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Apr
6
2015

The Pros and Cons of Pantsing vs Plotting -- by Kathleen Sawisky

This seems to be an age-old battle in the “Gosh I wish I was a published writer and had a sweet bunch of honeys that could hang off of my arm” world. If you are a pantser, you fly by the seat of your pants when writing. If you are a plotter, you plot things, as the name would suggest. Given that the Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing versus Traditional Publishing was so well-received, my lovely CP, Ashley, suggested I delve into the dark and mysterious world of Pants v. Plot.

The Pros of Plotting Your Novel From the Get-Go

  1. What happens on page 36, paragraph 2, line 6? I don’t know, but you do because that shit is sorted, my son.
  2. Plotting is like having a map made out of words. A Word Map if you will. •In theory this saves time, so you can get back to that cocaine habit that you promised yourself you’d get back into once the damn novel is finished.
  3. Writing a series? Good news, you can plan out the whole thing, start to finish. Aren’t you efficient?
  4. The aforementioned efficiency also means you’re probably going to create a stronger narrative faster. It’s like seeing the forest for the trees, only the forest is a person, and the trees are all the little points in their life that have become interwoven together and you, good sir and/or madam, see the whole picture now. Like some sort of God.
  5. Rewrites? You don’t need rewrites. Rewrites are for peasants and sycophants.

The Cons of Plotting Your Novel Like the Perfect Crime

  1. Oh wait, you totally do have to do rewrites. Sorry about that.
  2. You’re going to get bored. I mean, like you really will. You’re going to be looking at the same post-its, the same Word Map, over and over for however long it takes for you to finish the novel. Yeah, those notes you scribbled six months ago? Should have written it in pencil, sucker. That point about the dog licking the ice cream cone and then getting hit by a car is here to stay.
  3. Inspiration strikes! Too bad there is no room for this new, brilliant idea in your perfectly crafted 359 pages. Oh well, maybe next time.
  4. You can get sort of obsessive over your ideas, which means you’ve probably told your buddy the same thing about the same scene over and over again because nothing ever changes.
  5. Those dishes need to be done, you should probably do that before you do anything else.
  6. And if you spill that coffee on your Word Map you are absolutely hooped.
  7. You know, your desk is pretty messy. You can’t work in a messy space, can you? I didn’t think so!
  8. If that inspiration is too strong to avoid, you’re going to have to start shifting everything around to fit it in. After all, it is perfect and must be included. Right after you grab a snack.
  9. Hey, how many pencils do you think you can fit in your mouth at on- No! Stay focused! Focus, you bastard!
  10. See, this is the problem when you know what happens next. Unless you’re high or drunk there is a huge lack of that zazzy spur of emotion you feel when you are just blindly mucking away at it. And now there’s a coffee ring on your desk. That’s why you use a coaster, you Neanderthal!

The Pros of Pantsing Your Way Through Life

  1. You don’t have a stick up your ass. If you do, it is probably there for some reason completely unrelated to your writing methods.
  2. Did that bird hitting the window inspire you to some metaphorical allegory about the Holocaust? Great, put that in there. That’s Pulitzer gold, I tell you.
  3. No pants Friday? No pants every day!
  4. You have a lot of freedom to do what you want, which is why ‘Murica is known primarily for its love of pants. Because freedom.
  5. It’s a bit like forging your own way through a forest you’ve never been in before. There is a sense of exploration, but also danger. Is that a bear or a large tree trunk? Who knows! Are you about to run into a dead stump or get your brains scooped out and devoured like some poorly constructed Indiana Jones rip off? Who knows! That’s part of the fun!
  6. No Inspiration? No problem! Put that sucker down and go make yourself coffee! You’re not obligated to finish jack squat until the inspiration strikes.

The Cons of Pantsing Your Novel and Then Leaving it, Crying on the Subway

  1. Day 46 – Inspiration still has not struck.
  2. You could always start a new novel, you know, until this one really takes off again. Yes! That’s a great idea!
  3. Day 1,073 ; Number of new novels started: 863. Crap.
  4. If you are a professional author and someone is paying you to write you will find there is a certain level of, shall we say, pressure to get it done? Have you finished yet? Have you finished yet? Have you finished yet? Have you finished yet?
  5. Why yes, Professor Zildworth did marry the Countess Marie Duplath in chapter 16 after being eaten by an alligator in chapter 14 –wait, what? Where was I? Dear god, what tangled web have I created here? And who the hell is Horace? Why is Horace stabbing the kitchen maid to death with a limp trout?
  6. You also run the risk of getting distra-Is that a coffee stain on your desk? Jesus, how many times do I have to tell you to use a coaster?
  7. When someone asks you what your method is, you do have to use the word ‘pants’ several times and hope that they still take you seriously.
Posted by Kathleen Sawisky 6 Apr 2015 at 01:50
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Responses to this blog

Marisaw 6 Apr 2015 at 04:30  
I think you can debate pantsing vs plotting till you're blue in the face - but the fact is, what works for you, works for you.

