Have you tried to plot or are you more of a pantser? In this post, we define plotting and pantsing and look at the pros and cons of each.
First, some housekeeping.
I am a former Pantser who apostatized to become a Plotter for years; as such, I’ve spent roughly equal time in each camp—equal time using both methods.
Guess what? I’ve run into obstacles no matter which method I use.
And now? Well, now I fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum (as most writers do). Rather than working from a strict outline or writing blind, I write with a few questions in mind as a guiding light. This allows me to have a general idea of where I’m going while keeping a sense of wonder and discovery throughout the process. But I’ll get into that more in another article.
For now, consider this metaphor:
- If writing were a road trip, in my Pantser days I wandered around looking for adventure without a destination in mind; some days I found it and others I didn’t.
- In my Plotting days, I had a roadmap and an itinerary: I always arrived on time, but I wonder if I missed out by passing by some roadside attractions simply because they weren’t on my itinerary.
Now, I have a destination in mind; I know the pit stops so I don’t run out of gas, but I ditched the itinerary. If I stumble across some unexpected roadside attraction, I might take a brief detour to check it out.
All that to say I see the merits of both sides. My goal isn’t to argue in favour of one side or the other. There are a lot of fantastic writers who are so dedicated to one end of the compositional spectrum that they espouse an exclusive dogma, even going so far as to say that authors on the other end of the spectrum aren’t real writers because their method is too mechanical or too mystical.
Sorry, but I don’t have time for that kind of negativity and tribalism, so you won’t find any of that here.
- If you are a successful Pantser—that’s amazing! I’m super jealous of your natural creativity, focus, and drive. Keep doing what works best for you!
- If you’re a successful Plotter—bravo! May your analytical mind– your meticulous attention to structure and craft– always serve you!
Okay. Now that we’ve taken care of that—let’s dive in!
The Pros And Cons Of Plotting & Pantsing
When I was studying creative writing in undergrad, it was tacitly understood that, if you ever wanted to be a proper writer, you had to be a Pantser. I imagine this was because pantsing had an almost mystical appeal to it. You were tapping into your unconscious—receiving direct inspiration from the Muses!
The only problem was, for me, instructions were not forthcoming. Maybe I had displeased the Muses in my childhood by sticking too closely to the chore chart my parents made for me. Whatever the case, I would sit at my laptop for hours and stare at the blinking cursor, taunting me, my mind as blank as the document before me.
I would sit like this every evening until a day or two before a story was due to be workshopped. Then—in a frenzy of desperation—I would word-vomit whatever came to mind. Often these stories would start weak, get stronger toward the middle once I’d gotten into a rhythm, and then fizzle out at the end.
But–after we workshopped these pitiful stories– once my classmates and professor highlighted what was working and what was extraneous? Then, in revision, the pieces of the story began to come together for me! And that was thrilling—to see a clear picture of what the story might be emerge once I’d seen it through the perspective of a dozen other writers.
However, by far the most helpful approaches to writing this way were a few techniques my professor at the time taught us: taking inventory, the motivational continuum, and looking back at the beginning to find your ending.
They work like so:
- To take inventory, all you do is find the ¼ point in your story, note what all major narrative elements you introduced up to that point, and use only those elements moving forward; no new characters, no new concepts, no new plot devices after that point. That way, you could be sure there was nothing extraneous to your story moving forward—no loose ends and no setups without a payoff.
- The motivational continuum is a technique Michael Kardos discusses in his brilliant craft book, The Art and Craft of Fiction. It’s simple: on one end you have whatever situation or circumstances the protagonist dreads most, on the other end—their dream come true. If you’re having trouble figuring out where your story is going, reflect on who your character has revealed themselves to be in your draft. Once you figure out what their dream is, give them the opportunity to go after it—your story is the account of whether they achieve that goal. And, to spice things up for your poor protagonist, add in the threat of them having to face the thing they most dread happening at the climax.
- Last, to create a stronger sense of thematic unity, look to your opening scene to help you find your ending—an ironic reversal of the character’s circumstances and fortune in that first scene is often an appropriate place to end.
