To Pants Or To Plot: Which One is Best For Your Story?
What kind of writer are you? Are you the sort who writes a meticulous outline that tips into the five digits or the type who sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper and lets the words pour out of you like a runaway train?
Did you know there are specific terms for this kind of writing? Writers will come up with words for anything, I swear.
Plotters are the first type of writer. They like to have detailed outlines that tell them exactly where their story is going. Pantsers are the other type of writer, which is kind of a weird name, but the term was coined by Stephen King (a famous pantser) to describe writing by the seat of your pants. Cute, eh?
There is no right or wrong way to write your book, and I’m going to repeat this so many times. The right way is the way that works for you.
As a certified pantser myself, I’m adamant that plotting doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve tried it. It kills my motivation and makes the writing process so boring for me. I like to uncover the story as I go. This is why pansters are also often referred to as discovery writers, since they’re discovering the story as they write.
You’ll read a lot of stuff that suggests one is better than the other. Usually it’s plotters saying that all bestselling authors plot (true story—I’ve seen this more than once). But they’re wrong and you shouldn’t listen to them. Last time I checked, Stephen King was a bit successful.
And you’re allowed to switch. If one way works for you at a time in your life, you’re allowed to try another way. The truth is that most people actually fall somewhere on the spectrum between plotter and pantser and no one is wholly one of those things. So let’s dive a little deeper into this topic to help you figure out your best way to a finished novel—because that’s really the goal here, whatever way you get there.
Plotters, Pantsers, and Plantsers
Like I said, there’s a gray area in the plotter-pantser spectrum. Let’s look at some more specific definitions of each kind of writer.
If you're a plotter, you're someone who likes to plan and outline your story before you begin writing. You probably spend a lot of time developing your story, creating character profiles, and mapping out the major events and turning points in the plot.
To create your outline or plan, you might create a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown or just focus on the overarching plot and major plot points. This pre-planning helps guide your story and helps you avoid any pesky plot holes or pitfalls (hopefully).
When it comes to writing, you probably use your plan as a guide, following it closely to keep your story on track and ensuring you don’t miss any necessary plot points. I have heard many plotters say that even with their outline, their story can veer completely into different directions, and that might be the case for you. (Kind of makes me wonder what’s the point then, but like I said—there’s no right way.)
Overall, plotting can help you to create a solid foundation for your story and make the writing process more efficient. So that’s cool.
If you're a pantser, you're someone who likes to dive into writing without a detailed plan or outline. You enjoy letting the story and characters develop organically as you write. There isn’t too much more to say about the pantser process. If you’re a writer who likes to plot on vibes then pantsing might be for you.
There’s a third type of writer we haven’t really talked about yet, and that’s the one that falls somewhere in between, known as the plantser. Plot + pants = plants. Get it?
If you're a plantser, you might combine elements of both plotting and pantsing. You probably enjoy having a basic plan or outline for your story, but also want to leave room for spontaneity and creativity as you write.
As a plantser, you might create a rough outline or plan for your story, but remain open to changes and new ideas as you write.
You might find your initial plan evolves and changes as the story progresses, allowing you to explore new directions and unexpected plot twists. It’s a little bit of both worlds, and truthfully, this is probably where the majority of writers fall to some degree—some just sit on one side of the curve more than others.
Advantages and Disadvantages
How do you decide what method might be best for you? Let’s look at some advantages and disadvantages of both to help you answer that.
Advantages of Plotting:
Structure: Plotting can help you create a well-structured story that flows logically and engages your readers. It can help you organize your thoughts and ensure your story has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Post-draft efficiency: By planning out your story in advance, you can save time and make the writing process more efficient. You probably won't have to spend as much time revising and rewriting because you already have a clear roadmap for your story.
Prevention of writer's block: A detailed plot outline can help prevent writer's block by providing a clear direction for your story. When you get stuck, you can refer back to your outline to see where you need to go next.
Disadvantages of Plotting:
Lack of spontaneity: Planning too much can stifle creativity and spontaneity. If you follow your outline too closely, you may miss out on unexpected plot twists or character development that could make your story more exciting.
Rigidity: A strict plot outline can also limit your story's potential by forcing it to adhere to a predetermined structure. This can make your story feel formulaic or predictable.
Over-planning: There is a risk of over-planning and becoming so attached to the outline that you’re reluctant to change it even when it’s clear it’s not working for the story.
Plotting can be a useful tool, but it is important to strike a balance between planning and spontaneity. Remember to stay flexible and open to changes, and don't be afraid to deviate from your outline if it feels necessary for the story.
Advantages of Pantsing:
Creative freedom: Pantsing allows for a great deal of creative freedom, as you can let the story and characters unfold in unexpected ways. This can lead to more organic and authentic storytelling that surprises you.
Spontaneity: Writing without a plan can lead to unexpected plot twists and character development. It allows you to follow your instincts and let the story evolve naturally. Personally, I need to start writing down dialogue and character interactions before I can figure out where the story is going.
Flexibility: Pantsing is a flexible approach that allows for changes and revisions as the story progresses. This can be particularly useful if you find that your initial idea is not working and needs to be revised.