I'm a pantster and nothing will ever change that. I tried to do the plotting thing once. I worked on my plan diligently and it came together beautifully. Trouble was, as soon as I worked out what the end of the story was, I lost all desire to write the story!

It was a good exercise — because I discovered why I write. I write to discover what the characters are going to do. If I know the destination, I have no need to write the story.
Onalimb 6 Apr 2015 at 05:15  
I started as a pantser. In those days, could I write fast? Oh yeah. Was most of it garbage? Oh yeah.

It seemed like a waste to keep throwing things away. And I hated trying to dig out all my loose ends, mistakes, and aborted starts. So I tried plotting—and failed. I had to pants some, to figure out what to plot.

But I love to write, so I persisted. And eventually, I found myself pantsing less and plotting more. I still do the same things, but I now do a lot more of it earlier. My outline is still somewhat fluid—if I get new inspiration, I'll run with it—but most of my ripping out and rewriting is done there, in the outline, before I write the first draft. Revising is now more about filling in weak spots than about rewriting.


Candance 6 Apr 2015 at 05:28  
I mostly work in the world of pants because it's so closely connected to gardening. Plotting is difficult when you're trying to keep an open mind about what your characters will do next.
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Ferris 6 Apr 2015 at 09:46  
Coasters can suck it. I live dangerously.
Swat 6 Apr 2015 at 09:51  
No pants friday? No pants everyday!
Candance 6 Apr 2015 at 09:55  
everyday = an adjective (this is my everyday voice)

every day = a noun with a quantifier
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Mssloane 6 Apr 2015 at 10:05  

No pants Friday? No pants every day!


This, my friends, is why I became a writer.

But seriously, I agree, what works for you is best. I break out in hives at the sight of a wall filled with multi-colored post-its and stacks of character description notebooks. But, if that's your thing, more power to ya!

Having survived my first round of edits on my manuscript with an actual publisher, I can see how a bit more planning ahead might have saved me some time, but in the end I figured out ways to tie everything together in a way that made sense. I'm on book three now, and still a pantser at heart, but I've got a rough outline this time. It's just all in my head.
Mccannx 6 Apr 2015 at 10:07  
I think at some point you need to create an outline - because if any changes occur early in the text, they are likely to have impacts that cascade through certain threads in the story. Having some mapping of the story can greatly ease the reworking of the impacted threads. Early on, inspiration can drive your story, but after a point, I think the size of the story gets unwieldy without some kind of organizational tool like an outline.

One question I have - for the non-pants people - is - are there any other artifacts that you like to have before you dive into a novel. For instance, the outline relates to plot - but anything about the internal conflicts of the protagonist, do you think about the two or three sentences that explain the central conflict, etc? Thanks for any thoughts you are willing to share!
Swat 6 Apr 2015 at 10:15  
Candance, I am rolling my eyes so hard right now my cats are concerned I am having a seizure.
Candance 6 Apr 2015 at 11:07  
Gah I meant to include a quick apology with my comment but I got in a hurry. It is a great blog post!
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Sac 6 Apr 2015 at 11:13  
On the pros of plotting, point #2: You'd finish faster if you didn't shelve the coke habit while you wrote. I'm just sayin'.
Card 7 Apr 2015 at 11:40  
I am the same way, Marisaw. I can have a vague idea of where I'm going, but if I know too much, it just becomes a chore to write and little else. Half the fun for me (or maybe more like 2/3 of the fun) is not knowing what's going to happen next.

But as Kat illustrated in an amusing way, it can also mean being stuck when inspiration is not forthcoming. I am guilty of starting new snippets when the story I'm working on feels stagnant. Sometimes I've had to force out a continuation of the plot line, no matter how dumb it seems, just to keep the story moving.
Candance 7 Apr 2015 at 12:29  
Card, the trick with pantsing is to write as fast as you develop. If you wait around and let the idea go stale, you've lost it.
__________________
You can write for yourself if you like, but you're the only one who will read it.

Card 7 Apr 2015 at 12:44  
Good point, CanD. I can think of a number of storylines that I've let fester for far too long and they petered out because of it.
Onalimb 7 Apr 2015 at 12:46  
Quote by: Mccannx
I think at some point you need to create an outline - because if any changes occur early in the text, they are likely to have impacts that cascade through certain threads in the story. Having some mapping of the story can greatly ease the reworking of the impacted threads. Early on, inspiration can drive your story, but after a point, I think the size of the story gets unwieldy without some kind of organizational tool like an outline.

