Teach Yourself Writing: Are You a Pantser, a Plotter, or Something in Between?

Updated on March 19, 2020
RachaelLefler profile image

I am a self-published author, anime blogger, and my academic background is in art history and the study of drawing.

Whether to be a "plotter" or "pantser" is a common debate in the writing community. Adherents to the "pantsing" process, which is also called "discovery writing," say that you should just write without an outline, "by the seat of your pants." The story will reveal itself to you as you write it.

Other writers prefer a more meticulous, organized approach, so they prefer detailed outlines, calling themselves "plotters." But most writers are probably somewhere in between, organizing the basic structure of their plot, but leaving room for their own story and characters to surprise them along the way. Perhaps it varies based on what genre you're writing in. In any case, it seems like an issue that divides writers.

Also, when you're beginning, one of the first decisions you have to make is whether you want to write an outline first, or just jump right in. And then, if you want to have an outline, you need to know how to write one. There are several methods of outlining imagined and used by different successful authors.

After you've written for a while, you'll realize what writing style works best for the kinds of stories you want to write. And this is talking mainly about novel-length fiction. You don't need an outline for short stories and poetry as often, because short stories are short, and poems are best if they're directly from the heart. A nonfiction book should probably have an outline because you'll want to know how your material is going to be organized by chapters and sections before you start writing. And for nonfiction books, it's important to get a clear structure down.

So then, plotting and pantsing debate really centers on the question: is a novel or series of novels, a long work of fiction, more like poetry, or more like a nonfiction book? And that's up to you individually to decide. First, let's explore the merits of pantsing a book vs. plotting, pros and cons. And then I'll talk about my own experiences with both, and how I came to a conclusion somewhere in the middle.

Pantsing, or Discovery Writing

The main proponent of this approach to writing is Stephen King, in his popular book On Writing. He doesn't use outlines. He believes in thinking up a situation, for example, a family trapped in a car by a rabid dog, and letting that situation unfold naturally through the process of writing about it. That way, you dive right into an existing situation, and it resolves itself through the story's progression in a way that feels natural and logical. King compares writing to digging up a fossil. Your idea is like the small piece of fossil poking up out of the ground, and the process of writing is how you will uncover the rest of it.

The pros of this approach are that your writing will feel more raw, natural, and probably flow better. The ending will happen organically for reasons that make sense. It also makes writing more fun, because you're learning about your characters and your world as you go along. This will create a sense of discovery when people read it as well. The goal is to avoid long exposition dumps, or things that happen because of the plot structure. Instead, you take us right into a scene, which leads right to the next scene, and so on.

Plotting, Outlining, and Structure in Storytelling

There are limitations for this kind of writing, and drawbacks, though. One is that a lack of overarching structure might cause writer's block, or leave some writers wondering about how to end their story. You might set out to write a short story and end up with a novel, or set out to write a novel and end up with a short story. The reason people use popular structures for plots like the three-act structure is that they work. People like stories that are in that structure. Structure can make a story feel more satisfying because it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Even if this makes it more predictable, people are comforted by the familiarity of it.

Most people use instructions and plans of some kind for most everyday tasks. You wouldn't try to cook a kind of cake you've never made before without consulting a recipe, most likely. Or remodel your house without planning out what you will do ahead of time, step by step.

When I write nonfiction on HubPages or elsewhere online, it's similar. I have a well-defined structure for articles. I have a template I use that's the same for every review article. Every list article has an introduction, followed by each list item, followed by a conclusion. The structure is set by me ahead of time, making it easier to get to work. I can change that structure later, perhaps by omitting something I'd normally include, or adding information I normally wouldn't include. But the structure really helps me write a lot of articles more consistently. I can take what works in an anime review article and repeat that success with future ones like it. So, I think when authors talk about the story structure they follow to write, that's what they're saying. This works, successful stories all do this, so you can use this structure as a shortcut too.

