Plotting Vs Pantsing – Differences in Style #9

 

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“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.” – Stephen King

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett

“If you do enough planning before you start to write, there’s no way you can have writer’s block.” – R L Stein

Well, if the title plotting vs pantsing hasn’t stoked a few fires, those quotes surely will have. For those of you unfamiliar with the terms, plotting is planning your books before you write them and pantsing is “flying by the seat of your pants” aka winging it. However, whether you’ve been in the writing community long or only had a casual glance at authortube, the first thing you’ll notice whenever this discussion comes up is the (unnecessary) divisiveness of the debate. Many writers often feel attacked by the other side and can get super defensive… which is why I’d like to have a chill discussion about what the differences are and why both processes are equally cool. Now, I usually talk about outcomes rather than the actual process- which is why this is such a unique topic for me. Because I don’t think you can tell the difference just from observation. Let’s have a look at some famous examples of both and you’ll see why…

(NB I had a great deal of fun researching this, but a lot of these came from various sources/interviews/quotes, so forgive me if I’ve got any wrong- I’ve tried to include as many of these as possible at the bottom of the page so you can check for yourself)

Famous plotters:

J K Rowling

John Grisham

Sylvia Plath

Arthur Miller

Leigh Bardugo

R L Stein

Rainbow Rowell (semi-plotter)

Hilary Mantel (likes to storyboard)

Kazuo Ishiguro (hardcore plotter)

Ken Follett

Virginia Woolf

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Vladimir Nabokov

Joseph Heller

William Faulkner (go figure- you can’t achieve that level of obscurity without planning)

Marcel Proust

Famous pantsers:

George R R Martin (though famously coined the term gardener)

Laini Taylor

Stephen King

Tim Bowler

Margaret Atwood

Ray Bradbury

Pierce Brown

Neil Gaiman (prefers the gardener term)

Maas (natural pantser, but has had to plot)

James Joyce

Mark Twain

Ernest Hemmingway

If you can tell the difference at a glance, you must be a savant. Personally, I found a few surprises (some plot-light authors are on the planning side and there are most certainly complexly plotted stories on the pantser side).

Really though, the thing that came up a lot of the time during my research was “eh I kinda plan” or “eh I sorta wing it”. Schwab, for instance, referred to herself as a “connect-the-dots-er”. George R R Martin, one of the world’s leading “gardeners” famously gave the notes for his ending to showrunners. Joyce was a self-proclaimed pantser and yet he too did extensive research. And I read a fantastic post about all the ways plotting and pantsing overlap. This makes the most sense to me. I for one consider myself a hardcore plotter… and yet this is only true up to a point. Beat sheets are a joy-killer for me, I’ve pantsed a novella and I usually leave subplots/romances unplanned (which helps keep some parts a bit more dynamic). That’s why I think drawing a clear-cut line between the two is a little rigid. Especially as there are pros and cons to both…

Plotting upsides

One of the best things for me about knowing an ending is that it gives a clear goal for you to write towards. Personally, I find it keeps characters consistent, whilst also allowing for growth. If you know where a character has to end up and how it’s different from where they came from, you can chart a clear course. This also may allow for a smoother plot and maybe even a cleaner drafter (maybe). The genres I’d say this is ideal for is thrillers, mysteries and epics- because a pre-planned plot can help you weave interesting setups and even red herrings organically into the narrative. Though foreshadowing in tragedy doesn’t go amiss 😉 I’d also say, as Stein pointed out, it’s a great way to prevent writer’s block and can sooth any nervous starters. 

One of the misconceptions of plotting is that it doesn’t allow for deviation- therefore sucking all the creativity out of the project. Now, this obviously isn’t true in the sense that creativity and imagination has to happen at some stage in order for the story to work- it may just happen in the planning stage. However, I’d say for me (and many other plotters) I tend to think about it more as adding complexity- you haven’t taken anything away by putting a plan in place- you’ve just laid the foundations for you to build on (we’re back to that awesome architect metaphor!) Also, frankly, I’m pretty sure even the most diehard plotters deviate at some point. I don’t think anyone can get away without some aspect of discovery writing.

