plotter or pantser?


A couple weeks ago reader Jim Duncan asked the following in comments:

CE, I’m curious if you are a big plotter or if you are more organic, perhaps know where you are going to end up but having no clue how you’re going to get there?

and then discusses his own approach, which is to use a detailed roadmap, because ‘the thought of rewriting a story six times to get it right makes my head hurt. ACK!’

Believe me, Jim, it made my head hurt too. :p

I write from a synopsis, because I sell from a synopsis, and generally the book I eventually turn in ought to have *some* resemblance to the one I pitched. What this usually means is that I create a synopsis with highlights of action and emotional story arc and an ending, and then–because it’s written down–I think I know how to get to the end of the book.

Sadly, this is not necessarily accurate. With HANDS OF FLAME–the book that took six rewrites–when I finally got to the end it actually turned out I *didn’t* know why it ended the way it did. I knew *how* it ended, but I didn’t know what blew things up. I thought I did, but I was wrong. Ultimately I solved this by going to an early reader and saying “What question would this character not want answered?” and my friend, rather flippantly, said, “Where are the bodies buried?” Flippant or not, it was the perfect answer, and happened to combine brilliantly with a conversation that same reader and I had had weeks earlier, so the whole thing came together.

In other words, I don’t plan out every twist and turn, though I have at least one friend (Jim Butcher) who does. For me I suppose the first draft is the planning stage, although since first drafts usually come in at or slightly longer than the final book length (never shorter) it’s a very very *thorough* planning stage. πŸ™‚

The funny thing, though, is that I consider myself a plotter. I think all evidence is probably to the contrary, that really I’m an organic writer, a by-the-seat-of-the-pants writer, or pantser, but that loose roadmap I do have, my synopsis, makes me think of myself as someone who plots the story out. (To be fair, the Negotiator Trilogy was the most difficult thing I’ve ever written, and really, if you look at the synopses, they’re *shaped* like the books. It’s just that how I got there sort of turned out differently….)

How about you, Faithful Readers? Plotters, pantsers or somewhere in between?


18 comments to plotter or pantser?

  • I plot by the seat of my pants! Does that make sense? *haha* I plot to a point but then the story can grow as I write it. My problem is knowing where to prune the shrub so it doesn’t grow into a monsterous gnarled tree. I think knowing how far to deviate from the plot is an art in itself.

  • I’m the worst combination there is: pantster, out or order writer, edit every scene at once writer …. πŸ™‚ I have tried other approaches but none worked out. I failed Nano miserably deviated from an outline after 5K words to an extent that the story had moved to another planet, figuratively speaking, and felt itchy if I didn’t edit that crap the paragraph above. So instead of rewriting outlines, feeling bad about not writing 1000 words a day and getting bruises from wrestling that internal editor, I’ve come to accept that my method is very un-German. πŸ˜‰

    That said, I do have some ideas for core scenes in my mind, a list of characters and a geneaology chart for my Roman series in my files, and the framework that History provides me with.

    I think one of the differences is that I do a lot in my mind that other writers may prefer to write down and sort out that way. It’s a scary place, my brain. πŸ˜€

  • Btw, something in here eats commas. πŸ˜›

  • *burps and looks guilty at Gabriele* πŸ™‚

  • You should try it with barbeque sauce next time. πŸ˜€

  • Ooh. I’m a seat of the pants type – with my short stories, I have maybe a sentence to serve as a guide, and then I go from there. Sometimes, it ends up where I intend to. Sometimes… well, I’ve had a romance short turn into a horror short. That was very odd. I’m trying to be more of a plotter now I am writing something longer, although it’s now split off into two, one of which is slipping quickly back into an as-I-go method.


  • Tom

    Plotter. Two things I have to have before word one is written: Plot and Title. If either is missing, no magic happens. And if I’m honest, I’d say the title is more important for my creative process.

    I usually come up with a title, which brings characters along with it. From there I have to wrestle a plot with that info.

  • sirayn

    I’m trying to turn myself into a plotter. Last time I did the seat-of-the-pants thing my novel ended up a gargantuan 210k with a truckload of redundant and repeated plot elements. Plus the ending was terrible. I’d rather not have to trunk what I’m currently working on as well. This time I at least have an ending!

