-chapter outline, and then go through and expand each chapter in turn into full prose. I don’t find it boring or stiff because there’s such a massive difference between a paragraph-long summary and several thousand words of actual text–there’s plenty of room for discovery within each section, even for me. I also allow my outline to change as I work–sometimes a chapter winds up being part of another one, or spinning off out of one, or just going in a different direction than I’d expected, and I adjust my outline to reflect that.

    However, when I wrote my humorous science fiction novel No Small Bills, I actually pantsed it. It’s a very silly book, so I felt it didn’t need the same sort of outline–the point was the lead character, DuckBob, and his voice, so I let him tell the story and just had it develop as it saw fit. It was a fun experience, and worked well for that particular novel, but since most of my other work is mystery- or thriller-oriented, I feel those need more cohesive plots right up front.

  4. I only outline the intense, major plot-points of the story. Otherwise, I write down a few vague ideas of what I think happens, and then have some detailed character charts. Who hasn’t read a book where the main character’s eye color changes in the middle? I’m trying to avoid that, lol.

  5. Eric C. says:

    On the spectrum between the two, I definitely lean plotter. I come up with character sketches, and I make notes on the world. As for a plot outline, I string together the big set piece events that I want to happen, but leave room for improv and surprise between those events. In other words, I know where I want to go, and I know how my story will end, but I leave the details for the writing and re-writing process.

    And when my pantser friends tell me about their writing process, I have a feeling I’m giving them the same look my dog gives me when he’s confused. It’s such a dramatically different process that I don’t really understand it. I’ve never been comfortable writing that way. Hmmmm, perhaps it’s writing exercise time.

  6. Adam T. Parkinson says:

    Plotter and proud!

  7. Cat says:

    I’m a hybrid. I know how the story will start, finish and a few points I want to hit along the way. The rest the characters dictate to me, and sometimes they even alter my plan for me!

  8. Lewis D. says:

    I definitely fall into the ‘hybrid’ section, though if I had to chose I’d say I lean more towards the plotter side. The way it works for me is I outline the flow of a book, all of the major things that happen and who and what and why. Then I’ll fill in the gaps by “pantsing it out.”

    For example, in this chapter I know that I want the main character to discover a clue about who is behind the attacks, though I don’t know exactly what that clue is or how/why he discovers it.

    2,000 words later, he was checking in on some of his subordinates and found them stealing from a temple. There’s a confrontation there that shows you some of his character and values and then he discovers the required clue, in this case a certain type of coin.

    Works well for me!

  9. Elfy says:

    I’m a pantser, I only recently heard that term, and I quite like it. It’s far more evocative and amusing than freewriter or the word GRRM uses to describe himself as a ‘gardener’. I do have a lot of the background in my head, but I don’t generally write it down anywhere until I sit down and start actually writing.

  10. Gene says:

    You know, another great example of a discovery writer is George R.R. Martin, yes folks he spins it all up on demand. I would add that Brandon is PRIMARILY a plotter but he admits in his lectures (recently posted on YouTube) that he discovery writes his characters and outlines the plotlines for his novels. So even Mr. Sanderson, magic system extraordinaire is a hybrid to some degree. Myself, I would say I’m roughtly 80% Discovery and 20% Plotter. As stated in the article, sometimes plotting out key scenes or events can be useful and building your discovery around what you plot can make the progress flow more easy.

  11. […] style.  Urban fantasy author Suzanne Johnson blogs about character vs. plot here.  I like this article by Thomas A. Knight about famous authors who are plotters or […]

  12. Terry Odell says:

    I’m a “Plantser.” I don’t plot very far in advance, but I plan out each scene, and have a very vague idea of what is likely to happen in the book. However, I’ve written mysteries where I didn’t know either who the victim was, or who killed him/her until well into the book. If I don’t know, then I’m not giving things away to the reader.

    Terry

  13. Larik says:

    I’m more of a hybrid. Most of my stories start out from a sidetracked idea while I’m writing something else, and I can’t think of anything else. So, I normally just write it out of my system so I can get back to the other one. So it was very sketchy in the first seventy pages of my book, and I’ve been trying to weed out the bad grammar and put more depth to the story (I don’t really see much bad grammar, but my sister sees nothing but, judging from her notes on my manuscript.)