So, to recap…
Pros of Pantsing:
- Pantser’s often describe having a greater sense of possibility and freedom within their writing process.
- A Pantser has the same sense of wonder and surprise about the story’s trajectory and ending as the reader.
- Often, Pantser’s stories can feel more organic.
Cons of Pantsing:
- Pantser’s tend to struggle with writer’s block and their stories often take much longer to complete.
- A Pantser has much less certainty about their stories viability going in; the story may go nowhere or be unpublishable upon completion.
- Because of their more organic nature, Pantser stories can also feel meandering and tangential, and have uneven pacing; as such, they may require dramatic revision to become anything resembling a true story.
I was introduced to the concept of plotting a few months after I graduated with my degree in creative writing and, while at first I baulked, in time I found my mind expanding with the possibilities it presented.
See, the workshop leader who introduced me to this concept explained that the idea that plotted stories are, well—plot-driven–and pantsed stories are character-driven is a false dichotomy.
“What is a plot?” she asked.
“What the protagonist does, I guess,” I said.
“Good,” she replied. “How do we reveal the protagonist’s character?”
“Through their actions—through what they do.”
She smiled at me.
She was kind enough to trust me to do the math from there. If the character determines the plot, and the plot reveals who the character is—they are virtually the same thing.
“So,” she began, “still think plot is a dirty word?”
I wasn’t sure. I knew I was mad—mad that she would so boldly dismantle a dogma I’d held sacred for years.
But, once I cooled off, I tried the scientific approach. I decided I’d learn about the principles of plotting, try them out, use what worked for me, and dispense with what didn’t serve me.
Over the next few years. I devoured every book I could get my hands on about plotting and the different plot structures. I learned that there as many approaches to plot structure and plotting as there are writers—no two are alike. And, even if ten writers worked from the same general outline, the variety of their unique writing styles would make it so no two stories were alike.
So, even if you don’t think of yourself as a plotter, consider learning the fundamentals of plot and structure—you might find it sparks inspiration rather than stifles it, that it might present new pathways, rather than cut them off. After all creative limitations don’t necessarily pin you in artistically; often they help define your art’s shape.
Pros of Plotting:
- Plotters often report having greater confidence in their stories before they ever start writing.
- Plotters writing process tends to run quickly and smoothly.
- Plotted stories often have strong, even pacing and narrative momentum.
Cons of Plotting:
- Plotting may feel too mechanical—almost scientific— for some writers.
- After plotting the story, actually writing it could feel like drudgery.
- Because they are so orderly, plotted stories run the risk of feeling stilted and artificial.
In The End
In the end, all you need to know is that Plotters and Pantsers represent two tiny cross sections of a vast spectrum of writing styles. No writer is fully one or the other. And there are successful writers on both sides:
- Stephen King is a Pantser who’s so prolific, he proves that approach isn’t necessarily at the mercy of the Muse’s inspiration.
- J. K. Rowling is a Plotter whose work shows that a carefully crafted world and plot doesn’t have to lead to stilted, predictable stories. In fact, they can be quite lively, human, and surprising.
If you’re a Pantser, you might spin your wheels in some stories, some stories might stall out altogether. But, if you prize a sense of wonder and discovery and freedom in the composition process, a few lemons will never detract from the joy you get from those stories that run smooth from beginning to end. The stories that take you on the adventures of a lifetime.
If you’re a Plotter, you might find some of your stories are a bit too similar. They are fine at the technical level, but they feel a bit… mechanical and uninspired. But, when you craft a story that is flawlessly paced, and you stick the ending? Few things are more satisfying.
Wherever you fall on the compositional spectrum, avoid putting down writers in a different camp. Instead, consider asking them to teach you about their method. Go ahead– try it out! See if it works for you. If not, no harm, no foul–keep doing what works for you. But, in trying a different approach, I guarantee you will learn and grow in your craft.
As Hemingway said: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” If that’s true, the best we can do is apprentice ourselves to every writer we meet, to learn with and from our fellow travellers.
by Oliver Fox
Oliver earned his BFA from the University of Memphis (2015). After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch (’16). Currently, he works as a manuscript analyst and is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of The Fantasy Workbook.