The main advantage of plotting is that you know what you're writing. You can, in theory, more easily avoid writer's block that way. You won't get stuck not knowing how to keep up the momentum and continue to build tension in the middle. You won't worry about how to end it, because your ending will already be figured out. It's similar to having a drawing on a canvas, all you have to do is fill in the colors inside the lines, which is easier than making a painting from your mind's eye without a drawing. It also has the advantage of copying the success of popular stories, stories people like, resonate with, even love. People use things like the three-act structure because they work. The structure helps audiences understand and be hooked into your story, while also giving you a kind of road map to follow. It can help you if you feel stuck figuring outpacing, or if you write a couple of chapters and then aren't sure what to do next.

There are many ways you can try to plot a novel. Some people like a lot of detail, some very little. If I have an outline, it generally just describes each chapter in a sentence or two. A roadmap with too much detail on it is hard to read, but you want your outline to have all the details you think will be important. You can also create a separate document for your characters' backstories, physical descriptions, personalities, likes and dislikes, who you think they look like, etc. You may also want to create a separate document for the back story and history of the world, if you're writing fantasy, alternative history, sci-fi, steampunk, or some other kind of speculative fiction. You could write out in detail how your magic system works, if there is one. I also like to write out lists of names of characters and places in the story, so that if I forget a character's name, I don't have to keep flipping back to earlier chapters for it. Scrivener is a neat tool for this, because it lets you have multiple related documents in a single working space. Usually, if I'm doing an outline, I'm doing it on Scrivener. This article gives a pretty good breakdown of how to outline a novel using Scrivener, if you're interested.

Common Ways to Outline Your Novel

Snowflake Method
You start with a basic description of what happens, and then you gradually expand this, adding more detail, until you have a novel.
This method includes detailed instructions for expanding your basic ideas into a final novel.
It's a bit complex and it might not always be easy to follow.
Simple Summary
Just write a paragraph or two summarizing the important plot points.
An easy to write, basic summary gives you freedom to "discover write" and be creative/flexible.
Some writers might not work well with this lack of detail in the outline.
Skeleton Outline
Write headers for major parts of the story, such as Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and so on, followed by bulleted lists of what happens in each part of the story.
You get a good sense of the larger narrative purpose and direction of everything that happens.
Some people may want more specific details, and it can feel too formula-driven, forced, or artificial at times.
By Chapter
Each chapter is a header, and you summarize what happens in each chapter.
You know what happens in every chapter and how your book will meet the required word count, assuming each chapter hits a certain word count. Ex: Goal is to hit 70K words. Average chapter length is 3K words. So I need at least 24 chapters. Book structure is then made clear from beginning to end, eliminating writer's block and uncertainty.
You might later decide to eliminate chapters, add chapters, move chapters, or change the order of major plot events, in which case you'll have to constantly chage your outline, or abandon it.
By Scene
Plan out your novel as a series of "scenes". Describe where each scene takes place, who is there, and what happens.
Gives detail and similarly helps you understand what you'll write before you write it, to avoid writer's block or getting stuck.
Similar to the chapter-based outline, you may end up making significant edits later that will effect the order and number of scenes.
Visual Layout
An outline where you map out a diagram for the story's structure. Can be on a graphics program like Photoshop, or with physical index cards or post-it notes arranged to show the progression of the plot.
Beneficial to visual thinkers. Order of the cards (or text boxes in a graphics program) can be easily changed.
Limited in the amount of detail you can include on each card, because you don't want too many words per card or text box.

My Own Experiences

I'm not sure if I would call myself a plotter or a pantser. I can't' really see working in fantasy or science fiction without some world-building material, not in the story itself, that gives me a clear understanding of the world the story takes place in. I also need research notes if I'm making fantasy that is based on historical fact. For example, my story The Wizard's Book is fantasy. But the plot centers on changes that revolutionize society. This is based on the real-world history of the introduction of gunpowder and the printing press to Europe, which created sweeping, dramatic change. So I want to have detailed notes on that history in my Scrivener document. I consider such notes, background research, to be part of an outline, even if people generally think of an outline as just a description of what happens in the story.

