Pantsers vs Plotters

We often hear that writers fall into one of two camps: pantsers or plotters. In truth, most of us straddle those two camps with a toe and maybe an arm in one and most of our body in the other. I am one of those ridiculously methodical people who have a spreadsheet or a list for everything. My writing desk needs to be spotless and organised. I have multiple spreadsheets tracking everything from submissions to budgets to daily word counts. Wouldn’t you expect me to be a plotter?

Actually, I’m a pantser – I write by the seat of my pants, without an outline, figuring it out as I go. I usually start with a particular setting I want to explore and as I get to know the characters who inhabit that setting, the story unfolds. But I’d love to be a plotter. The methodical part of my brain adores the idea of a neatly-constructed outline, a manuscript mapped out scene by scene, writing with a definite end in mind.

I’ve tried to be a plotter. I really have. Before I started writing my previous manuscript, I wrote a detailed outline. I knew exactly where the manuscript was heading and what would happen in every chapter. I lasted two scenes and then deviated irretrievably from the outline. Perhaps I could have forced the story to follow the path I had originally chosen, but the way it went instead felt more natural and the outline was abandoned.

Yet I still longed to be a plotter. So this time I’m trying something different. I have a very brief outline written on index cards – lovely big, pink ones. I adore index cards and the methodical part of my brain is thrilled at having a stash of those pink cards spread out around me as I write. It makes me feel like a “proper” writer.

The index card method is working well. Because I can change the order of the cards, I’m finding it easier to insert additional scenes or move them to a more appropriate place as the story changes. The story is coming out more easily because I do have some sort of plan in mind, however brief. As I get to know my characters and understand what drives them, the story I had intended naturally changes. With my new index card system, I can shuffle around a few cards, add others in, remove the ones I no longer need, and hey presto, I still have an outline of sorts and the yet the story can follow its own course.

I’m not saying I’m a reformed pantser, not by a long shot. By I have discovered that pantsers and plotters are perhaps not as mutually exclusive as I once thought.

How about you? Are you a pantser or a plotter? And which would you prefer to be?

10 responses on “Pantsers vs Plotters

  1. Brandon M Lindsay

    I am near the middle, leaning towards pantsing. I don’t have a rigorous outline, but I tend to have goals for my character and for my plot threads, and more or less can figure out by these which way the story will go. That’s not always the case, though. I’m 3/4 the way through a story now, and still don’t have an ending. I have the character goals in mind, however, and I know what the climax will be, I just don’t know how it will all shake out.

    One of the things that’s really helped me become a better plotter is writing short stories, which I’m going to post about shortly.

  2. Colette Vernon

    I’m straddling the line as well, though I have to say my recent endeavors have more plotting. I think no matter which you lean, you eventually have to learn skills from both camps in order to maximize your writing efforts. Keeping yourself open to ideas as you go, but being able to turn in that synopsis to an editor beforehand both seem rather important.

  3. KylieQ Post author

    Brandon, endings can be funny things. Sometimes I know the ending right from the start and other times I can’t figure it out until it comes close.

  4. Frank Morin

    I started as a full-blown pantser. My first novel meandered around for almost 4 years, like a phoenix being reborn regularly through new drafts as I ‘discovered’ what I wanted to do with the story. Eventually I learned all I could from that project and had to set it aside and start over from scratch.

    My next novel, which my agent is now submitting to publishers, took almost 2 years to complete. It was more of a 50/50 process – a better idea of where I was going through a high-level outline, but still plenty of pantsing and several revisions.

    My third novel, a YA fantasy novel I just completed, took me a total of about 6 months: 3 months to plan a detailed outline, less than 2 months to write start to finish, and a month for some edits.

    So I’ve found the planning method helps me be far more productive. But with that said, I took a lot of time up front figuring out the world, the characters, etc. At this point, I’d say I’m about 80 percent planning up front. But then, while I’m writing the chapters, I am open to pantsing and exploring new ideas that spring up through that creative process. If I find one that I think improves on the original plot and I decide I want to go with it, then I stop, step back, and look at the story to see how it will affect what I’m doing. If it changes the plot arc dramatically, then I need to go back and update my outline to ensure I’m not breaking the story.

    One thing I’ve learned is that regardless of how we get there: pantsing or plotting, the end result still needs to have a plot structure that works. If it doesn’t, the book will fail.

    A great resource for me in understanding the plot structure and its relation to plotting and/or pantsing is Larry Brooks’ StoryFix blog, and his books on writing. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

    So plot or pants, I think we’re all somewhere along the spectrum of combining both methods, just make sure the story structure works, and the novel will be the best it can be.
    Frank Morin recently posted..Thoughts from the bleeding edge of technology

  5. David C

    ::hand up:: Pantser. Have sort of tried to plot in the past, but always quit in frustration because the story kept mutating as I would write it, and I kept wanting to spend time revising the outline instead if writing the story. And for a long time I was okay with that, because there are some notable pantsers (Asimov, for example), and because I enjoyed the feeling of spontaneity it gave me. But in recent years, when I look around, it looks like the most productive and successful authors in my chosen genres are all plotters. So I am trying to learn that discipline. Hard, it is.

  6. KylieQ

    Frank, I absolutely agree that we are all somewhere on the spectrum of being both plotters and pantsers. I would just like to be further along towards the plotter end!

    David, yes, that’s another reason I need to learn to plot. If it helps, I’ll try it!

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