  • When I was in high school, and had to write a paper, my mother insisted I should make my outline first, and then write the paper based on it. Instead, I wrote the paper, then made the outline.

    I haven’t changed much. πŸ˜€

    I do come up with a bare bones outline for my novels, but that’s all. I know how the story begins and ends, but the middle is a bit gooey. The organic style, while slow, does seem to work for me.

  • When it comes to short stories, I write from a purely organic place (though this does require revision). With longer fiction, I usually put a few pages of notes down first, have a rough ending in mind, and then I get going. Sometimes I will take strange detours and have to turn around, or try a new road, and I ALWAYS end up with way too much material. But I see this as a benefit rather than a total time suck. I may not have discovered the new road if I had plotted myself into the corner in the first place. Thanks for the post!

  • Wendy

    I’m pretty sure I’m a pantser. (This makes me feel like I run around yanking peoples’ pants down about their ankles which, in truth I have only done three times in my life.) I begin with a brief synopsis and a list of events I think will help me get from A to Z, and then hit it. More often than not, I wind up with a beginning and a near-end first. The middle…is a swamp of doom, and I’m still not sure how to get through it successfully. This is the part that prevents me from getting anywhere as a writer. I know where my characters start and where I want them to go, but the pieces inbetween throw me every time.
    Currently, I’m trying really hard–for maybe the first time in my life–to be a writer (not just write–you know?), and so I’m trying to force myself to plot a little more. I’m not sure it’s happening yet, and I find myself more than a little crabby with the situation. Something’s gotta give in the ground between pantser and plotter. πŸ˜‰

  • I think Misty and I grew up in the same pod… I plot loosely and then practically look for ways to deviate from the outline. The final product resembles the outline and/or synopsis in some respects. Um…the title stays the same, and so do the names of the characters… I used to outline more faithfully than I do now. I’ve become something of a pantser posing as a plotter, desperately clinging to the illusion that I have a plan, a vision — whatever you want to call it. It’s pathetic, really.

  • I’m a bit more organic, but I tend to at least have a concrete beginning and end and a couple elements of the middle nailed down, like reveals and such. I don’t always have a name for the story. That often comes about while I’m writing. Some major plot point will rise to the surface during writing to give me the name.

  • I am a pantser who is trying to become a plotter because I think being a plotter might help me finish my novel. πŸ˜‰

  • I *must* have a title. I can’t work without one. And it informs the shape of my story, too, so having to re-title a book later is *extremely* difficult for me. Grah! πŸ™‚

  • Well, as I posted before, I plot. Then, I plot some more. I usually start with some general idea, a plot element, perhaps a main character, and always have the ending before the beginning. Once the beginning is established, I then figure out what is going to turn the story around in the middle. Then I break each half in half and figure out that quarter mid-point. I’ll toy with this until it makes sense to me, has the amount of tenstion and conflict I want, and then I’ll start filling in the rest, which gets based on a lot of things from character development to plot twists. When I’m done, I have a chapter by chapter breakdown of the novel. It’s a bit anal, I know, but I require the structure. I need to see how the puzzle is going to fit together, and I’ll stew over that puzzle, perhaps shuffling things around a bit until I feel confident to begin the story. Sometimes it takes a bit of patience at that point because I really want to begin writing it. One bonus about doing it this way. The synopsis has pretty much written itself.

  • Coming late to this.
    I always do both, but with the mixture changing depending on what I am writing.
    Medical Thriller — plotting *very* heavily. sometimes a 30 page, single spaced outline. A little pantser on the characters.
    Thriller — plotting detailed storyline and direction of confilct, (maybe a 15 page outline) moderate pantser for characters and interactions.
    Dark Urban Fantasy — Plotting basic story line(maybe a 5 page outline), detailed magic rules (pages and pages, though this changes as the book evolves). Total pantser for characters and interactions.

  • […] romance novelists I’ve met delight in calling themselves either “plotters” or “pantsers,” using these […]