Plotting, ‘Pantsing’, or somewhere in between

Mariajauthor/ November 5, 2019/ The Writing Craft/ 0 comments

The process of writing a novel can be almost as unique as the story itself. There are three broad categories a writer might fall into – a plotter, a ‘pantser’, or someone who is a bit of both. At the end I’ll let you know which one I am and how that has shaped my approach to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, an online event in November).

Plotting is fairly self-explanatory – a plotter outlines everything until they are sure where their novel is going to go, sometimes before they have even written their first word. Obviously there’s a spectrum to this, but a plotter or planner will usually have a very good idea of their plot, characters and the general sweep of how their novel is going to look. They might even have detailed notes on every scene and chapter that’s going into their novel.

A ‘pantser’ then, does the complete opposite. A ‘pantser’ is one who sits down to write with only a vague idea of the story in mind, who write ‘by the seat of their pants’, hence the term. Pantsers rely on their own creativity and imagination to carry them from one sentence to the next and typically make up the plot as they go along, or even after they’ve written a scene.

You might figure out then that the 3rd category in between these two as a bit of each, sometimes called ‘plantsing’ (a combination of planning and pantsing). ‘Plantsers’ have more of outline of where their story is going than pantsers, or a more comprehensive idea of what might happen to their characters, but still only have a very loose blueprint when they go into the story compared to fully-fledged plotters.

Both these categories– and the middle ground in between – are great approaches to writing. They each come with pros and cons. For example, the plotter is stereotypically less likely to get writer’s block, as they have the overall blueprint to their novel. Plotters may get stuck trying to figure out how to get their story from plot point A to plot point B, or how to move character X’s arc along, but they are less likely to get stuck over what will be the main conflict of the novel or how the novel will end, as typically this will all have been planned out beforehand.

For the pantser, they may struggle more with ‘writer’s block’ in that traditional sense, but stereotypically there is more of a general raw energy to their creativity that can seem more exciting and liberating. Pantsers can get a real buzz from sitting down with little more than the vaguest notion of what is going to happen in their stories.

Typically, they also feel a particular connection to their characters, as if the characters are really the ones in charge of the story and the pantsers are hot on their heels trying to write it all down. E.g. a pantser might say ‘well, I thought my character was going to have a picnic in the woods today, but she obviously prefers the beach because I’ve just been describing what the sand feels like between her toes’.

A plantser then is often seen as the best of both worlds – they have more of a road map to their novel, but also have some of the raw energy/letting their characters hold the reins than plotters do.

While researching for this blog post, I came across a good analogy in this guide (this article is very comprehensive about plotting and pantsing, so I recommend a read if you’re interested!). Imagine you’re thinking of going walking/camping in the woods. A plotter will have spent hours perusing maps and researching possible campsites and will only head out once they have an exact route and journey in their minds. They’ll have also researched different kinds of tents and triple-checked all their supplies and equipment.

A pantser, then, will not really be bothered about planning the trip beforehand. They might take a map and a compass and maybe roughly grab a few tins off the shelf as their supplies. They’ll head into the woods with not really any idea where they’re going, but will rely on their instincts and sense of direction to pull them through. A plantser, then, would have a rough idea of where they’re going, but will be very flexible about suddenly changing course and staying somewhere else for the night.

I think this is a really great illustration that really encapsulates both approaches. The plotter is far less likely to get lost, but the pantser is perhaps more likely to get the adrenaline going and have an adventure while writing.

So, you may have been wondering what kind of writer I am. I am a plotter all the way! I like to have a fully prepared outline, including detailed notes of scenes. I find planning to be one of the exciting parts of the writing process. I tend to handwrite my plot notes, as there’s nothing quite like putting my pen to my notebook to get the creative juices flowing. So, for this year’s NaNoWriMo, I spent the last two weeks or so in October plotting for the project – a contemporary young adult school-based drama. I might fill you in more in a future blog post, so stay tuned!

That said, I have enormous respect and awe for pantsers. I can’t imagine sitting down to write without a plot beforehand. In fact, I did try to ‘pants’ a story once but it just fizzled out, so I had even greater admiration then for the raw creativity of pantsers!

So, if you’re a writer, which approach are you? Or if you’re not (yet ), which resonates with you the most? Would you rather have a whole plot worked out beforehand, or would you jump in with very little planning at all? Or, maybe you’re a bit of both – feel free to let me know!

Till next time,


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