Disadvantages of Pantsing:
Lack of structure: Writing without a plan can lead to a lack of structure in your story, making it difficult to create a cohesive and engaging narrative. This can lead to a lot of rewriting and revision down the line.
Writer's block: Without a clear direction, it's easy to get stuck or lost in your story, leading to writer's block and frustration. (But also pantsing has the opposite effect on me, so your mileage may vary.)
Unfocused writing: Pantsing can also lead to unfocused writing, where the story meanders and lacks direction.
As much as I’m a pantser and think it’s a free and spontaneous approach to writing, it's important to be aware of its potential drawbacks. My first drafts are definitely messy, and it’s in the second draft where I really fix things up. It means that in the end, 90% of my writing is spent in revisions, which might not work for everyone.
Advantages of Plantsing:
Something from both worlds: As a plantser, you get a little of everything—the structure of plotting and the spontaneity of pantsing. This allows you to have a general plan for your story while also leaving room for creative exploration.
Flexibility: As a plantser, you can easily adapt to changes as they arise in your story. If your initial plan is not working, you can always modify it without having to throw out everything you've written so far.
Organic storytelling: The plantser approach allows for a more organic form to storytelling, where the story evolves naturally but still has some structure.
Disadvantages of Plantsing:
Finding the right balance: Finding the right balance between planning and spontaneity can be challenging, and it may take some trial and error to find what works best for you and your writing style.
Time-consuming: The plantser approach may require more time upfront to create a general plan or outline for your story.
Risk of over-planning: There is also a risk of over-planning and becoming too attached to the outline, which can limit your story's potential.
Plantsing can be a great way to balance the advantages of plotting and pantsing while minimizing their disadvantages. It offers the flexibility of pantsing with the structure of plotting, allowing you to create a well-structured story while still being open to new ideas and creative exploration.
In the end, I’d argue that everyone plots at some point in their writing. Whether you plot before you ever write a word or if you plot after the first draft is really just a matter of preference. Some people need the structured guidance of an outline, while others want to let things flow before they start working that structure into something that works.
Books for Plotters and Pantsers
To help you on your writing journey, here are some ideas for craft books you might want to pick up. Consider reading one or two from the opposite perspective to gain an understanding of how each method might work for you.
Books for Plotters
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder: This guide to screenwriting is useful for any type of storytelling. Snyder outlines a 15-point beat sheet that can help plotters create a solid story structure.
Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland: A step-by-step guide to creating a detailed outline for a novel. Weiland breaks down the process into manageable pieces and provides plenty of examples and exercises to help plotters develop their skills.
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby: A comprehensive guide to storytelling, with a focus on creating a strong story structure, where Truby breaks down the elements of a story and provides tools and techniques for plotters to develop their own outlines.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks: A guide to crafting a successful story, with an emphasis on developing a strong plot. Brooks provides a framework for plotters to use in creating their outlines, with plenty of examples and exercises to help them along the way.
The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson: Read how to develop a strong plot through careful planning and organization. Alderson provides a series of tools and exercises that can help plotters create a compelling story structure.
Blueprint Your Bestseller by Stuart Horwitz: This guide to outlining a novel is based on the principles of manuscript revision. Horwitz provides a step-by-step process for plotters to use in developing their outlines, with an emphasis on creating a story that will resonate with readers.
The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell: This book is a classic study of myth and storytelling, with a focus on the archetypal hero's journey. While not specifically a guide to outlining, Campbell's work can be a useful resource for plotters looking to create stories that tap into universal themes and motifs.
The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne: While written for developmental editors, this book provides an in-depth analysis on plot beats, pacing, and plot organization for authors of genre fiction. Many authors slot their manuscript into the Story Grid to see where they could improve their narrative structure.
Books for Pantsers
On Writing by Stephen King: In this memoir and a guide to writing, King talks about his own writing process and offers advice on how to approach writing without a detailed outline.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: How to overcome creative resistance and get your work done. This is a great resource for pantsers who struggle with procrastination or self-doubt.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott: In this collection of essays on writing, Lamott encourages writers to approach their work one small step at a time, rather than trying to tackle everything at once.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg: A collection of writing exercises and prompts designed to help writers get their thoughts onto the page. It's a great resource for pantsers who want to jumpstart their creativity.
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron: A 12-week program designed to help creatives unblock their creativity. It includes exercises and prompts that can be useful for pantsers who are struggling to get started on a project.
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: In this memoir about the writing process, Dillard talks about the joys and struggles of being a writer and offers insights into how she approaches her work.
Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner: This is a great resource for pantsers who want to explore this writing horror and dark fiction and need some guidance on how to do it effectively.
No matter which method you choose, you’ll need a place to store all of the information you either plot or pants along the way. Dabble is the perfect tool, no matter what kind of writer you are.
If you’re a plotter, then you’ll love the Plot Grid which gives you the option to map out every plot point, move them around, and plan to your heart’s content.
If you’re a pantser, then you can use the Notes to help keep track of important details, quickly and easily, without interrupting your writing flow and so you remember what exactly you named that cat back in chapter 3.
Try it out for yourself free for 14 days and uncover your best writing style.
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