The Perplexities of Pantsing and Plotting

by Janis Patterson

In one of my discussion groups not long ago the perennial discussion of pantser vs plotter came up. Again. It rears its head every couple of months, and each side has its devoted and vocal advocates. One member – a downy little newbie – asked what the names meant and how were they different, a simple request for information that ignited a lively discussion of the various virtues of each.

Basically it boiled down to the facts that plotters like to have everything planned and laid out in varying degrees of exactitude. Some even use detailed cheatsheets to create their characters, some covering everything from their eye and hair color to their favorite flavor of Jello. (Don’t laugh – I have seen this.) The story is laid out in either a paragraph or outline form, sometimes going three or four or even more layers deep if it is bullet-pointed. Plotters say it keeps them on target.

A pantser is one who writes ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They have a basic idea, or perhaps even just an opening line, then sit down and write from there, letting the story and the characters take them wherever they want to go.

Full disclosure : I am – and always have been – a definite pantser. Even in school I loathed outlining, thinking even then that it was the best way I could think of to kill creativity and spontaneity. Yes, I was a very precocious child!

There is danger in pantsing, though, especially for the newbie – unseasoned? marginally skilled? – writer. It gives one the opportunity to wander all over the place with no story structure. One of the hardest things to convince newbies is that pantsing does not mean writing without structure. It only means no preconceived, written out structure. The story has to be a cohesive whole, with proper foreshadowing and rational action and reaction as well as a beginning, story arc and an end (yes, even in fantasy/scyfy). Otherwise all you’ll have is a great number of words – not a book.

Another danger with pantsing is that of writing yourself into a corner – meaning you have not set things up properly. A story has to flow as a whole, not just be a string of really nice scenes. Everything has to interact and work together. When newbie (and let’s be honest, not-so-good) writers find themselves in this corner, all too often they fall back on the old ‘and the cavalry rides over the hill’ trick. In other words, something happens to save the day but it’s never been set up properly or integrated into the story or even foreshadowed. That’s not only a cheat, it’s a cheap cheat, and the readers know it.

I’m always trying to hone my skills, so a couple of years ago I took a plotting class about which everyone was raving. It was quite good – just not for me. You took ten boxes; then in each box you would put five plot points. Under each one of those you’d put two minor plot points. Seems like there was another layer with plot points under each of them, but it’s been too long and I don’t remember. Theoretically when you finished you would have a very detailed outline for a 100K book.

I did all this. Came up with a really nifty romantic adventure involving a female race driver, her murdered brother, a dirty bomb, a terrorist plot, two luscious men… a story that will never be written. Oh, everything is there, and it hangs together beautifully, and I am bored to death with it before writing the first word.

I do not take boredom well. Also, as someone intelligent whose name I cannot now remember said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. One of my perennial strong sellers was pantsed, and two of the main characters were not in the original concept of the book. They just walked in and took over. Had I been slavishly following an outline they never would have been born, and the book would be so much the poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong – writing is hard work, whether you outline or (especially) if you are a pantser. Perhaps more if you’re a pantser. Reining in a rampaging imagination while giving it enough freedom to create is not easy. If you’re a newbie writer, or a writer who’s hit a rough patch, I’d suggest trying both and see which works for you.

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9 Responses to The Perplexities of Pantsing and Plotting

  1. I love your blog and I am one of the rare birds who likes to do both, I plot and write by the seat of my pants. We come up with a vague storyline and work out our characters as to what they look like and stuff but then when we sit down and write, the story takes on a life of it’s own and we just follow along for the ride! I guess everyone has their own style but this is what works for us. Thank you for posting this!

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  2. patyjag says:

    Like Wendy, I can’t sit down and start a story unless I know the who, the what, and the why. And I do the research I think I need to know before I start a book. That information can make a difference in the outcome of the book. But I don’t outline each chapter or turning point. I do know my main characters, where the story starts and how it will end. Everything in between is the pantser in me. But I also have to write in a straight line. I can’t bounce from one scene in the beginning and then write one in the end and then back to the beginning. I start at page one and write through to the end.
    Great post!

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  3. morganmandel says:

    I wish I could be a plotter, but I’ve always been a pantser!

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  4. ambfoxx says:

    Hybrid pantser-plotters, maybe you’re not such rare birds. I know the beginning, the general theme, and the probable end and then I take off by the seat of my pants. The internal logic of each scene determines the next event. If something happens that doesn’t work, I stop right there, cut that scene and replace it. And I don’t keep going until it’s acceptable in terms of the plot that’s evolving. I’m working from beginning to end of my next book, and the first five chapters flowed, but I took a plot turn I didn’t like when I introduced new characters in chapter six. I cut the whole thing, deciding I can store those characters for some other book later, and wrote a new chapter six that stays on track.

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  5. Alicia Dean says:

    Excellent article, but it hasn’t convinced me to become a pantser. 🙂 I greatly admire your ability to write that way. I can’t imagine just sitting down and writing with only a vague notion of my story. I’ve tried it, in fact, and I stare at the computer, empty-brained and frustrated. I am not one of those 40 page outline, charting, in depth plotters, but I do make an actual brief outline with a ‘scene list’ for however many scenes I need based on my word count. The scene note for a particular scene might just be ‘Another body is found’ or ‘Hero and heroine share a ‘moment’ or ‘She discovers a new clue.’ But, I do have to have some kind of roadmap/blueprint to follow, especially when I write suspense, because I know my clues must lead to the big black moment and point to the killer, etc. I don’t get bored, and I’m still surprised because all sorts of exciting and unexpected things happen, outside of the notes I’ve written. And, the scene list can definitely change. It’s just like when I go to the grocery store with a list. I don’t get everything on this list, and I get things that are not on the list, but at least I don’t wander the aisles in a daze. 🙂 Of course, I know all you pantsers don’t write that way, but that’s how it would be for me. I’m really jealous that my mind doesn’t work the way yours does. Thanks for the interesting take on the topic!

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  6. I’m also a hybrid. I plot with care and write a bio for each main character before I start writing. However, I’m also flexible. As I write, I often make changes–twists and turns in the plot may strike me, particularly with mystery fiction.

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  7. I’m somewhere in the middle. I wrote my first sci fi novel for NANO, and the popular wisdom among my friends was to spend the lead-up time (I decided to write the novel in mid-September, which gave me six or so weeks) to plan the novel in detail. The problem with that, for me, is that I don’t know what’s going to happen until I write it.

    I did manage to jot down a great many notes about the world-building, and a page or so of notes about the plot that had the beginning, some of the major plot points, and the ending. When I started to write, I found myself plotting in much greater detail three or four scenes ahead of where I was in the novel.

    I did end up with major revisions afterward.

    I admire those who can generate a detailed plot outline; I’m simply not one of them. In subsequent novels, I managed to generate a bit more detail in my initial outline notes, but I end up trading time up front for time on the back end editing,

    Every writer has to discover their own process. If you’re just starting out, I encourage you to experiment and see what works for you.

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  8. jushaw says:

    I am so glad you wrote this right now. I’m writing a mystery, trying to use a detailed plot, and so disinterested since I know what will happen. Thanks for reminding me that being a pantser is okay. I love surprises.

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  9. EARL STAGGS says:

    I’m a pantser, too. I tried plotting once. I had the story all mapped out and started following it. That lasted about three pages. The characters wanted to do it differently, so I let them, and I was pantsing again. Like someone said, every writer should try both and go with the method that fit best.

    .

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