Plotting vs. Pantsing

Hello, Write Owls! Welcome to Day 21 of Storytelling 101. Today we’re talking about plotting vs. pantsing.

Writers typically fall into one of two categories when it comes to preparing to write a book. Those who plan with outlines, character profiles, etc. are plotters. Those who fly by the seat of their pants are pantsers. Plotters are also referred to as architects and planners, and pantsers are also referred to as gardeners and discovery writers.

Plotters tend to do more preparation work at the beginning of the writing process, whereas pantsers do more work during revisions. Planners are more likely to have character problems because they force their characters into a predetermined plot. Pantsers tend to have problems with their endings because they don’t plan them out ahead of time (Sanderson).

It is perfectly acceptable for you to fall into either category. Every writer has a different system, and that’s okay. Don’t let anyone tell you your way of planning—or not planning—a story is wrong. Some pantsers claim that outlines ruin their creative process, Stephen King being one of them. I’ve heard some plotters say that outlines can’t ruin the creative process and that outlines should make writers more excited to write the book. I don’t know about you; but if Stephen King says outlines ruin his process, I’m going to believe him. He’s done well enough without outlines. If other writers agree, their feelings are also valid. I’ve also seen a lot of craft advice saying that if you have problems with bad endings, sagging middle syndrome, lack of tension, etc., you can fix it by outlining your story. That may work for plotters, but it doesn’t work for pantsers. If having an outline hinders your creativity, it’s not going to fix those problems. It’s something you have to address in the rewriting and/or revision process.

You may not know which of these categories you fall into—and it’s possible for you to be a little bit of both—right away. Try one method; and if it’s not working for you, try the other.

If you want to try outlining, there are many different methods you can use. When I’ve outlined, I write down the major events that need to take place in my story, and then I figure out what events belong in between those major events. You can use the beats from Save the Cat!, the snowflake method, the three-act structure, etc. Though I’ve dabbled in outlining, I’ve recently discovered I’m a die-hard discovery writer. Like Stephen King, I lose interest in my story once it’s outlined. If you want to learn more about outlining, there are plenty of plotters who share their outlining processes on the internet. I’ll be talking more about the three-act structure tomorrow, so you may find that helpful for your outlining process. I also recommend Save the Cat! My professor used it in the novel writing class I took. Understanding story structure helps plotters when they’re outlining, and it helps pantsers when they’re revising.

These are the basics of plotting versus pantsing. If you have any questions about this topic, please leave them in the comments; and I’ll try to answer them either as a reply or in my Q&A on Saturday.

Discussion Questions:

Feel free to answer these in the comments if you want to chime in!

1) If you’ve written before, are you a plotter or pantser?

2) If you haven’t written before, which method are you going to try first?

Works Cited

King, Stephen. On Writing. Scribner, 2000.

Sanderson, Brandong. “Planners & Pantsers (Gardener & Architect).” YouTube, uploaded by Brandon Sanderson, 26 January 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EwI90ZOGRk

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