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Plotters vs Pantsers

Posted in Just for Writers, and Plot

As always, I find it useful to write a post to clarify my own thinking — this time, about the creative process of writing a work of fiction.

Cartoon of outliningI'm 60% of the way through my current work-in-progress (Fragments of Lightning), and I was just rearranging my hints for the remainder of the book, since my subconscious last night was busy working overtime changing my conclusions about what was important about the events in the second half.

I was so delighted with the results that I wanted to take time out to write this post about how I understand the differences between the processes of outlining a book in some detail in order to write it (“plotters”) and not doing so, flying by the seat of your pants (“pantsers”). Your understanding may be different.

This is my 10th novel, so I'm beginning to get some insight into my own psychology and the creative process. That insight has changed over time, naturally. I spent a reasonable amount of my career writing software, which has to be planned from start to finish, and building companies, which requires understanding how systems are put together, so unsurprisingly I started as a plotter and outlined my first book in some detail. Even then, however, I was flexible about how the plot developed, and things I had outlined had a way of… shifting.

For books 2 and 3, the planned outlines got discarded or altered beyond recognition earlier and earlier in the process, until I was barely using an outline at all for book 4. By the time I started my 2nd series, I was a confirmed pantser. Not only did I not know when I started how the book would end, I didn't know how the series would end, even though it had a compelling quest running through the entire thing which would have to be solved in the end (over 4 books).

One thing about writing into the dark (pantsing) — you learn not to be frightened by uncertainty.

Different structural goals

Plotters are focused on control and a desired ending. There may be a structure that is appropriate for the genre (Happily Ever After (HEA) endings for Romance, as an example, or some of the conventions of Thrillers and Mysteries). There may be a need to keep the number of new characters under control in a long-running series. There may be particular goals for certain books in a series, to help keep the series from strangling on dead ends, or a need for a particular ending to entice the reader to the next book in a series. The author may have a theme he's developed that he wants to be illuminated by the choices his characters make.

The plot is a means of getting to the desired end.

Pantsers are focused on highlights, typically emotional ones. They have characters in an initial situation, and there are things they want to happen to those characters (“he's going to meet someone and fall in love”, “her best friend will betray her”, “he'll be left for dead on the battlefield”), but there may or may not be a particular ending in view at the start. In genres like ScienceFiction, the highlights might even be worldbuilding, rather than emotional — demonstrating the ramifications of an exotic setting, for example.

The plot is a means of holding the highlights together in a satisfying way.

But it's also a continuum (sort of)

While formulaic genre structures have built-in conventions, and people like James Patterson can outline dozens of works for others to write in atelier-mode, most plotters are not rigid in this way. They can change their minds about the details of the path they're taking as better ideas occur to them, and even the endings can shift around accordingly, within limits.

And pantsers can get firm enough about the highlights they want to hit that they might almost as well be outlining the story, where the ending itself is just another highlight.

There are strengths and weaknesses for each of these choices.

Schematic about plotters vs pantsers
Click to enlarge

Plotters – controlled plot

Strengths

  • Planning the focus and progress of different books in a series
  • Avoiding dead ends that cripple later series books, awkward inconsistencies, etc.
  • Creating events that illustrate a theme
  • Controlling the ending and how it drives the reader to the next book
  • Well-balanced structure defined in advance

Weaknesses

  • May have to force characters into desired events
  • Difficulties accommodating new ideas that might derail the planned plot
  • Vulnerability to formulaic plotting

Plotters – loose plot

Strengths

  • Most of what the controlled plot Plotters can do
  • Allows more emotional highlights to increase interest for the readers
  • Allows characters to grow in a more organic fashion

Weaknesses

  • May have to force events to reach the desired end
  • May have to change the desired end

Pantsers – plot with highpoints

Strengths

  • Defines the story as a sequence of (emotional) highlights
  • Allows the world of the story to expand organically
  • The highlights can be organized to define a well-balanced structure
  • Character-centric

Weaknesses

  • Ending may not be well-defined in advance
  • Characters may proliferate unmanageably
  • Dead ends may develop, both for the book and the series
  • Series-structure may be impaired

Pantsers – loose highpoints

Strengths

  • Most of what the planned highpoint Pantsers can do
  • If the author doesn't know how the plot will develop, he can keep readers surprised
  • More of the story world can be opened up for exploration

Weaknesses

  • Most of what the planned highpoint Pantsers have problems with
  • The highlights may not define a well-balanced structure (i.e., the story may feel like a pointless episodic pudding)

So, which is better?

