“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)
J K Rowling
R L Stein
Rainbow Rowell (semi-plotter)
Hilary Mantel (likes to storyboard)
Kazuo Ishiguro (hardcore plotter)
William Faulkner (go figure- you can’t achieve that level of obscurity without planning)
George R R Martin (though famously coined the term gardener)
Neil Gaiman (prefers the gardener term)
Maas (natural pantser, but has had to plot)
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…
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.
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).
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.
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:
Other posts in the series:
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!