Plotting downsides

Unfortunately, though, there is the danger of pre-plotted stories becoming predictable. There is also the argument that it doesn’t leave room for inspiration (which I’d disagree with as a plotter- having a roadmap doesn’t ruin my enjoyment, especially since the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry and you never really know where you’ll end up. Plus, creating plans can be a lot of fun in its own right). The most serious argument I have heard is that planned endings give you the danger of veering into propaganda- since you know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it (though, looking at the authors above, I think it’s fairly safe to say the danger is no stronger whichever path you choose). I’d say the biggest cause for concern is that sticking to a planned ending may not always be in the story’s best interest, as a narrative might shift organically over time (the best example of this being HIMYM’s forced ending).

Pantsing upsides

I do definitely see the upsides of pantsing (even if it fills me with utter dread). Because countless pantsers will tell you how thrilling this method is, how much fun they have and how it helps them keep their ideas fresh. It’s known for being open to the imagination and giving the writer as much of a wild ride as the reader. And the results are telling- there are some stellar authors who swear by pantsing. For some people, this invigorating process is certainly the way to go, which can give raw and powerful results.

Pantsing downsides

Not knowing what’s going to happen can certainly have its issues though. The fear would be that after a stellar opening, the story can fizzle out (I know I’ve read a few of those). I also think there is the potential for plots to come out of nowhere or feel random (the upside of this being that the universe is pretty random- so that gives it something of an edge in terms of realism over a heavily constructed story). There is a potential to come unstuck as well (although many plotters will tell you they have the same issue- *raises hand*- and there is always the option to plot/feel/stab your way out of any writing corner you’ve backed yourself into). I think the same final issue of forced endings comes into play- because this seems to be a pitfall for pantsers as well.

Ultimately, it’s not so important which method you choose, because the process doesn’t mark out the end result for greatness. These discussions always allow for the basic truth: all creatives have a different process. No two writers work the same. And, even more importantly, we must take stock of this simple fact:

all men must edit.png

Sources:

https://themillions.com/2016/07/planners-pantsers-write-novel.html

http://www.amreading.com/2016/09/18/what-are-plotters-and-pantsers-hint-j-k-rowling-is-one-and-stephen-king-is-the-other/

https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/549-plotters-vs-pantsers-can-you-guess-which-side-stephen-king-and-j-k-ro

https://thethousandlives.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/fierce-reads-san-diego-stop-leigh-bardugo-ava-dellaira-emmy-laybourne-and-jennifer-mathieu/

http://bookandlatte.com/2012/11/sarah-j-maas-how-i-write.html

http://www.lainitaylor.com/2013/07/

https://yawednesdays.com/2015/11/16/10-things-we-learned-about-rainbow-rowell-and-david-levithan/

Other posts in the series:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

The Art of Fragmentation – Difference in Style #7

Subverting Expectations vs Wish Fulfilment – Differences in Style #8

What do you think? Do you think there are any upsides/downsides that I’ve missed? If you’re a writer, do you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser? Let me know in the comments!

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76 thoughts on “Plotting Vs Pantsing – Differences in Style #9

  1. I am no writer but this is one of the standard question that I ask authors in interviews because I find fascinating that many different writing processes exist or co exist to give us wonderful stories! I think I would have a global plan and then be a pantser LOL

    Liked by 3 people

  2. One of the things I enjoy about the Writing Excuses podcast (aside from the fact that it’s hosted by Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal, among others) is that they recognize that there is more than one way to write a story, and whichever way works for you is the best method– for you. They don’t say that one way is superior to another. They’re just trying to help you learn how to be a better writer no matter how you write.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I’m also a hardcore plotter, research freak, have schedules and character sheets and a very good idea of what I want to write about. Till I start writing to turn those ideas into script. And then I discover how story lines are not coming together like I wanted, how protagonists seem to develop a will of their own or how difficult it can be to describe a scene that only exists inside my head. Last but not least, I’m given to research procrastination and sometimes a little research detail can send be back to the drawing table to rework my plotting line.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. hehe gosh I relate to this so much 😉 hahaha!! That is always the way! I do think I have less of a problem with over-researching- because I always find that I spent way more time on plots ideas and characters than I did on all the other things- so whoopsie! And then I fall into nice big holes I (or my characters) have created for me anyway 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Goodness, I’m glad I’m not a writer. Imagine all the crap I’d have to deal with if I cared what other people thought of the way I wrote?

