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Plotting vs. pantsing: The definitive guide

Which writing style is right for you?

A man in a business suit sits at the bottom of a giant red lightbulb, writing.
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When you write a story or a novel, you’re undoubtedly focused on turning out a good one. That’s the product. But what about the process? Are you a so-called plotter, one who creates summaries and outlines before clicking out your story or novel? Or are you a so-called pantser, one who follows your intuition or your instinct, seeing where that takes you? Or are you both – a “plantser?”

We were curious to know where five well-published authors stand on this issue. Which are they, plotter or pantser? What do they see as the upsides and downsides of both creative processes? 

Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter might depend on your genre or on the stage of your draft, regardless of genre. You might be a pantser in one case and a plotter in another. 

When writing literary fiction, Grant Tracey, author of several novels, confesses to being “mainly a seat-of-my-pants writer” with an eye toward discovery: “I start with a destabilizing condition that places the lead character under duress and then pursue the story’s inner journey. Following the characters’ impulses, I make discoveries as they do.”

Interestingly, however, when writing crime fiction, he becomes more of a plantser. He still believes in letting the characters evolve on their own, without an outline on hand, yet he does see the need to impose some structure – namely, author Syd Field’s three-act structure for screenwriting. “There have to be two turning points that spin the lead character off in new directions. I don’t know ahead of time what those deflections are, but I know they will occur.”

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Anthony Varallo, a prize-winning short story writer and novelist, is also a plantser. When he’s working on a novel, he likes to have a sense for where he’s going “but not know how I’m going to get there, exactly, or what I might find once I arrive.” For example, in his debut novel, The Lines, he knew at the outset that the timeframe of the main plot would run approximately four months. Knowing this helped him determine the length of each scene as well as how each scene would fit with other scenes “along a timeline,” yet, critically, “not what would happen in each scene.” In the pantser vein, he says, “I didn’t try to prescribe what the characters might do, even as I understood how long they had to do whatever it was they were going to do.” Instead, with “no plan in mind,” he depended on them to lead him along from one plot development to another – “with the timeline sort of thrumming beneath the events.” 

In her early novel drafts, novelist Marjan Kamali is a pantser, but when she moves into the revision stage, she carefully plots. “When I started my first novel, Together Tea, I had the title and a vague idea that I wanted to write a mother-daughter immigration story.” She discovered the rest of her novel as she drafted it. “Once the story was down, I put on my plotting hat to restructure the narrative.” 

Her process was the same with her second novel, The Stationery Shop. Again, she began with very little: “I knew I wanted to write a love story set in 1953 Iran, where two teenagers fall in love in a stationery shop. I also had an image of an elderly man in Massachusetts wanting to see again his first love from 60 years ago. That’s all I had. The rest of the story came once I started writing.” Once she’d written the first draft, she turned plotter, thinking “hard about how to rearrange the scenes in order to create maximum emotional impact on the reader.”

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Midge Raymond, novelist and author of the prize-winning short story collection Forgetting English, always begins as a plotter. With her journalism background, she tends to pose questions like “what’s the opening line or scene, what’s the point, who’s my audience, etc.” Yet, says Raymond, “as with journalism, you’re never quite sure where the story’s going to take you once you begin researching – and this is true of fiction as well.”

Even though she knew how her debut novel, My Last Continent, would end, the rest of it was a surprise. “Despite all my meticulous planning and outlining, the finished book wasn’t even close to my outline,” she says. 

During the drafting process, she became a pantser, following her intuition, which resulted in substantial changes from her pre-planned novel: “I changed points of view, added and deleted characters, and changed the structure almost entirely. But I’m so glad I did the outlining because that helped get me get started, and it gave me some direction – otherwise, I might still be staring at a blank page!”

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Yet the pantser route, at whatever stage or in whatever genre, doesn’t work for some writers. As a beginning writer, A.E. Copenhaver, author of My Days of Dark Green Euphoria, found this method unproductive. For her, it led to “a hundred thousand words of amorphous writing” with “no coherence or cohesion.” With so little to show for her three years’ effort, she “dramatically switched” from pantser to plotter.

She’s now a “strict plotter.” If she has a novel idea in mind, she drafts a “proposal” – for her eyes only – instead of jumping right into the writing itself. “I explain what I hope the novel will accomplish, the cast of characters, the themes, a short summary, a long summary, some structure concepts, maybe even some scene ideas. On occasion, a character might end up veering off-script, but that is rare and short-lived.” For her, being a plotter is a lot more efficient because once she’s completed her planning, “the novel essentially writes itself.”

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