I also had a kind of failed or backfired pantsing experiment. What happened was I was super involved with the first few chapters, then I wanted to pivot and change the perspective character. I was writing on Wattpad and I noticed my numbers of readers drop substantially when I killed off one main character and pivoted perspective to a new character because she had not been properly introduced in the beginning, she was originally a side character, who was barely mentioned once. If I re-write that story, I would have to make sure she seems like the main character from the very beginning. At any rate, the pantsing did lead me to discover an interesting story and build a unique and beautiful fantasy setting (it's underwater and about mermaids). But, I ended up having narrative structure problems I might have been able to prevent if I had done more planning before I began the story.

Now, with The Wizard's Book, however, I'm also seeing the problems associated with plotting. I made an outline that was pretty basic. It was a list of chapters, with a few sentences describing what happens in each one. Simple. But when I was actually writing, things ended up changing. The order of events. The way certain events happen and play out. Where and when different characters are introduced. The "nugget" of my story is still the same, but my outcome ended up very different. It was a similar story with my other works in progress, The Six Maidens, a fantasy novel that started out as a novella, and with Campus Activities, a lesbian romance novel I'm writing. With those, I started with an outline but ended up deviating so much from the outline that it felt like pantsing.

So from those experiences, what I've learned works for me:

Know the basic who, what, when, where, why, and how of your novel before writing it. Whether you keep this information in your head, on paper, or in a computer file is up to you. But you should know the basics. Who is your main character and what are they trying to do? And who is trying to stop them, and why?

Know the why of your novel, most importantly. You should have a clear sense of purpose for why you're writing your novel. Think beyond money. We all want to make money. The question is, how? How, in other words, will your novel deliver real value to a target niche? What will people get out of reading it? Even if you're pantsing or discovery writing, you should have a strong sense of that before you start.

I like to have an outline, but I don't consider my outlines to be Word of God. They're just a rough idea of the general shape I want my story to take. It's like knowing I want to do a painting about a group of Ninetales and Vulpixes. I'm not saying exactly how many, how they'll be positioned, what the background will look like, or exactly how they'll be posed. But I know what it is and what it should include.

The outline is there to help you in case you get stuck, or get writer's block. It also gives your novel the structure necessary for it to achieve the right word count length. It may be important to hit certain word length minimums whether you plan on self-publishing or attempting to win a traditional publishing contract. I usually go for 70,000 to 90,000 words in a novel, but epic fantasy is longer, and erotic fiction, romance, and mysteries are often shorter but more often serialized or episodic in nature. Know the conventions of your genre, but break them when you feel they're too stifling.

The outline might also help you later when you're trying to pitch or summarize your book for the purposes of marketing. Your outline should have your book's "elevator pitch" or a handy summary of what the central conflict is about. That will make it easier for you to write the back cover blurb for your book, or write a quick summary of it for marketing emails.

Essentially, I think writing with a clear purpose is more important than writing with a detailed, meticulous outline. If you have a sense of purpose, it will carry you through any writer's block or problems with the story structure. And formula-driven or formulaic work is usually not great. Formulas can help you sell books to a target audience, but you might get bored and will bore your audience, if your story serves the formula to the letter too much. Deviation and innovation are what I look for in a book, what makes a book really stand out as special within its genre.

The best way to figure out what works for you is to try plotting and pantsing and see for yourself. You can also within plotting try out any of a number of story structure and outlining tips. And within pantsing, there's a lot of room to decide what/ how much background detail you want to have in a document or written down for your own reference. It's up to each unique writer to determine what works best for them.

Happy writing!

© 2020 Rachael Lefler


Submit a Comment
  • Priya Barua profile image

    Priya Barua 

    5 months ago

    You may start out as a pantsing - that's great to keep ideas flowing. But eventually, I believe you have to structure your plot to create coherence, include all the conflict points and otherwise plan your story, especially if you want to write a series.

  • Joyette  Fabien profile image

    Joyette Helen Fabien 

    5 months ago from Dominica

    Great hub! You give some very insightful and interesting ideas here.

    I'm trying to evaluate myself and I think I'm more of the pantser type. However, I do see the benefits of plotting and using established structures. As you say, they both have their merits.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    When I first started preaching I wrote the whole sermon down. Then I just wrote an outline so I did not just read. Then maybe a quote or maybe 10 words. My writing does the same now.

    Great stuff here, thanks for sharing it.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Just did not have time to finish it all. So far great stuff. I will be back.


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