    It’s hard enough just writing blog posts on a weekly basis 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I first started writing I was definitely a pantser but now I’ve transitioned into a plotter. One of my main struggles with pantsing was fighting the urge to go back and rewrite. I would usually get to around 10,000 words no problem, but then I would be hit with another idea for the book. So I’d go back to rework those 10,000 words. And this cycle would repeat. Now that I’ve started plotting it’s easier to continue moving forward and not look back (at least when working with the first draft).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I relate so much- when I started out I was a pantser, but I made so many holes for myself and had to keep rewriting so much that I eventually sat down and planned out where I wanted the story to go- after that I was able to actually get to the end. (it’s actually funny that you had a similar experience, cos I hear from so many pantsers that they started out trying to plot and it didn’t work for them, so they switched. Maybe we’re all just hardwired to try one and automatically switch to the other 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’d be happy just to know the ending when I start (rather than ‘I’m writing a story about…’) It would save me having to go back and change things when I decide on one. (And that’s only the short stories)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hehe I so relate!! I completely agree that it should be whatever works for the individual!! haha I totally get what you mean- I always think of myself as a planner, but while I was researching this I realised I do a lot of pantser things (so I think most people secretly fall somewhere in the middle)

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  7. Your post has started to drive me nuts. I’m a huge Stephen King fan, and he said once there was one and only one book he outlined… and I just can’t remember (or figure out through Google) which one it was. And anyway, it shows… that book is quite a bit different in style, and perhaps not as good.

    If anyone reading this can remember….

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi! That’s very true of the Dark Tower series as a whole, but I know this isn’t the one he outlined. In one of the middle Tower novels King writes about how he is making it up as he goes (so to speak), and how that particularly made him feel bad when a fan with terminal cancer sent him a letter asking how it would end. King had to say he didn’t know, because it wasn’t outlined, and then the fan died 😦

        I wonder what it was though — man, this is still driving me nuts!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I believe I’ve nailed it down. It most have been the “Cycle of the Werewolf”. The novella started out as a calendar by Zavista with illustrations by renowned comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson. Each month featured a drawing by Wrightson complete with a short vignette by King. King found the size of the vignettes, which were both small and extremely limited, to be a problem. King proceeded with a short novel and had it published by Land of Enchantment in 1983, complete with Wrightson’s illustrations.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. That very well could be it! So here’s the thing: I have read ALMOST ALL of King’s novels, EXCEPT I haven’t read Werewolf. I have a pretty good memory, and I remember him saying he outlined one, but it’s weird I don’t remember what book that was it. It would make a lot of sense if he said it in a talk/Youtube video/interview, but not in the book I read.

            That’s super interesting! I also didn’t know that about the novel at all. I guess I should finally just button down and read it! Thanks!

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Trying to get a hold of the calendar may prove to be difficult if you want to compare both. Pre-internet times. As far I understood it, he was pantsing some aspects of it by taking liberties with some lunar cycles.

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  8. It’s so funny you posted this. I just decided to take another stab at being a “plotter” again. I’m a pantser to a fault, but that hasn’t been working out for me so I thought I would give plotting a try. Everything you wrote was true. Especially in regards to pantsing. The issue is I will chart a course for my story to take, only for the actually story to go in a completely opposite direction, which means chucking the map a.k.a outline overboard. I can plot all day long but I don’t know what I’m doing until I’m doing it. Unfortunately, this means I inevitably get stuck and don’t know where to go. I guess I just keep making a new map each time xD

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh that makes a lot of sense- I was just saying to someone else, I feel like I started out as a pantser and switched. I think plotting is a great way to push through as well. haha that’s totally understandable! I think that makes a lot of sense. Something I probably should have added is that a few times I’ve had to redraw the plan around the midpoint, cos things change as you write them. I see it more as a guide and personally I think it’s okay to change direction if needs be!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a question, do you ever start at the midpoint? I’ve found I tend to get so wrapped up in backstory that it occurs to me I have start much earlier. Then by working backwards I sort of see what needs to happen moving forwards (cause now I get why a character would respond to x event in y way, or who else they would be likely to run into etc.). So my beginning ends up being the midpoint.

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        1. Interesting question! No I don’t- I usually (always) mess up my opening chapter, because I struggle to get a good hook, but (possibly because I’m a massive planner) I feel I start the story in the right place. I can see getting swept up in the backstory, but one way that I get around the problem of starting in the wrong place is that I personally like to have my inciting incident in my opening chapter (usually at the end of it). I do know that a lot of people do have this problem with starting in the wrong place though and sometimes there needs to be a bit of a build up before you can get to the action (hence why my hooks are usually terrible at first- cos I did try once to fill in a thousand years of backstory into an opening paragraph… not a good idea 😉 so yeah I get the temptation with backstory 😉 )

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Really interesting post! The most surprising ones to me were Sylvia Plath on the plotters and Margaret Atwood on the pantsers. Plath has such an emotional, immersive style, and her thoughts always seemed to be the thrust of the story, rather than action or plot. Also interesting because I imagine poetry would lend itself more to gardening rather than planning. And for Atwood, her plots can get quite challenging, so certainly wouldn’t have guessed pantsing. Can’t imagine pantsing my way through the whole MaddAddam series. Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! Both of those were surprising to me- especially Plath- Atwood I was initially surprised with but sort of made sense to me when I thought about it (but that’s going off one book) oh yeah I definitely think that’s probably true of poetry (though have been absolutely shocked to hear some poets say they plan) I think they meant planning her novels though? Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It seems to me the pantsers would be more likely to end up with the more complicated plots, because the plotters wouldn’t veer off into odd tangents as much. Solid outlines would probably result in a much more linear construction. I think it makes sense.

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  10. Great post. As you know, I agree that a predilection for one method or the other is hardwired into us as individuals. I’m a hardwired pantser. Which, as you point out, is not to say that I never do any research or plotting at all.

    At least, I’ve called myself a pantser because I can’t make plot and have the book turn out to follow that plot. But now you tell me this problem happens to plotters too. So I dunno …

    I was particularly interested to find out your opinion on whether a reader can tell from the author’s plot or style which method the author uses. It’s a relief to hear another voice voting that you basically can’t.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! Yes- of course- I think everyone leans one way or the other naturally, but it doesn’t mean we don’t all have attributes of both.

      hehe well, one thing I’ve learned in the process of doing this post is that I’m a very strange plotter 😉 I do have problems with shifting directions- especially as I’m very relaxed about certain parts of the story taking over- but I think for me the endings (or even the last act) tend to go how I think they will.

      Yeah I really don’t think you can- and there’s people commenting that that they’re surprised by a few of those as well. I really think there’s no way of knowing unless the author says it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks for writing this series! I’m really enjoying it!

    It’s also fascinating to see who’s a planner and who’s a plotter among those authors… I think I’m somewhere in the middle. Writing a detailed outline takes all the fun out of it… but if I have no vague summary, then I’m lost. But I prefer pantsing 😛

    It’s interesting to see GRR Martin, SJ Maas and N Gaimain are all pantsers/gardeners though! I think pantsing is very instinctive at the start of a series, but by the end (especially if it’s a long saga), they’ll have to plot to make sure it all makes sense. So that’s my theory. And that’s why it’s so hard to write those last books in a series.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for reading!

      I think that makes a lot of sense! hehe totally get why.

      Yeah it must be really tough to pants their way through series like that- I think I’d be terrified! Once I found out GRRM was a gardener it made so much more sense to me why he takes so long between books. And like you said, it must be harder closer to the end.

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  12. I very much like having a roadmap — in part because I don’t always write in sequence. I’ve been known to skip the beginning until I had a better feel for the characters from writing middle sections, and then going back to write the opening scenes. I can’t (personally) do that without at least a basic outline. However, I always get too impatient to write a detailed outline, so I’m usually somewhere in the middle too. But, I will say that my biggest writing successes happen when I have a more complete outline because I can see where I’m going. I know some authors can essentially use their outline as a first draft because it’s so detailed, but I don’t see myself ever getting *that* detailed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think that makes a lot of sense- I’ve heard a lot of plotters skip around. I’m really chronological when it comes to writing, but I nearly always have to go back to the first few chapters and scrap the whole thing. And I get what you mean there- I always think I’m doing a lot of outlining and then I see what other people do and realise that I don’t 😉 And yeah I get that. Very much relate- the way I actually do my outline is basically pretty simple- there’s no way I could call that the first draft.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I started writing I found that writing chronologically worked best for me, but it changed a little as I got more practice. However, I haven’t really settled into a “style” yet so I anticipate it will change again! 🙂 I am super impressed by people who can outline so detailed that it’s nearly a first draft. But on the other hand, they spend so much more time than I do working on their outlines, so I guess it makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. This was fantastic! I used to be a panster when I first started writing, and I often found that my novels were short and messy. I SWORE by pantsing, though, and would barely plot out who my characters were, let alone the plot. But as I went through both a Creative Writing and intense English lit program, I started to see some of the benefits of plotting. Now, I shudder to think of my pantsing days. Even still, my plotting is very high-level because I think there’s something to be said, as you’ve mentioned, for discovery writing. Things aren’t always going to unfold how we’ve plotted them out, so I tend to re-plot a lot to make room for whatever discovery writing needs to happen along the way.

    Thanks for writing this interesting discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I relate to that so much- I didn’t mention this in the post, but I started out as a pantser, but it just wasn’t sustainable for me either (funnily enough a few people in the comments have been saying they started out one way and then shifted). I really agree with you there!
      Thanks very much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Excellent post!

    I’m definitely something of a planner when writing certain novels, especially if they’re epic length. And yet, also a panster when writing short fiction, usually. And that’s because the story idea is fleshed out as I write, and then buffed up in further edits.

    It really all comes down to world building for me, whether or not a plan, or plan a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There are writers I know who keep everything in their head until they write and then, it all spews out onto the page/screen. But while they look like they’re winging it, they’ve done a ton of research and planning to get to that point.

        Everyone finds what works best for them.

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  15. Wow, this is much more sophisticated than one would imagine. I personally would think that someone who has general success with their books would benefit from saying that they are pantsers, making them seem godly. 😛 I think I like Schwab’s “connect-the-dots” view. A blend of both worlds would be something I’d attribute myself but I haven’t attempted to write a book to know for sure hahah Excellent post! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Great post! I think you really can tell a difference sometimes, especially when an author is writing a series and they might have an ending in mind but not really know the road to get there. I like to think I’m a discovery writer but I actually do better with some planning or an outline LOL. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I love this post!! I definitely am a plotter too — even though I really hate plotting because I struggle a lot with it, I know my writing would go a lot worse without me knowing where I’m going with the story. But I had no idea about all these authors being plotters and pantsers and I appreciate all the research you put into this post!!

    Like

  18. I am currently trying to plot my first story and I am having a really hard time with it. All my other stories, including the one and only book I finished, were pantsing projects and that didn’t mean I didn’t know what the end was going to be, I just didn’t know anything that happened between the beginning and the end beforehand. But with this one, I just thought I would try a different approach. I am really not sure it’s going to work though, because I haven’t even managed to plot the whole thing yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that makes a lot of sense- I hear a lot of pantsers either start with the end or know their ending beforehand regardless. I think that’s completely understandable- I think we all try the other approach at some point, but it can be a lot trickier to force your brain to do something it doesn’t want to do (I actually tried pantsing before I was a plotter and it didn’t work for me- though there are still some projects I’d like to try that for)

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Oh my! I can actually see how writers all around the world are leaping at each other’s throats over that one! 😂 And I always wonder why since everybody has to work out for themselves what works best for them and there’s simply no sense in trying to make others see your way as the only way. I was so suprised that Atwood is a pantser! I would never have guessed that. And I really like the term gardener – I’m one of those, although most of the time I need someone standing with a whip behind me to make me sit down at table and write – that’s one of the downsides of being a pantser for me, the uncertainty of what or rather if my muse comes up with a new idea. 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. hehehe! I really agree with you there- no one can teach another person what their process is going to be! You have to figure that out for yourself! And I get what you mean- initially I was surprised to hear that (though with a little think on it, I can see it). Yeah I really like that term too (also prefer the term architect, I’ve just been calling myself a plotter for so long I can’t seem to change it in my head 😉 ) hehehe I can understand that! I think we all go through that at points 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Very interesting topic! When I attend author events, I always find it fascinating to hear about their writing process and if they are a plotter or a pantser. I do not write, but if I did I am pretty confident that I’d be a plotter based off my personality. I am a control freak, and I feel like “pantsing” would make me feel out of control if that makes sense.

    I am actually shocked that George R.R. Martin is a pantser (gardener). I am currently reading Game of Thrones for the first time, and the complexity is blowing my mind. I am very impressed. I would have assumed that he was a hard core plotter.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I confess I’m a dreadful one for planning and planning, but it’s the only way I’ve ever finished a project so… I guess that’s what counts?
    https://herebeblog.wordpress.com/2019/03/18/plotting-for-non-super-villains-part-1/ – I talked a lot about it a while ago on my blog.

    Mind you, I’ve been forcing myself to write a bit more short fiction without proper plans this summer and the world has not in fact ended and nothing has thus far caught fire, so maybe this could be the start of a brave new era!

    Like

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