When this topic is raised among authors it can lead to increased blood pressures resulting in heated, defensive, and sometimes argumentative, debate. It is true some hold very firm ideas and can come across as intransigent and accusative. Naturally, as with any such demeanour, those on the opposite side of the fence may consequently feel their hackles rise.
Those who have not come across the terms before, and those who are uncertain about the differences between these two approaches to writing, may find the following helpful and enlightening.
Note: As usual the topic is under consideration from the perspective of an author.
A plotter is someone who plots out almost every detail of their book before writing the first sentence. This usually includes an in-depth outline of every chapter and scene and incorporate details of:
- every character;
- each setting;
- the situation;
- the protagonist’s objective;
- arising obstacles;
- resulting conflict;
- final resolution.
A plotter knows ahead of time what is going to happen and where the story will lead.
The term originates from the old fashioned expression, ‘To fly by the seat of your pants.’
A pantser prefers to write without any forethought or planning, or very little. They opt to:
- pluck ideas from their imagination as they progress;
- let the plot develop itself;
- allow characters to formulate their own story;
- permit scenes to intuitively evolve.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Naturally, as with most activities, there may be positives and negatives to each approach.
- Clear concept of story’s path.
- Does not have to stop midway to decide next scene or action.
- Unlikely to get stuck.
- Diminishes possibility of dead-ends.
- Forces focus.
- Easier to break writer’s block, if it occurs.
- Likely to get book written faster.
- Considerable upfront work with the consequent time consumption.
- Confined to the plan.
- Dampens intuition.
- Lack of spontaneity.
- Any changes likely to have a knock-on impact.
- Because less free creativity, may feel more of a chore.
- Less upfront work.
- Not restricted by defined plot.
- Can take story in any direction.
- Broad flexibility.
- Intuition and imagination have free rein.
- Redirections feel more natural.
- Can easily change anything.
- More likely to get stuck.
- When stuck, have to find way to dig out.
- Story may meander aimlessly.
- May encounter more dead-ends.
- Vulnerable to writer’s block.
- Tendency to abandon project if not going well.
Pantser’s will argue plotting everything beforehand destroys, limits, inhibits, or completely kills, creativity. They feel allowing characters and plots to develop as they progress provides a more natural tale. Plotters argue there is no loss of creativity with their method. They also consider not to plot ahead leads to disjointed, wandering, stories. A plotter believes it is necessary to construct a frame for the story, similar to those used in house construction.
There are also those who argue if a writer wishes to make a career out of their writing, with multiple books, they really need to be a plotter. Alternatively, if someone is not too concerned about a writing career, and only intend to produce a limited number of books, two to four for example, then pantsing is fine. Of course, this is open to debate.
Right or Wrong
Is there a right or wrong way to write a book? Are there rules that determine this? The unequivocally answer to both is: NO.
First and foremost it must be recognised everyone is unique and different and allowance should always be made for individual character and personality.
The truth is, no one is one-hundred percent plotter or pantser. Both will commence with an idea of what their story is about, where it is likely to go, and who the characters will be. By default, the pantser will, even though it may not be in writing, have some sort of plan. A plotter, more than likely before sitting down to draft their plan, will have some intuitive ideas about the story.
The ultimate choice must be the author’s, based upon what they feel is more natural and comfortable. Nevertheless, they would be wise to consider some of the alternative arguments, benefits, and drawbacks.
Of course, this must be subject to individual choice nevertheless, there is another approach that has not been mentioned so far:
In general an outline is an account that:
- indicates the main features;
- provides a sense of the main aspects;
- comprises a summery of the overall content.
Whether a plotter or pantser, authors, prior to commencing, need a general idea of the story and, to some extent at least, where it will go. Detailing how to get from beginning to end; scene to scene; chapter to chapter; etc., is undoubtedly the preserve of the plotter whereas a pantser has the tendency to leave that to their muse. In both scenarios it cannot be argued an outline would not be helpful, whether mental or written.
There is no right or wrong way to write a book. There are just different approaches. An author’s character and personality usually dictate what method they will adopt. However, despite personal preference, there may be times when they should attempt to adopt the process favoured by their opposite. A pantser may benefit from some structure and a plotter may gain from some spontaneity.