Plotting versus pantsing: the great debate

A contentious debate rages among authors over plotting and pantsing. At times, the argument draws blood with plotters accusing pantsers of pretending to be geniuses, while pantsers refer to plotting as paint-by-numbers.

Not familiar with the terms? Well, plotters create outlines, whereas pantsers wing it by the seat of their pants. Plotters map and plan out their stories often in great detail, while a pantser writes a story organically.

Pantsers swear by their improvisation method. Stephen King, a popular pantser has a quote on Goodreads that reads, ‘Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers.’ Ouch!

Plotters though aren’t convinced. ‘Pansting (sic) things and going off on tangents wastes a LOT of time’, says Kait Nolan, a contemporary romance author.

Pantsing my great draft of 2014

Before my great draft of 2014, I had completed a significant amount of worldbuilding, dreaming and character research. For over a decade, I accumulated detailed notes on:

  • Geography including maps.
  • Character sheets.
  • Species including their evolution.
  • Cities.
  • Politics.
  • Religions.
  • History.
  • Other sciences such as biology and chemistry.
  • Fauna.
  • Flora.
  • Roleplay transcripts that explore the world and its characters.
  • World limitations (what is and isn’t possible).

However, when I sat down to write my novel, I wrote the story without a formal outline. Instead, I drew on my imagination and the memories from many years of submersion in my fictional world to create the story.

According to The Magic Violinist at The Write Practice, pantsers suffer from writer’s block. This was not my experience as my draft went from an easy 50,000 words produced over NANOWRIMO to over 150,000 words a few months later.

For me, the hours I spent imagining my world helped me to avoid those times where the muse refused to speak.

But, when it came to reading my draft, I wanted to crawl under a rock. Giving my imagination free reign resulted in a discordant cacophony of plots and characters. While I avoided writer’s block, my experience revealed other disadvantages of pantsing.

Pantsing = Flying by the seat of your pants.
Pantsing = Flying by the seat of your pants.

CC0 Image from Pixabay's Intographcis

Advantages and disadvantages of Pantsing

Pro’s:

  • Giving the imagination free reign.
  • Discovering the story as you go.
  • Freeing up planning time for writing the first draft.
  • Not having to re-plot if your story deviates from the plan.
  • Getting the full story onto the page before the inspiration dissipates.
  • Allowing spontaneity and mistakes to foster originality.

Con’s:

  • Not sure where to go next can lead to ‘writer’s block’.
  • False starts: there’s always something else that happened before that scene.
  • Starting a new project before completing the one you’re working on.
  • New characters entering the page at every turn.
  • Dead characters making appearances and other continuity errors.
  • Forgetting the story before you finish writing it down.

Creating an outline

At the end of my first draft, I had over twenty significant characters with multiple, entwined stories. Realising I had to embrace plotting to make sense of my epic fantasy, I turned to Randy Ingermanson’s The Snowflake Method for guidance.

While reflecting on the draft in 2015, I came to the conclusion that my epic fantasy was an outline for a series. Extracting one of the early stories from the draft, I worked my way through Ingermanson’s book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method (2014) and created my first outline.

As well as using the Snowflake Method, I also investigated additional methods such as Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham (1993), and with the guidance of my first research praxis at university, I looked into theories around genre to reshape the extracted story into a workable outline.

Advantages and disadvantages of using an outline

Pro’s

  • Reduced writer’s block with a structure to follow.
  • Greater continuity.
  • Less time wasted going off on tangents.
  • Reduced revision time as the outline organises the story into meaningful steps.
  • Recording ideas and thoughts, so they’re not forgotten.
  • Knowing your end goals and writing towards them.

Con’s

  • Restricted to a set path with reduced flexibility.
  • Too rigid.
  • Doesn’t foster original ideas.
  • Wastes too much time doing planning, rather than going with the flow of ideas.
  • Doesn’t allow for serendipity.
  • Feels mechanical rather than magical.
The mind at work when plotting.
Serendipitous discoveries can occur even when plotting

Image from Pixabay's Johnhain CC0

Discoveries as a plotter

For my second major praxis at university, my aim was to create a new text from the story extracted from the great draft of 2014.

I now had a full outline divided into quarters.  For my submission, I developed the first quarter of the novel; the beginning twenty-thousand words using the outline and additional research.

To help with my planning, I printed out my outline and pasted it into an a4 notebook, leaving a blank page between each page for notes.

The outline:

  • Became a useful guide to review when working on each of the chapters.
  • Did not restrict my ability to make changes.
  • Contained useable actions, goals, conflicts and setbacks.
  • Revealed characters’ intentions, histories and purpose.
  • Exposed aspects that could be withheld or unnecessary.

The final story follows a similar path to the outline. While reflection on my outline ignited some changes, other alterations were made during the creation of the first draft. New scenes were added and some became redundant. Other scenes moved locations.

The outline which read like a summarized story, provided me with an early window into how my story would unfold. This insight allowed me to create an improved first draft. The plotted draft was easier to read than the pantsed draft.

There were plenty of serendipitous moments during the plotting. Rather than feeling restricted by the outline, I felt exhilarated. The outline inspired new ideas and by plotting ahead, I could see aspects that didn’t work.

Plotting helped me to question where my story was going and the reasons behind my characters’ actions.

Five revisions later (revisions necessary at this early stage for my university submission), I ended up with a neatly weaved manuscript containing intricate and meaningful layers.

Plotting with Scriviner
By plotting, I freed up time to complete five revisions before the submission date.

Screen capture of Scriviner

Moving forward with the outline

As I move on to the second quarter of the novel, I have begun making alterations to my plans. I am not rewriting my outline. Rather, I am making notes, squiggles and scribbles and highlighting segments of the outline so they stand out.

I find re-plotting exciting as it means I’m closer to nailing out. Plotting involves reflection on where the story needs to go. Also, by assessing the story threads, the patterns in my minds eye form with clear intentions.

While writing the first quarter of the novel a new character busted her way into the story. I initially gave her a minor role. As her personality and history developed, I realised she was the perfect solution for some plotting concerns in later parts of the story.

I don’t regret axing some of the planned chapters from my first outline. The story still moves along in the same direction. Reflecting on the outline inspired new settings. It also allowed me to see unnecessary detail while revealing plenty of surprises.

By reflecting on my outline and notes for the next quarter, I have realised new setbacks that will add more tension to my story.

Plotting, Pantsing or Plantsing?

When it comes down to it, I don’t think I’m a plotter or a pantser. I enjoy doing both. Muse-like moments come at any time especially when you are in the flow, whether that by writing, revising, planning, researching or reflecting.

Some authors create outlines that read like a short story, while others make notes about their scenes and chapters on post-its, in journals or on electronic cards.

Which term do you relate to more, plotter or pantser? Or perhaps, you identify as a plantser, a term used to describe a person who embraces both methods.

Comments, thoughts?

%d bloggers like this: