The Great Plotter vs. Pantser Debate

Behold these awful stereotypes of a plotter and a pantser!

Of course there’s no one right way to do it.

If you hang around writerly sorts, you will hear them talking about plotting and pantsing. Plotting means you plan out your entire novel before starting to write it. You make an outline. You decide what’s going to happen chapter by chapter. Obviously, you do any necessary research before starting to write. The term pantsing comes from the phrase “fly by the seat of your pants.” With pantsing, you might have done some research and you might have a general idea where the story is going to go. But you don’t outline. You just dive in, let the story and characters take over, and record what you see happening. You are just along for the ride, like the lovely lady above on the right side of the picture.

Both methods have their advocates. Both methods even have a book which will tell you how to do the method. I have read neither of these books, but have heard them recommended by other authors. For pantsing, there is Writing Into the Dark, by Dean Wesley Smith; and for plotting, there is Take Off Your Pants! by Libbie Hawker. (How can you not love that title?)

There’s No Right Way, but This Is the Right Way

Perhaps anyone can learn to plot … or to pants. Nevertheless, I think that a strong preference for one or the other is a consequence of the way a person’s brain is wired. This explains why people’s reaction when they hear about the other method (whichever the other method is), tends to be something like, “You mean there are people who live this way?”

Pantsers, for example, tend to sound as if they think pantsing is inherently spiritual. It’s about sensitivity to your characters; it’s about trusting your subconscious and the story itself. It’s about listening to reality, for crying out loud! Writers are people who listen! They don’t impose!

I am thinking here of two of my favorite writers: Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I love Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, and King’s On Writing. Bird by Bird does contain some passages that make it sound (unintentionally, I am sure) as if writers are more mystical or wise or something than the general population. King, meanwhile, believes strongly that you have to let your characters lead. He never plots; he thinks of an intriguing or difficult situation, puts his character in it, and then sits back and lets it play out. Because he doesn’t plan a rescue for his characters, horror usually follows.

I haven’t read as much writing advice by plotters, so I’m not as familiar with their besetting misconceptions. It seems to me, based on little comments that I have seen here and there based on a “how to write a novel” book, written by an editor, that I read many years ago, that plotters have the impression that if you don’t outline, you won’t have a good plot. Nothing will happen in your story. As one person put it, no amount of revision can make a book good if it was a weak story to begin with.

In short, and to make a huge generalization that I will no doubt regret later, diehard pantsers tend to feel that plotting is immoral, whereas diehard plotters tend to feel that pantsing is incompetent.

But Is There Such a Thing as “Pure” Plotting or “Pure” Pantsing?

Probably not. 


I can only speak from the pantsing side (in case you haven’t guessed). I am an incurable pantser. But this doesn’t mean I never do any research or plan anything out. When at the writing desk, I tend to look more like the gal on the left. I don’t outline, but to keep things consistent I am forced to make timelines, name and age charts, and so on. I keep research notes and maps handy. It’s just that these things are following the story, not preceding it.

In the same way, I imagine that even those who thoroughly plot spend time listening to their characters so that the emotions ring true. Who knows, perhaps they even change their outline from time to time in response to a character’s wishes or the changing currents of the story.

So the supposed down side of each of these methods is mitigated by the fact that writing is an iterative process and that writers mix in elements from each.

Why Am I A Pantser?

I just am. I am constitutionally unable to make a book outline first and then have that outline actually be the way the story goes.

I might have a general idea of what I think is going to happen (and sometimes it does). But half the time, by the time we get there, things don’t go down that way. The characters have been changed by their experiences and they don’t react the way I expected. Or, they react much more strongly than I expected and do some fool thing that the story then has to accommodate.

This doesn’t make me more spiritual or, God forbid, smarter than the plotters. If anything, it might be the reverse. When my story surprises me, it’s because my subconscious is working out plot points that my better organized fellows are able to do intentionally, with their conscious brains. It may be true that plotting results in twistier, more intricate plots. I’d do it if I could, but I can’t.

In fact, I’m not even able to write a non-fiction piece from an outline. If an outline is required, I do some discovery drafts, let the structure emerge, and then outline it afterward. That’s how pantsy I am.

Luckily, Stephen King is there to remind me that it is possible to be a competent and prolific writer by pantsing.

Now, how about you? Even if you don’t write novels, I’ll bet you plot or pants your way through life. And I’ll bet that whichever you do, the other way seems just wrong.

Also, when you are reading a book can you tell which kind of writer the author is?

14 thoughts on “The Great Plotter vs. Pantser Debate

  1. Jen,
    Your pro pantser bias begins with your choice of artwork. The pantser is having fun, and the plotter looks like a plodder. For what it’s worth, the biggest selling English author with over 350 million copies sold is a staunch plotter. (That’s James Patterson, by the way.) I took his on-line course and he says outline, outline, outline.. I plotted my two novels and for me, it’s the only way. I actually tried starting my third novel in pantser mode – did not work. So I’m back out outlining it.
    Must be genetic.
    Great blog.
    Tom

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it is indeed genetic, Tom.