    My book uses a lot of magic, and I read some advice on one of my favorite authors’ website, and he mentioned about how you need to choose between mystery magic or planned magic. I decided to go with magic that’s structured and slightly organized, but still has the flair and wonder that mystery magic normally has. I guess that makes me a hybrid since I’ve planned out all the countries, almost all the gods of each country, magic system, but I pants my way through the story.

  14. I’m a “Pantser”. This is a new name I learned today. Thanks for the awesome article.

  15. […] up to you weather you decide to be a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser‘, but either way you’re guaranteed to have a good time if you participate with fellow […]

  16. Camy says:

    You’ve written a good piece, here.

    I’m a pantser with a yearning to be more organised. For instance: I spent ages deciding to use YWriter – because it was sensible, then changed to Scrivener and now only use its basic word processor rather than all its bells and whistles. Outlining? I wish! Maybe that’s why I write short form best and have a shed load of unfinished novel-type-things in my very bottom drawer. 😉

    Thanks again for the words. I shall now become a hybrid!

  17. The terms pantser and plotter have only recently become known to me. Another new one for me is the term discovery writer. I spent many of my years in school never being able to grasp the outline method they tried to force on us. This even includes the ideas of learning the rules of writing, they escape me entirely. It was only when I was allowed to write, write in my own way that anything made any kind of sense.

    I do believe that in the past we may have lost quite a few potentially great writers because of the methods taught in school that forced conformity of only a single style of writing.

    • Tetra says:

      I feel like schools force kids to be extreme plotters. Want to write a fantasy story? Make sure you make a picture and description of your characters, create a timeline of all events, and reflect on the theme of the story before you write a word! I wish they’d just let me have an idea, do a bit of thinking, and write a story. But no, you have to plan it out, do all these activities, and use the kinds of introductory “hooks” and the exact conclusion structures they tell you. Just let me write! I’m quite good at it, really! Nope, you have to use their structures, their ideas, their styles, so that it’s easier for the grader on the standardized test. Because schools absolutely love conformity. RANT OVER.

  18. Nordlys says:

    I was an hardcore plotter, now I’m a switcher. Switching method is refreshing.To me is still important to know where the story goes. Without having the ending decided first, I can’t write.

  19. L.K. Donovan says:

    I think it’s awesome that you find pantsing fun! I’m a pantser myself, and while there are flashes of fun and excitement, most of the time it’s hard work (especially during the revision process). I’m not sure I understand the part about getting frustrated with characters if they don’t do what you want them to do. I’ve never had characters frustrate me that way. If I envision the scene one way, but the characters push it another way, I find that something about my original premise was misguided (typically using the characters to advance the plot, instead of having the plot advanced by the needs/desires/goals of the characters.)

  20. […] a certain format. I did so because I thought that was The One True Way. The problem is, I’m a pantser, not a plotter. I can’t stand sitting around and plotting out a story before I write it. But when creating a […]

  21. […] style.  Urban fantasy author Suzanne Johnson blogs about character vs. plot here.  I like this article by Thomas A. Knight about famous authors who are plotters or […]

  22. […] a lazy discovery writer who should probably be a plotter  (an explanation of pantsers vs. plotters here) I find this method interesting because it lets me think of my plot in the fuzzy way that comes […]

  23. […] when I am still figuring out the structure. My challenge is usually that I’m a bit of a plotser (a blend of plotter and pantser). My writing style is a combination of both planning out the […]

  24. Metalhead says:

    I’m a pantser But finding as I near the end of the book I’m wishing I’d have been a plotter at least for keeping track of all the loose ends, Meep! I’m trying this out and hoping that it will work:

    Start at chapter one and re-read it. As you read it any question that pops into your head write/type down. As I go though the chapters I hope that I’ll see the logical places to saner the questions i’ve found.

    I had to do something similar to this before when I had a head hoping problem and had to look hard to find where I was messing up, find them copy them paste them into a wordpad put them back together, fill in the gaps and then find a good place for that character to have their own chapter. Three protagonists two with strong povs. And three antagonists that are strong povs. The last antagonist might get merged with another one. Still mulling that over.

    Anyways, to the point next time around I’m doing more plotting! The problem was that I didn’t even know a bout writing stiles when this book started. xP

  25. […] marvel at my friend’s ability to write complete drafts, as for me, I seem to be a pantser at heart. [Is that something one should admit to in public?] The Novel of Great (and shiny) Worth […]

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