Pantsers and Plotters: Two Faces of the Same Writing Coin

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone

by Caroline Acebo

So you've finally decided to write your book. Or perhaps you're double- or triple-checking a few plot points in your story before you submit your manuscript for this year's So You Think You Can Write contest. Either way, your characters are speaking to you. You can see their world in your mind. You sit down to write.

And something very telling happens.

You might roll up your sleeves and immediately dive into writing, getting a feel for the characters and their world, letting the details reveal themselves as you go. You might have a general idea of how the story will end or how the characters will develop, but you're not really tied to that. Instead, you're more focused on going where the story takes you. You refuse to get stuck in all the little pre-planning details. That's because you, Pantser, are most likely to feel comfortable writing when you are the conduit through which the story is told.

Sometimes writing by the seat of your pants has you soaring, climbing the heights of freewheeling creativity. You're not bogged down by minutiae. You write like a crazed, inspired fiend. Other times, you crash and burn.

Conversely, the rest of you out there might crack your knuckles and whip out your outline, your Post-Its, or your 3 x 5 notecards and hunker down until you have the larger and finer points of your plot and characterization down pat before you even think about jumping into the actual writing part. Because worst-case scenario is you get halfway through your manuscript and realize you wound up at Point B when you thought you were heading toward Point A. The horror!

That's because you, Plotter, are likely to feel most comfortable writing when you are the puppet master of your story. Plotting your story out, chapter-by-chapter and scene-by-scene, gives you the sense of comfort and direction you need to write. You have purpose, sent to you directly from the muses. They have blessed your outline with plot twists galore!

But sometimes you get caught up in the details and can't move forward until you figure out how the minutiae of your plot and characterization fit together. Maybe you get stuck before you even start.

One writing style is not better than the other, and editors love both equally. Here's a secret: we can usually tell within a few chapters which you are and can immediately understand where you'll find difficulties in the writing and revision process.

Here are a few things editors appreciate about both styles and a few things both can keep in mind when writing.

Why editors love Pantsers: You write with such flair and gusto, and your scenes are imbued with in-the-moment passion.

What you can work on: Tying loose ends together and making sure plot points lead logically from one to the other.

How to get unstuck: You've most likely written yourself into a corner. Chances are you've realized what the story is really about and you're 20 or 30 thousand words in and you don't want to start all over. Put your manuscript aside and start outlining. It might sound horrible, but until you give yourself a roadmap, you could stay disoriented—and all of that creative momentum could go out the window.

Why editors love Plotters: All the moving parts of your stories line up so very beautifully. And plot holes? What plot holes?

What you can work on: While the finished product is usually very clean, we know that Plotters tend to have the most difficulty upfront in the planning stage. In fact, sometimes, it's hard for you Plotters to even get to the real business of writing because you might be stuck on outlining the scenes that could be in chapter ten—if all goes according to plan!

How to get unstuck: Break out your pen(cil) and notebook and handwrite a few pages of stream-of-consciousness material. Feel free to let it all out: how much you hate your book or how you should have made a larger pot of coffee that morning. It doesn't matter. Let yourself stop planning for a few minutes. You might be surprised by the results.

So which are you? We'd love to know! If you have any tips for getting unstuck or any insights into the opposite writing style, post your experiences below.

Leave a Comment

Comments

  1. Mary Jane Campbell

    I believe I am a hybrid of the two styles. I do think that I used to edit the life out of a chapter before writing the second. After doing a book in a month on the e-Harlequin web site, I learned to write the entire ms and then go back and edit. My work is much stronger.

    I do a lost of the key scenes and plot points, and then free style how I get from point to point as I get to know my characters better.

    Thank you for this contest and this week of learning! Awesome it is!

  2. Autumn Shelley

    Early in the game I swore I was a pantser, but on longer works, plotting has become my new best friend. I’ve also learned I’m visual, I have to have a storyboard to show me where I am, and where I need to go, otherwise I get myself into those corners and have no idea how I got there, much less how to get myself out.
    One of my biggest challenges with “plotting” is convincing my wild mind that it is not restrained by the guide and that I still have free rein to be spontaneous and go where the story takes me. It’s been an interesting, often painful journey in self-discovery. 😉

  3. i’m a little of both. i get my ideas in dreams, so i jot down notes. i use 3 x 5 cards to write out the characters. height, hair, eye color, what car they drive, any little thing i may need to repeat later. but when i’m in a scene, i’m IN the scene. i focus on what it is like to be in that scene, and i write what i am feeling.
    if i get stuck somewhere, i go back through the previous chapters, and usually by the time i’m done with a pass of editing, i know where i want to go. if not, i put my mind on thinking about it, and let it stew for a few days.

