Busting the Pantster vs Plotter Myth

We humans seem to thrive on dichotomies. Descartes kick-started the mind/body dichotomy with his famous thought experiment in which he concluded ‘I think, therefore I am’.

In the last century, psychologists came up with the nature/nurture myth, and spent decades trying to work out what was more important to the development of a human being – nature, in the form of genetics, or nurture, in the form of social conditioning.

In recent years, science has busted both those myths. Human beings are neither mind, nor body, they are both, and their development depends on both their genetic heritage, and the effect of conditioning on that heritage.

Yet we, as authors, still insist on classifying our creative style as either pantster or plotter. And I have been as guilty of this as anyone. Ever since I first heard the term ‘pantster’ I’ve considered myself to be one. In fact, I couldn’t understand how anyone could sit down and outline a story from start to finish. Worse, I secretly felt that Plotters must create very predictable storylines.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The truth is we are both Pantsters and Plotters, or at least we should be.

Why? Because a good story has to have a strong plot. Be it Romance or murder mystery or science fiction, every story needs a plot of some kind to move things along, to make the reader want to keep turning those pages. Of course, how that plot comes about is as varied as the writers who struggle with it.

My own personal style starts with characters and the world in which they live. Inevitably however, I always reach a point where the story stalls because it contains no real conflict. In desperation, I flounder around, trying to create conflict from the characters’ personalities, but I soon realise how contrived that conflict truly is. And that is when I face the awful truth – I need some believable, external conflict to which my characters can react.

I am at that point right now with my current WIP. It’s not a comfortable place to be because I can’t see where the story is going. I can’t even see where it should be going.

Back when I was merrily writing about the characters and their world, my subconscious did create some interesting possibilities, and I can see where some of them could take me, but my plot is still more like a set of widely spaced stepping stones than a path.

The weird thing is I can see the final scene quite clearly. I just have no idea how to get there without

a) Making the storyline contrived, or

b) Making the storyline so predictable no one will want to keep reading to the end.

That is my dilemma. I need to create a plot, but at the same time I have to keep myself guessing so I don’t telegraph the ending to the reader. Complicating the whole process is the need to provide enough foreshadowing to ensure the reader doesn’t feel cheated by the ending.

The only way I know to solve this conundrum is to go back to the world, filling in the blanks until I finally stumble onto some obvious ‘facts’ that I have missed, facts that will give me both the way forward, and the way out.

My way of plotting is non-linear, and doesn’t involve an outline per se, but however much I may prefer free-form creativity, I cannot escape the reality of writing – stories demand a plot of some sort.

I guess that makes me a reluctant… plotster? Or perhaps that should be a pantler? Gah! Does anyone have a spare valium?

35 thoughts on “Busting the Pantster vs Plotter Myth”

  1. I do believe you are describing a pantser, AC, because I consider myself a pantser: someone who begins with a premise, has a beginning, some characters and at least a ball park idea of direction; I also know roughly where I’m going to end up. In other words I have a story in my head and, with lots of openings for conflict, I let the characters tell the story. However if the conflict isn’t occurring naturally, as the story unfolds, there may arise a need to administer some seeding/foreshadowing.

    I could be wrong, but in my estimation a plotter maps out the whole story from beginning to end (with plot points, conflict drivers, conflict resolutions et cetera). I’m not saying one is better than the other; although, for me, strict formula writing doesn’t work; neither as a reader or a writer.

    Excellent article, AC.

    1. I understand where you’re coming from TD, and my ‘plotting’ definitely happens during and after the fact, rather than at the beginning. But! I think my point was that plotting requires a sort of global overview that can’t come directly from the characters – because /they/ are too close to the coal face to see the…forest. Ahem, some mixed metaphors there but never mind.

      Whether you write your plot points down at some point, or have the memory capacity to hold it all in your head, you still apply that overview… eventually. 🙂

  2. Though I enjoy books by plotters and pantsters I definitely fall into the latter category as I let my story take me where it wants to go. I have no end in sight when I start and always try to leave myself enough leeway to continue if I want to. Maybe it’s different for me as two of my books have been written in diary form with family as cast and events maybe just ever so slightly exaggerated but my second book was pure fantasy just to see where it took me- to sunnier climes I’m glad to say- but it started with no cast of characters bar me and no storyline except the next sentence that rolled from my pen. Maybe some of us just don’t have the discipline needed to be plotters but have the imagination to be pantsters. Tought provoking piece Meeks.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    1. Thanks David, I’d love to see a great discussion happening here. I’m dying to see what a committed plotter’s take will be. We could end up with fireworks!

