“So … Are you a plotter or a pantser?”
This question comes up a lot in indie author circles. While only you can decide which camp works for you—or even if it’s useful to put yourself in a box like that—answering the question can teach writers a lot about form and craft.
Let’s begin with some quick definitions.
A Plotter is someone who outlines their work in advance. Whether they’re writing a short story or the Great American Novel, they create an outline, design character arcs, and pre-determine the critical beats of a story before putting pen to paper.
A Pantser, on the other hand, flies by the seat of their pants—hence the name. They let their characters determine the outcome of a story, and it’s often one the author themselves wouldn’t have expected.
We’d also argue that there’s a middle ground—a Plantser, maybe? That’s the writer who does some planning ahead, but doesn’t worry too much about sticking to the outline when they sit down to write.
Whether you’re a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between, this post will catch you up on benefits, drawbacks, and pro tips for the two main writing styles.
How to write like a plotter
There are lots of techniques out there for plotting, but here are a few to help you get started.
- Brainstorm: Most plotters don’t sit down and pluck a fully-formed outline from thin air. They take the time to brainstorm and capture their ideas in writing so they can make sense of them later. Depending on your style, you can freewrite or use prompts to get your creative juices flowing. Whatever your approach, idea generation is the first step. You’re basically filling the creative well that you’ll use to find a story idea.
- Pick a premise: Hopefully, you found at least one compelling premise to serve as the foundation of your story. If you’ve got the germ of an idea, like a character or a setting, but no clue how you’ll turn it into a full written work, try something like the snowflake method. You can start with a small core premise and expand outward from there.
- Create an outline: This is the part that trips up a lot of aspiring plotters, but don’t let it scare you. All you’re doing is outlining the general beats of a story. You don’t have to get every detail; just decide where your main character is starting, where you think they’ll end up, and a few things that might happen in between. What do they want, and what obstacles stand in their way? For nonfiction writers: what problem are you helping solve, and what central themes will help your reader get to a solution?
- Adopt a structure: If you find it helpful to color inside the lines, refer back to the classic three-act structure. If you have ideas for scenes that belong in each act, add them! If not, don’t worry. You can always add them as you go, or take a hybrid approach.
- Develop your subplots: Most novels have one core plot and several subplots. After all, life rarely throws out just one challenge at a time, and the same is true for our characters. Most good subplots spring from believable characters. What are their critical strengths and weaknesses? These will inform the kinds of things that are likely to happen to them. If you need inspiration, read some books in your genre. Many genres have certain tropes readers are used to, and these tropes can clue you into potential subplots and character arcs.
- Fill in your outline: Finally, go back through and layer in as much detail as possible to your outline. You should have the main story already; now, go back and shade in the smaller plot points. Ideally, the outline will be complete enough that a perfect stranger could identify the following highlights on a cold read:
- Inciting incident, rising action, and climax
- Main character(s)
- Main plot vs subplots
Make sure to fill plot holes and feel out the pacing of your story at this point. Putting in the time now will save you tons of rework down the line. (Ask us how we know.)
The pros and cons of plotting
The plotting approach has a lot of curb appeal for the Type A among us—those who love a color-coded chart and spend lots of time front-loading work in the planning stage.
Plotters might spend hours worldbuilding, dreaming up characters, and charting plot progressions. But that time is well-spent because it saves them significant rework during the writing phase.
It also makes plotters less prone to writer’s block, because they generally know what will happen next. All that planning can keep the momentum going on the days when writing feels more like a slog than a pleasure.
In general, plotters tend to write more efficiently because there’s less rewriting involved. They’ve mapped out their story in advance, which means they know ahead of time what needs to be written and what doesn’t. Pantsers, by contrast, tend to meander a bit before they find their core story. This process can mean a significant amount of rewriting when they finally hit upon the core of what they want to write.
Pros of plotting:
- You always know what will happen next, making it harder to get stuck
- Faster, more efficient writing
- Better story structure on a first draft
Cons of plotting:
- Can feel limiting or confining
- Changing the plot means adjusting the outline
How to write like a pantser
Just sit down and start writing! It helps to start with at least the germ of an idea, but even freewriting without any structure can eventually lead to a fully-formed novel. That said, here are some tips we’ve picked up from some of our favorite pantsers that can help you get started.
- Start with character: The best pantsers say their characters determine where the story goes, not the author. To help your characters leap off the page, spend some time freewriting and let your characters take charge. Who are they? What do they want? Go deep. Even if you don’t use everything you’ve written, you’ll get a strong sense of who these people (or aliens, depending on your genre) are, and those qualities will steer the story.
- Reread your work as you write: This doesn’t have to mean editing as you go, although you certainly can. Every day or two, take a look back at what you’ve written. Read it as though you were reading someone else’s work. Where do you feel the story moving? Where does the pace feel off? This will help identify plot holes or sections where things don’t feel right.
- Write an ending: One of the dangers of pantsing is that your story can meander too much without ever finding a final endpoint. Remember that readers will expect some sort of closure, so pay attention to how your story unfolds and watch for a natural exit point.
- Stay focused: Finish what you start. Pantsers tend to start more projects than they finish, so do your best to stay on task. Daily word count or time-bound goals can help with this.
The pros and cons of pantsing
Being a pantser means something different to everyone. In general, though, it means writing without a roadmap and giving your characters the freedom to dictate where a story will lead.
Pantsers don’t spend much (or any) time planning out story structure—they just write.
Pantsing can be a great way to get into an idea because you aren’t bogged down wondering whether your story conforms to a traditional narrative arc, or whether there’s enough action for readers to stay interested. You can just start writing and see where things go, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
That said, many pantsers do have some highlights in mind ahead of time. They may not know exactly what will happen, but most have a pretty good idea of how the story begins and ends. Even if that ending is subject to change.
Pros of pantsing:
- Freedom to take your work in any direction as you write
- Flexibility to add and remove plot points, characters, etc. at will
- The ability to explore an idea without having all the answers yet
Cons of pantsing:
- No planning means it’s easier to get stuck
- You can end up doing lots of rewriting—and you may end up needing an outline anyway
- Less direction and focus means more danger of abandoning projects
So tell us—what’s your preferred writing style? Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between?