      Sorry about the drawings. Actually my own art. I meant to make the pantser look a little more terrified and the plotter look a little more crazed … but I pantsed my way through them. 🙂 I still think the plotter looks like she’s having fun, though. That’s what I look like when I’m having fun, after all.

      I am happy to hear that you are working on a third novel!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Benjamin Ledford

    I’m so far on the “plotting” side that there’s no story. Ha! Okay, so I’m not a writer, so maybe it’s not a matter of being on one end of the spectrum as much as not being on it at all. I am not gifted in telling stories, however much I enjoy them. I used to think that I was a good story-teller/writer, but it turns out that all I’m equipped to do is the world building. I love making the maps where storys would occur (with such thoughts as “This pass will be the perfect place for an ambush,” or this “there’s a footrace around the top of these walls each year that could set up a really dramatic death scene”). I draw the houses and the cities and develop landscapes and people groups and historic figures, but I don’t have any actual characters or, you know, stories.

    But with that caveat, I know my tendency would be to plot out the storyline beforehand, though at the same time I feel like that’s part of what paralyzes me. I’ll never do enough planning or be able to create that perfect story outline, so I could never start. Maybe I would have better success if I just jumped straight in to narrative. Sadly, I don’t have the time to test the experiment, but I know that one of my reservations with the “pantsing” approach is that I will screw it up. I won’t start at the best place, or set things up right, or have enough depth in the plot, etc. So it’s not that I think the pantsters (I really think it’s more endearing with the extra ‘t’) are incompetent, but that *I’m* incompetent. Like, sure, Dostoyevsky and C.S. Lewis are smart and insightful enough to just write stories that end up having great depth and mysteriously satisfying resolutions, but I couldn’t pull that off.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Maybe some day, in the misty future, you will have the time and mindspace finally to populate your intricate worlds with a perfect story. Sounds like it might be similar to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which focuses on the grand sweep of history. I tried to read it, and ending up telling another person that I couldn’t get into it, because there was no one character for me to identify with. And that person, who was a hard-science type, responded that that was the way the story was supposed to be. Ok, then.

      It’s definitely a case where each kind of writer could feel inferior to the other, thinking, “I could never do it that way.” And indeed we can’t, or at least not well, if our brain is not wired that way.

      I think of plotting as so difficult that I can’t do it except with my subconscious mind. But, history has yet to judge whether my plots are any good. 🙂

      Like

      1. Benjamin Ledford

        Well, it’s not that I *want* to write something sweeping and impersonal. Ha ha! I do find though that I’m more drawn to the ancient past, even of my imaginary worlds. Like, I want to write the “background” stories when there’s no foreground yet.

        My other option would be to have someone else write the stories. “Here’s a highly developed imaginary world, now make something interesting happen.” But of course I’d never be satisfied.

        Like

  3. Benjamin Ledford

    Question, is this the case even with a mystery? Like, you don’t know who did it or what the motivation was until you get to the end? That would be amazing to me. And it would seem to require a lot of editing on the second draft to get things to line up consistently. But maybe if you’re intentionally creating multiple characters with opportunity and motive there’s some flexibility

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    1. No. I didn’t mention it in the post, but some genres require careful plotting and mystery is clearly one of them. Or make that, mystery is two of them (the classic puzzle mystery = 1; crime or police dramas = 2). I would also include international intrigue … spy stories. I have never had the patience to write a classic murder mystery with a puzzle, clues, etc., for this very reason.

      None of this is to be confused with having villains or elements that are mysteriOUS. It is possible to pants those … I give you Stephen King. In a book like that, on the first draft the author is delving into the mystery so that the reader can delve into it later. King has even said that when his writing is at its best, he feels as if he’s excavating something.

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  4. Great post! When it comes to writing, I’m a pantser (I just heard this term used in the context of writing. It meant something different where I grew up). In real life I have more of a plotter personality.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, dear. I hope this post doesn’t get visitors Googling the wrong kind of “pantser.” Does it mean something inappropriate?
      I did not coin the term. It’s pretty common in writing-about-writing circles.

      That’s interesting that your approach to writing is different to real life. It’s lucky, I guess. I am intuitive and disorganized IRL too and it’s a constant struggle.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just heard the term the other day when blogger Scherezade Ozwulo used it on Bottomless Coffee 007’s podcast. Then for the second time in your post. I didn’t realize it was such a common term for writers.
        In high school if you got “pantsed”, it meant someone embarrassed you by pulling down your pants publicly. So I guess a pantsing would be the act of getting pantsed, and a pantser would be the person doing the pantsing.
        Of course, that kind of bullying is frowned upon today.

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  5. I love this. I see so many people on either side of the debate giving side eye to those who don’t follow their method. This article is all “just do you!” And that’s perfect.
    I think both have their benefits. Plotters probably do spend less time in revisions. I only pants because it’s more fun that way. Maybe some people like making detailed outlines, but I find it really boring.

    Liked by 1 person

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