In practice, none of these cases is as extreme as described here. Your choice (and mine) are constrained by all the stories we have read in the genre that we are writing, and if we are paying attention, we will tend to avoid choices too outlandish to fit, or too uncontrolled to support a reasonable structure.

It's more controlled (and perhaps more professional) to work as a plotter, but I think it's more fun and entertaining to write as a pantser, where you know almost as little as the reader how the story will go. In either case, if it's done well I don't know that a reader can tell the difference.

How it works for me

I'm a pantser who plots with defined highlights, in this categorization, and I've taken steps to mitigate as many of the weaknesses as I can.

For my current Fantasy series, which I expect to have several entries, I have a preferred structure (4-act) and a series-specific running sub-plot (each book in this science-of-magic series takes up a new magical discovery) — the sub-plot may be background or foreground for any particular book, but it's always there and gives me something to spark off of for ideas and cross-fertilization, even when it doesn't drive the plot directly.

I have a team of characters which is allowed to grow (slowly) as the world-building expands. The overall series “goal” is the development of the main character and how his science-of-magic discoveries change his world and his place in it on an ongoing basis. Like a growing business, this can go in unpredictable directions, so I'm not constrained by a rigid series goal (e.g., solve the quest).

Unlike a police procedural series, where the team changes slowly and the plots are (mostly) new and external each time (a new crime), my team changes somewhat more radically as the world of discoveries expands, and the plots are either driven by new discoveries, or by issues created by the changes brought about by the main character. So the story world of this series is not the static story world of a police procedural and can't easily fit into formulaic situations (which is a good thing).

What will I think when I've written several more books in this series? I have no idea. 🙂 That's part of the fun.

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3 Comments

  1. It is good to see how other writers write, and how they’ve changed from where their rough start was. Like archaeology.

    The self-analysis, I think, makes progress easier, because you don’t go down the same random paths over and over.

    I haven’t found any other novelists (in my extremely limited experience) who plot with Dramatica. I get requests from novelists on a regular basis for my Dramatica template – and never hear another word from them. I call it Extreme Plotting.

    It is impenetrable, I swear. And yet, every time I’ve hewn to the appreciations (little chunks of thinking in response to particular Dramatica questions) that I’VE assigned to a scene, I find the structure has pulled something out of me that makes complete sense, and the whole thing hangs together. Beat after beat, scene after scene, chapter after chapter.

    I’ve finished writing the first quarter of the second book in the trilogy, and have had to postpone writing for a few months as we prepare and move to our forever home (I hope) in a retirement community, and I’ve just lost all my computer setup, but I have no fear that I won’t be able to pick it up, and continue on as I’ve been writing, until the known end of the trilogy.

    The confidence of over twenty years of writing is waiting to tackle the outlined structure – and add the writing (which I ALSO have no idea wherefrom it comes) – and finish the darn things.

    Sometimes a method and an author resonate. That’s the real magic.

    I even started a Patreon, where the finished scenes from Book 2 alternate with posts taken from the copious notes on process I produce for each scene, and I wonder if many people will ever be interested. I may write the book on using Dramatica for novels some day.

    But, like you, I write as I go about writing – to clear it all up for myself. Then, the urge to share (Look! Shiny!) takes over. Funny people, writers.

    July 8, 2018
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  2. Remember, movies and screenplays in general are far more rigid about structure than books are. With a watch in your hand, you can easily identify every plot point in a TV show or movie just by checking where they are in the total timeline — it’s ridiculously easy to do.

    I might not be able to predict the exact events that mark the structural hinges, but I can forecast them just about down to the second.

    Screenplay-writing tools are going to incorporate that requirement, of course.

    July 8, 2018
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