Plotting vs. Pantsing: A Plea to End the War

by Jon

National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner, and I’m filled with giddy anticipation for another whole month dedicated to enabling writers. But after four years of successful NaNoWriMos, both as a participant and sometimes co-host of a local write-in, I cringe at the inevitable revival of the civil war:

Do you plot, or do you pants?

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the gist of it:

A “plotter” is someone who spends some significant amount of time planning out their story before they write it. That might mean making notes, writing rough outlines, or sitting on the floor in a sea of sticky-notes, arranging and rearranging their plot, characters, arcs, what have you. Only when that’s out of the way do they start writing the actual story.

A “pantser” is someone who doesn’t plan their story in advance of writing it, who “flies by the seat of their pants”. They may start with just a single scene, character, broad idea, or perhaps even nothing at all; when the time comes to write, they just go where their minds take them.

They’re two different styles, so let’s get this out of the way now: neither is objectively better than the other. They exist on a spectrum, and great stories can be found on both sides and everywhere in between. Each and every writer needs to discover for themselves where on the spectrum they produce their best work.

I wish that’s all that I need say on the topic, but believe me, some people just can’t leave it at that. Every year writers on both sides rear up and slash at one another, each trying to claim superiority while intimidating away potential new writers. So if you’re new to the struggle, let me lay down everything you’re going to hear so you can sidestep the war until its veterans grow up or burn out.

Let’s start with two straw-men on the extreme ends of the spectrum: the absolute plotter and the absolute pantser.

The absolute plotter doesn’t start writing the story until they’ve written the story. Their outlines are so complete, they literally read off a line of outline, and write it down verbatim into their manuscript. There are no surprises, nothing decided on the fly. If you, as the reader, read the outline, you’ve read the story.

The absolute pantser doesn’t even know they’re writing a story until they start writing it. They don’t think about anything in advance: every word, every line, is a straight stream-of-conscious live stream onto the page. You the reader can’t possibly know where the story is going because the writer doesn’t even know.

I submit that for a story of non-trivial merit (define that as you will), neither of these extremes succeed in the real world. And that every writer, no matter what side they may self-associate with, actually exists somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes. No plotter’s story is a line-by-line copy of their outline, and no panster writes free from the knowledge of the lines they’ve just written.

So if everyone is somewhere in the middle, what are the arguments for veering toward either side?

Plotter arguments usually fall around the structural benefits of early notes and outlines. Outlines help ensure plots are complete (beginning, middle, end), and that subplots don’t get left behind. Outlines let us stage longer story arcs, seeding items early on that will come up later, and let us identify pace and plot problems before writing them. Outlines also help us avoid the threat of writer’s block, by giving us a road-map to follow. Notes keep our world and characters internally consistent: Blueberry Hill is always east of town, the main character always has green eyes, etc.

Pantser arguments usually fall around the aesthetics of the writing, and benefits of the spontaneous creative tradition. Story writing is as much a journey for the author as for the reader, and not knowing what’s going to come next is part of the fun. The act of writing itself gets our best creative juices flowing, and when “plot bunnies” – new story ideas that nag at us until we write them – arise, there’s nothing stopping us from running with them. We also get to start writing right away, as ultimately we can’t know for sure if a scene or story idea will work until we try it, and see it on the page.

That’s all fine and good, so where does the bad blood come in? Let’s start with what plotters have to say about pantsers:

Pantsed stories tend to meander and lead the reader nowhere. Stream-of-conscious writing taxes the reader, and it’s harder to interleave multiple story arcs without some kind of plan as to how and when that interleaving will happen. You’re more likely to forget about subplots and even whole characters, leaving the reader questioning why they were involved to begin with. You’re more likely to introduce inconsistencies if you don’t have some easy reference for the things you’ve already established. When you get writer’s block, and everybody does at some point, you won’t have the benefit of knowing where you’re going to help you get back on track. A series of random happenstances with no impact on the future might entertain, but ultimately don’t reward the reader for paying attention. Pantsers will waste a lot of time rewriting to fix all the problems they introduced while writing, problems they might have avoided by just thinking ahead and sketching an outline in advance.

So the, what do pantsers have to say about plotters?

Plotted stories are rigid and preordained by the outline. If you the writer can plan it out in advance, it’s that much more likely the reader will know where the story is going, and your “surprises” won’t be as surprising as you think. Having an outline doesn’t immunize you from making mistakes, but it might give you a false sense of confidence that blinds you to your own inconsistencies, plot holes, character disappearances, and unfinished subplots. Following an outline risks locking out any new ideas that arise while writing- either you plow ahead with the original plan, or waste time restructuring your outline when you should be writing. Worse, you might get so obsessed perfecting your outline, that you never even write the story! How many stories are never written, simply because the plotter wasn’t confident enough in their outline? Pre-planning is a lot of work that might not be your best, and even if you follow the outline to the letter, who’s to say you won’t have to re-write the story anyway?

Finally there’s one attack from both sides that I feel I need to tackle separately:

If you don’t use style X, you’re not making art, where X is whichever side the attacker uses.

It’s judgmental, elitist and downright insulting to artists everywhere. No one has a monopoly on the definition of art, and in the digital age, with its explosion of creativity, such attacks only serve to divide and belittle others. It’s legacy, country club, “there goes the neighborhood” thinking. It hurts fledgling artists, at best intimidating them into using a style that doesn’t work for them, at worst scaring them away from trying in the first place.

If you’re guilty of using “it’s not art”: cut it out. It’s bullying any way you slice it.

Here’s the secret, your ace-in-the-hole argument to shut up either side: revision and editing. Your first draft is just the beginning, so find the style that enables you, and gets you that first draft. NaNoWriMo is all about first drafts, and it’s a great time to experiment. Just remember that in the end, no matter how good of a writer you think you are, if you’re serious about writing and of the piece you’ve just written, you’ve still got a few more drafts to go. The real work is still ahead.

Now to the war veterans, fellow NaNoers, and experienced writers everywhere: November is coming around the bend, and a whole new generation of writers are eager to test their pens. Many will be scared, nervous, and unsure; many will seek our help and guidance.

Let’s put an end to this pointless civil war. Let’s treat attacks from both sides for what they are: trolling at best, bullying at worse. Let’s say the attacks aren’t acceptable any more. Let’s encourage experimentation across the spectrum, and not try to browbeat others into our own styles.

Maybe even try a style outside of your comfort zone- the experience might surprise you.

Okay, time to get off my soapbox and get back to writing. See you in November!

/jon

P.S. Because I know people will ask, I probably align more on the plotter side of the spectrum. I keep copious notes, and I use a rough outline of scenes, each summarized in a single sentence. As my girlfriend often says: “There has to be a plan. The plan can change, but there has to be a plan.” (Ironically she identifies as a pantser- go figure.)

But just because I have an outline, doesn’t mean the outline has me. I’ve signed no contract: if the story is the ocean, and the climax is the shore, my outline is but one route to land. I’m neither tethered to the route nor floating adrift; I’m a surfer cutting my own path, adjusting to new ideas, plot bunnies, bad planning, and all the spontaneous waves and currents that come once the writing has begun.

The outline is not sacrosanct: I add new scenes as I need them, stop mid-story to re-tool and re-architect the outline when the story is going in a new direction I like. When the story meanders away from the outline in a way I don’t like, I stop the tangent and start the next scene according to plan, leaving a note to fix things later.

I didn’t start with my current process: I’ve experimented all over the pants-plots spectrum, with success on both ends. Where I’ve landed works for me, where I feel I do my best work. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

I sincerely hope you too can find a style that works for you.

P.P.S. Thanks to Girlfriend Anne for her feedback.