  4. Jessica Hayes

    I am primarily a pantser….no I don’t go around pantsing people. I have a very basic idea of where I want the middle and endings of my stories in my head. I am starting to write the synopsis before I start writing my stories. I find that it helps me to see whether my idea is strong enough or if I need to add more conflict.

  5. Jennifer Riley

    I am such a pantser, I love this article, thank you sooo much for this blog! I have an idea that smacks me up back the head and I run with it, than I run out of steam and can’t figure out how to finish it up with the number of words required and feel like crap lol.

  6. Lexi Greene

    I like to have an idea of the basic goals, motivations and conflicts, a potential idea for the black moment and then I pants it. The story comes from the characters and their backstory so the story unfolds with some surprises, but true to the characters.

  7. I’m a pantser all the way! The part about pantsers needing to work on tying up loose ends matches me to a T lol.
    One of the reasons I was so hesitant to take writing courses was that I did not want someone to tell me I had to plot. I was the student in English 101 that secretly wrote what I wanted to write and pulled up an outline page to make it look like I was working on my outline first. Though I can do it better now I’m still not a fan of it. When I took my first creative writing course we had to read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. I was so relieved when he talked about not plotting stories. I was so certain that plotting was going to be pushed on me, but here it was perfectly acceptable to fly by the seat of your pants!
    I found this post very interesting, thanks!

  8. Inge @ Bookshelf Reflections

    I am definitely a plotter. I once tried to pants a story and I gave up after four chapters because I had no idea of where I wanted to go with the story. I like having control of the story, and having a clear view of the outline. Having said that, I still end up with questions while I’m writing, and sometimes I do deviate from what I’ve written down.

  9. Maurine Howell

    I am so much the pantser it’s not even funny. I have boxes full of mss I’ve started and not been able to finish because I’ve written myself into a corner. And I write mostly romantic suspense, lol.

    How I get around it now is to interview my characters, asking them questions to get a feel for them. Another thing I found was to write a “plot behind the plot” that tells what the villain does to begin the story, then what the hero/heroine do in response, then how the villain reacts to that, etc. It’s helped me to more or less plot out the story. If I thought I had to outline a story, I’d probably break out in hives.

  10. Steve Williams

    As a complete novice I began by buying and reading books on how to write (Writing fiction for dummies, Novel Writing, and a host of others).
    So, I got out the post-its and the index cards and began plotting. Three months in, I had shed loads of paper but hadn’t moved forward a jot. I had an overall plot and an ending, and something that looked a little like a memory map of the story.
    I knew absolutely nothing about pantsers – all the books I’d read said plot, plot, plot. Then one day, I picked up a journal and just wrote. Before I knew it, I had a scene, a scene that would fit just nicely into my book, and yet it took me in a direction I’d never considered. I was amazed. It was almost as if someone else wrote the words, so far from my original plot had they taken me, and yet the scene fitted so well.
    So that’s what I do now – I sketch out an outline memory map(spider diagram) and then write scene by the seat of my pants, correcting and adding to the map as I go.
    I suppose even that’s not the whole truth – I wander about thinking through a scene or what comes next, and then, when I’m happy, I sit down and write. But even then, nine times out of ten, what I write takes me on down some avenue that I’d not expected. I love it, it’s almost as if it’s not me writing at all, but someone else is guiding the story. I’m a PANTSER.

  11. I’m a Pantser this was before I’d even know nthere where two writing styles. My next book is going to go more towards plotting, so I don’t have to read the book over and over again searching for those loose ends to tie up. More work stinks!

    I do love that I can just hop into a new chapter get take into the story and watch the story unfold. The rest? That needs to go, Pantening can make a total mess if you’re not careful. X_X

    Will all the things to work on in the book i’ve gotten exhausted and have asked an editor for a little help. ‘m hopping she can teach me a few things to make this go smoother. I’m a perfectionist too so every twenty chapters or so it’s time to edit and revise or it bugs me to death.

    Sleep? There’s no time for sleep! Coffee and energy drinks – three chapters later, falls asleep on the desk at 2am.)

    (lol?)

  12. Paula Bentz

    Plotter!!! Plotter to the core!! Thanks, this article explains why my writing never gets past my planning stage. Lol, time to learn who I am, so I can become who I was meant to be. 🙂