  3. Ah, I am a Plotter for the big stuff. I plan all the storylines down to who is the POV, date/time/where, conflict, and others in the scene. It’s all organized in a tidy spreadsheet before I begin the first draft. I know the end, the surprises, and the path through the plot. It’s very liberating knowing those details are already solved.

    However, after I begin writing, the characters take over and they lead me to all sorts of unexpected, silly, and scary places. Guess I’m a Panster in the small.

    Fun post, AC!

    1. Oh this made me laugh Lita! Nice to have a plotter point of view too. The curious thing is how similar the end results seem to be. When I’m struggling with a plot I write reams of plot points with arrows and all sorts of nice organized things. Then I start writing the story and the plot suddenly goes elsewhere. I guess I’m a small ‘p’ plotter 🙂

    2. Lita, I had a bit of your experience a couple years ago when I wrote my first non-fiction, the biography of my aunt who was a prisoner-of-war. I had scads of letters, news clippings and photos that my grandmother collected, so I had all the “plot points” and just needed to string them all together. There was a definite liberation in knowing that I didn’t have to come up with the plot, the conflict or the resolution; it was already a done deal. The hard part was being as objective as possible and not tinting the experiences with emotion as I would in fiction. I decided early on not to either embellish or suppress any of the facts, but simply tell the story as impartially as I could. It was a surprisingly different experience.

      1. Great point Melissa. Non-fiction is easier in some ways specifically because the ‘plot’ is already there. Of course it’s also a lot harder because of the amount of research and organization that has to be done. I moonlight as a technical writer and spent years learning to not write fiction in the same way. Perhaps that’s why I lean more towards the pantster end of the scale when it comes to fiction.

  4. In the end, everyone is a pantser, you can’t write a story with out it. I try to outline a bit and determine my plot points in advance, but as you know, we will always head off on a tangent that becomes an integral part of the story.

    Great point comparing to the other A vs. B debates in our history.

    1. Thanks Jim. I think you’re right. No matter how we /start/ writing, eventually elements from both styles have to mesh if the story is to come to life.

  5. I think the whole thing is not so much a dichotomy as a spectrum. And it has to do with when the writer discovers the story.

    Some writers write down every little detail of the story before writing it. I mean, they actually do a page or two on every chapter first. Then when they writethe novel, they simply use that highly detailed outline to write their story.

    On the far end of the spectrum are writers who come up with a cool scene, or character, or even just a title – and sit down to write a story which flows perfectly from that start.

    Most writers fall somewhere on the spectrum in between those two extremes.

    Every writer discovers their story at some point in the process. Most of us use some bits of pantsing and plotting to get there. 😉

  6. LOL AC. I’ve found that a hybrid kind of plotting works best for me. I still get the thrill of discovery as well as knowing where I’m headed (roughly). I’ll plot out a timeline and fill in scenes I want to include, but leave it open to interpretation. I’ve found I finish manuscripts in a LOT less time than they initially took me and it’s more fun.

    1. lol – maybe that’s why it takes me so loooooong to finish a story! I don’t do that until somewhere past the first 1/3. I really should think about integrating the plotting a little sooner I think.

  7. there, there, let’s sit down and have a cup of tea. I often find my plots in true stories, sometimes from the newspaper and sometimes from my own life. Settle down, and it will come to you.

    1. Good point busby. I once got the idea for a story from the lack of accountability in taxation. Yeah… I know, I’m strange that way. 🙂

      1. Exactly! Real life is often more bizarre than any plot line we might devise. I have a file full of newspaper clippings. Good luck, I’m sure you’ll find what you are looking for. 🙂

  8. At this point, it’s all about getting the job done. Sometimes I have NO idea (zero, zip, nada) where I’m heading at the start and other times I’m positive and I’ve plotted it out. Does this mean I use a chart and have the outline down on paper? Nope. But… I’ve tried it and will try it again. Whatever works for that story, novella, novel, play…

    Right now, I’m completely re-thinking and re-writing a novel wrote years ago. The story was great. The research was scrupulous. But the characters weren’t there, so… I’m recycling the plot, ramping up the characters and reinventing the voice. I’m treating the old manuscript as an outline that I dip into when I need to check something.

