Pantsers and Plotters: the core difference

This is a topic that comes up among writers all of the time. We’re always curious how other writers go about preparing to begin their stories. How many times have we been asked, “Are you a pantser or a plotter?” Really, it’s a continuum from one extreme to another, from putting down every last bit of the story before you begin to developing a character and a conflict and jumping right in. Most of us, I would guess, fall somewhere inbetween. Myself, I’m a plotter. I lay out all of the major action in the story from start to end, indicating where character development things are to occur and so on. I usually know all of the chapters and how they will play out before I put word one on the page. Pantsers won’t do this. Ever.

They may try, because a pantser looks at the plotter and thinks, “God, it would be so nice to have things all situated so I didn’t get stuck or run into these stupid deadends.” As a plotter, I look at the pantser with envy because they can just sit down and start writing with what amounts to very little prep work in comparison. The grass is always greener. I have tried in the past and failed. What I’d really like to do is nudge myself a little bit in the pantser direction. It just never really seems to work out that way. Why is it so hard? I don’t believe it is merely a matter of being overly used to one method or another. It’s a mindset, a way of thinking, and the manner in which the writer’s creativity works that makes one method more conducive than another.

What it all comes down to in the end, and perhaps I am over-generalising just a bit to make my point here, is this. For the pantser, the creative joy is seeing the story unfold as they write. To plot it out ahead of time is to basically see the story in it’s entirety and thus it loses it’s appeal. The story is done and there, even if it isn’t fleshed out. The creative energy dissipates. For myself, plotter that I am, my energy drains the more I DON’T know where I’m going. I get the story worked out in it’s basic framework, see where it’s going to go, what it’s going to do, and that gets my creative energy flowing. Look what I’m going to make! It’s going to be so cool to see this come to life on the page. It’s a fundamental difference in approach and way of thinking.

So, pantsers, don’t stress over not wanting or being able to plot things out. You plotters, take heart in your own way. They both work. The key is to use whatever way keeps and sparks that creative energy and allows you to finish that damn book! Now, get writing.

13 responses to “Pantsers and Plotters: the core difference

  1. Good post. Shows we all have different ways of working. For me to plot it all out I lose the impetus to write. I like to be surprised by my characters. When I started to write Streets on a Map which will be published shortly, I had nothing more than a character based on someone I once saw sit down at a piano and sing.

  2. I’m a plotter, too, but I only outline the major plot points and then go pantser on the details. For each chapter or section, I have the major action or plot twist in mind, but I have no idea how the characters are going to get to it. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.

    Also, I start out macro – with a bare-bones plot outline – then zoom in to micro as I go along. I outline a few chapters, write until I’ve written my way out of the outline, then start in with a new outline of the next few chapters. I’ve found that’s a great way for me to stay motivated.

  3. I’m a Pantser. I’ve tried to change that, but I can’t. I don’t like knowing where the story is going before I’ve even written it. I just like writing down the words and scenes as I see them. This post totally outlined what goes on very well. One of the best. Thanks.

  4. This is definitely the most illuminating insight I’ve read in regard to the issue of planning vs. pantsing. It was like a lightbulb went on in my head as soon as I read it — “Yes! Of course that’s it!” Thank you for this snippet of clarity.

  5. For me, I’m an odd mix of both, probably more in the pantser category, however I always seem to have a semblance of the major events figured out. Like, I’ll start with a bunch of scenes near the middle plotted out, then a bunch near the end, then pants the beginning entirely. Then of course, in the middle I play around with a mix of pantsing ideas and plotting where the heck they should go in my rough outline.

    Regardless, it seems to work! I really like your description of the two types. They’re distinct, yet there is room for overlap. This definitely helps me, especially since I love classifying things.

  6. I love you. You just made my day.

    Though actually, I’ve recently amended my pantser technique, by writing the brief synopsis simultaneously as I go. This makes it easier to refer back to earlier events, and catch discrepancies before they turn into nightmares of inconsistency. It also gives me something easy and technical to do when I stall out.

  7. Plotters are the ones who read the directions, line up all the screws, then put the bookcase or lamp together.

    Pantsers dump everything out of the box, look at all the parts, and just start somewhere.

    I’ve tried to be a Plotter (and do envy them) but I’m a born Pantser and have finally come to accept that.

  8. I would like to be a plotter, but I’m not a pantser (“intuitive writer”) either. I need to know where I’m going to write, but at the same time, I can’t seem to assemble a whole story all at one go. I get a few ideas, I write a bit, I have to stop and plan a bit more…

  9. “God, it would be so nice to have things all situated so I didn’t get stuck or run into these stupid deadends.”

    I don’t think that. The grass is quite green over here. :)

  10. I think this is the best description of the difference I’ve read. I’m not sure what I’m going to say next, however, but I trust it will be… oh, wait. I’m stuck. I should have thought this through. I don’t really have a plot at all, do I? I started with a scene, and I just HAD to get it down. I love the characters so much. But wait, what are they doing now? That’s not right… Oh I wish I could be a plotter…

    Yup, you even blog like a plotter.

  11. Well I think I am the polar opposite of you. Yes, a pantser. My first novel I really did try to outline, but after the first three chapters, I had to toss it away because what I had on the page did not fit what I was writing. So now, I tend to jump into a story, and see what happens. Yes it work, most of the time.
    For NaNo, I am writing the second book of a series. I have written out some basic events that need to happen, but that is it. Whether I use them all remains to be seen.

    Good luck!