To be a novelist, you need to be part pantser and part plotter – no one can outline down to the sentence level. Honest plotters will admit that some of their best ideas have come during pantsing bouts. At some point you just have to dive in!

A special thing happens to some people when they write: the rush they feel as the creative juices flow is like nothing they experience at any other time in their lives. But is the rush diminished if you plot out your details in advance? Are you doomed to failure without a road map? When it comes time to sit and do the hard work of writing a book, are you a plotter or a pantser?

Plotters are famous for thinking through the structure of their novel before and during writing – usually in outline form. Pantsers are notorious for doing the opposite and just writing by the seat of their pants as they go along.

The debate over plotting versus pantsing all boils down to one key behavior of writers:  how do you get your creative juices flowing?

Many people fail miserably at pantsing. Like playing a game of solitaire when you are dealt bad cards, you end up at dead ends, unsolvable dilemmas, or you just run out of steam. Desk drawers are filled the world over with half-baked manuscripts that were pantsed to their graves.

Yet even pantsers with myriad incomplete or off-the-mark books will continue to extol the virtues of pantsing and suggest that the very idea of a book requiring a priori structure is akin to a fish needing a bicycle.

At the extremes, plotters favor the feel of the outlining stage, while pantsers delight in the detailed writing stage. It’s just a matter of where the highest frequency of eureka moments fall. It’s a matter of working to your strengths.

The best writers can plot and write, word-for-word, and get creative results using either method. Great writers can also think about their books when they aren’t writing, even if it’s in the back of their minds.

Pantsers especially feel the glory of writing through their fingertips – as they pen words to paper or type at the keyboard. They thrill at the freedom to go in whichever direction the wind blows. They delight in not knowing the ending or the beginning of book when they start. They love rising to the occasion to figure it all out as they create. This method keeps writing fresh and enjoyable at the best of times and bearable at the worst.

Pantsing is a valid and often spectacularly effective method of channeling unique worlds and characters from mind to page – if you can herd your cats effectively. Pantsers feel little to nothing if forced to plot, except a mechanical ring of boredom and slain aspirations. They resist assimilation at all costs.

For plotters, the reverse can be true. Knowledge of the beginning, middle, and end of a plot makes it easier for plotters to see the rest of the puzzle, heighten tensions, and get things like the “black moment” and the climax right. After the plot points are put together, they may find it hard – or downright tedious – to fill in the details.

Declared plotters and pantsers just find the joy of writing in different places.

Every writer, including the most assiduous plotter, should enjoy the intellectual freedom of pantsing when it behooves the plot. Even strict outliners admit that once writing, the perfect initial outline often goes out the window in favor of new twists, new characters, or even a new ending.

Everyone should envy the true pantser her talent to create publishable works out of the blue as she writes. A common message of pantsers is that it’s like they are telling themselves the story as they create.

But let’s face it: all writers are pantsers when it comes to the finer grain structure of a novel. No one can outline down to the sentence level. As such, all writers can attest to the rush of wondering “Where did that come from?” And it feels great. Honest plotters will admit that at least some of their best ideas have come during pantsing bouts.

The truth is you can’t pants or plot a book 100 percent. As a writer, you’ve got to accept, learn, and adapt, relying on your skills in both domains if you’re going to complete a novel.

The two sides of the coin are often more similar than people make them out to be. Successful pantsers intuitively create a solid structure to their books to match the best plotter – and often start with a lot more of the crucial details defined than even the average plotter. Plotters frequently admit to a love of pantsing to improve their outlines and details of their stories.

Knowing where your strengths lie will help you bring your novel to completion. Only by having both a great plot and beautifully expressed details – down to the individual words you choose – will you ever finish your book.

 

The End

 

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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 29 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

18 thoughts on “Make Peace With Your Inner Plotter and Pantser

  1. Mary Best says:

    Interesting. I never thought of myself as a plotter or a pantser because I have used both processes. I probably use the pantser more than the plotter though.

    1. Yvette davis says:

      This cracks me up! I often get an idea that’s a mere sentence. I write until it gels, then MAYBE I actually plot out some flesh (flesh out a plot?). And then i write some more until i reach my idea. I’d say, let the juices just flow. Readers understand because they enjoy the end product!

    2. Gerald Kithinji says:

      Me, too, Mary. I fall in-between.

  2. I wish I could sit down and write a decent outline for a novel, but I can’t. I’ve tried and failed several times. I’m resigned to being a pantser. I generally know the opening scene and the ending. The rest I wing it, or rather, my characters come alive and let me know where I’m going. I do keep a running calendar with major scenes or plot points jotted down day-by-day throughout the manuscript. I also edit as I go, re-reading the previous day’s work and refining. At times I’ll go back several chapters to fill-in bits and pieces as the story progresses. Also, I’ll jot down ideas for upcoming scenes and where they might fit into the storyline. It works for me. Still, a well-constructed outline sounds so nice. . . .

  3. I have the general arc of the story, but characters and events pop up unplanned. I love it when they do.

  4. Nico Vinci says:

    Thank you Dr. Fields. I believe good writing cannot be achieved without plotting, and careful pantsering.

  5. Clinton Seeber says:

    Don’t you have a book to go write, Miss?

  6. Shawn L Bird says:

    You missed the quilters- who work in scenes, and then arrange them in the order that works best. Diana Gabaldon is the most famous quilter I know. She discusses her process as finding a germ, writing a scene, polishing until it’s perfect, and then finding a germ for another scene.

  7. Romi Ebeling says:

    I guess I am considered a plotter. I write complete outlines for my stories. Beginning, Middle, Ending. I write Biographies of Main Characters. I keep a Journal for each story. I do not plan each conversation ahead of time, of course, but I know where my story is going.

  8. Paul Fassa says:

    Now I have the actual nomenclature that describes two basic styles of writing. Good to know both are valid and open to individual subjective preferences

  9. Ohita Afeisume says:

    Indeed,”The truth is you can’t pants or plot a book 100 percent.” I have varying strengths in both areas and they come into play in my writing to the degree that I cannot say categorically which one I am. Am I strange? I think not.

  10. Nancy Norbeck says:

    This piece makes some good points, but might leave readers with the impression that successful pantsers don’t ever have to go back and revise–that the product they end up with is whole and complete when the last word is written, and that they are, therefore, as rare as hen’s teeth. Not so. The reason pantsing works for some of us is that we go through an extensive revision process, going back to see what works, what doesn’t, what matches up, what’s dangling off to the side for no reason, etc. The odds of getting a completely solid story after one draft when you’ve been driving in the fog with your headlights on (as E.L. Doctorow famously put it) are low. That’s the point at which your book becomes a plot puzzle you need to solve, asking the right questions to make it all come together. It’s not magic. It’s the work of revision–where the real writing often lies.

    Plotters revise, too. Only the foolish (or immature) writer doesn’t revise at all.

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