    Strange but true! I think that this time I have one leg in each camp.

    1. Yes! Two years ago I had the whole Vokhtah story written. Then I decided to make the first book a sort of ‘prequel’. Unfortunately my ‘outline’ no longer works as written and I’m doing what you’re doing.

  9. Great post, and I completely agree that we’re all somewhere on the spectrum, and usually moving back and forth along it at different times as necessary. I find it’s easy to create the start–the characters, the setting–and easy to decide on the ending; it’s just that middle part that’s a bear! But you’re also absolutely correct about “Complicating the whole process is the need to provide enough foreshadowing to ensure the reader doesn’t feel cheated by the ending.” I just read a book by a well-known author who threw a grenade into the end of the book that just came from nowhere. At the time, I didn’t think about feeling cheated, but now that you mention it, that is exactly how I felt. It just seemed like a cheap shot. Thanks for posting!

    1. Yes, and there are writers who do the reverse too. Sometimes the writing is so beautiful I don’t care that the ending is obvious from the first paragraph. Other times…. 🙁

  10. I teach that it’s a continuum from the person who sits down and starts writing from an idea to the person who plots out every aspect of the story. I’m more to the plotter side, but I still make changes during the discovery writing in the first draft.

  11. The writing process is so unique to each person. What always gets me are the folks who can write thousands of words in a day… I like to think of the writing process as recursive since we all write by the seat of our pants at times, but then the inevitable plotting comes into play as well, though when the need to plot comes in varies so much.

    1. I agree Jeri, the process is unique to each person. Even just from these comments it’s obvious that each of us has a slightly different way of doing things. I guess that’s why I find the polarization so annoying. Not only is it simplistic, it always ends up turning into a ‘thou shallt’.

  12. I call myself a plotter, but my initial outlines are pretty vague. They basically consist of a stream-of-consciousness paragraph for each chapter, more or less, and sometimes include more questions than statements. 😀 I answer the questions as I write, and sometimes that requires that I revamp the outline a little. I’ve also got a dry-erase calendar on which I put the major events in the story.
    And lately, when I get near the Slam-Bang Finish, I’ve been doing another, more detailed outline so I don’t forget to tie up any loose ends. Does that make me OCD? 😀

    Outlining does help keep me on track. I consult the outline and the calendar when I start a writing session so that I know where I’m going.

    However, my daughter is a pantser. I asked her awhile back whether she at least had idea, when she started a story, of where it would end up. Her response was pretty vague. 😀 I can write a short story that way, but not a novel.

    1. lol – not OCD Lynne, just organized! I have a HUGE file that’s full of ‘facts’ about Vokhtah – the world, culture, climate, biology, politics. You name it, it’s all in there because my memory simply can’t hold it all. I also have timelines of events, although I don’t normally start writing them until things get too complex. And then I also do what you do – plot via questions. The only difference between us is /when/ we start this process. 🙂

  13. I tried to do plotting a while back. I ended up writing the story completely different to what I had started with. This is the only time in my life where I have come close to plotting. When they forced outlines on us in school I never could grasp what they were talking about. I still don’t understand it.

    When you see the other OCD moments of my life that sounds kinda strange. I am a firm believer in the proper way to put toilet paper on the roll (over not under). I have even had specific methods for properly eating a sandwich (always star at the top of the bread never the bottom).

    1. -giggles- That’s pretty um, organized Jon. But maybe that’s exactly why you’re a pantster – because it’s an area of your life where the unexpected rules instead of logic or whatever. I know I need things like music, and a mostly pantster approach to stop me writing a manual instead of a story. Perhaps you’re the same. 🙂

  14. At the moment even considering writing a novel freaks me out, so really one would have to sneak up on me, which would make me the ultimate panster if it ever happened 😉

Comments are closed.