One question I have - for the non-pants people - is - are there any other artifacts that you like to have before you dive into a novel. For instance, the outline relates to plot - but anything about the internal conflicts of the protagonist, do you think about the two or three sentences that explain the central conflict, etc? Thanks for any thoughts you are willing to share!



I agree with you on the mapping. I can 'pants' an easy story, but even for them, it's easier to work out the 'what' in the outline and the 'how' in the draft—less taxing to the sad remains of my brain.

With regards to your question—it depends on the story. Sometimes, I write a chapter or two before I outline. I generally have character summaries, motives, a synopsis, subplots, maybe a rough map, sometimes a timeline. My outline is pretty fluid and so is the creation of other artifacts, though it usually happens either before or while I'm writing the intro/rising action portions of the first draft.

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Marisaw 7 Apr 2015 at 15:16  
Quote by: Mccannx
I think at some point you need to create an outline - because if any changes occur early in the text, they are likely to have impacts that cascade through certain threads in the story. Having some mapping of the story can greatly ease the reworking of the impacted threads. Early on, inspiration can drive your story, but after a point, I think the size of the story gets unwieldy without some kind of organizational tool like an outline.



I use Scrivener to do that, I find it helps a lot. It also depends on how complex your story is. I can see how someone writing a fantasy saga, with a squillion characters moving down through the ages, could get in terrible trouble pantsing. If you're just writing a simple romance with a few principal characters and few if any sub-plots, it's not such a problem.

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Here is my blog.

Thewitt 7 Apr 2015 at 17:57  
If you are not naturally a "pantser" it won't work for you...

Some of us need an outline to write.

Some do not.

Some can use a partial outline and just fill in big spaces as we write.

Some cannot.

If you are a plotter, asking you to sit and simply dump a story out of your head into 150,000 words will result in failure.

If you are a panster, asking you to outline every scene in every chapter for a 600 page book will make your head explode.

Many of us live somewhere in the middle.
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Botanist 7 Apr 2015 at 20:51  
I reckon very few people (if any) are at either extreme of pure plotting (i.e. every detail worked out before you start writing) or pure pantsing (i.e. you start writing and keep going without so much as a glance at the distant horizon until you write "The End"). We all use some of each, in greater or lesser degree. And it would be a mistake to think of it as a straight line continuum from plotting to pantsing. The landscape of possible processes in between is wild and multi-dimensional.

Me? I usually start pantsing the scene that gave me the original idea, which isn't necessarily the start of the story, then plot a broad outline when I come up for air and realize I need to start steering this ship in a vaguely meaningful direction. From there, it's a flip-flop between writing a bit, and plotting when I get stuck or need direction. When I'm really stuck I'll look at the outline plot and leap ahead to a scene that catches my imagination and pants that then go back and fill in the gaps. Rinse and repeat.

I like to think of myself a fractal plotser

There's no right or wrong. The only thing that you'll be judged on is the finished manuscript. How you arrive there is all about what works for you.

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Life is not a spectator sport.
Blog: Views From the Bald Patch Web site: Ian S Bott, writer and artist

Wrdsmth 9 Apr 2015 at 05:23  
I'm sorry, but this is drivel... Hardly pure and anything but simple.

To begin with, if you don't know what you're writing, why bother? This goes for plotters and pantsers alike.

The so-called plotter MUST be mentally flexible enough to recognize when his/her story is not working as originally conceived and adjustments must be made. Otherwise, the end result will be a good argument for literary abortion!

Conversely, if the self-proclaimed pantser has no vision of who his characters are, what they are doing, where they are going... the author may as well be writing a grocery list, though the end result here may only cause the reader to lose his/her appetite.

So the truth lies somewhere in-between? Absolutely yes. Some people are more methodical and lean more toward some basic, concrete structure for their road - the Word Map; while others do better with perhaps less structure and more intuition as they Follow the Sun to their goals.

But both camps are following the same road: start with a concept; envision the people, the problem, the end result. Who gets there first - the pantser or the plotter? That's an individual, case-by-case result. Which is better? That, too, is very personal and something which can only be determined by each writer. So, as our 'Bott-anist' friend, Ian, noted above:


There's no right or wrong.
The only thing that you'll be judged on is the finished manuscript.
How you arrive there is all about what works for you
.



Onalimb 9 Apr 2015 at 05:58  
Quote by: Wrdsmth
I'm sorry, but this is drivel... Hardly pure and anything but simple.

To begin with, if you don't know what you're writing, why bother? This goes for plotters and pantsers alike.

The so-called plotter MUST be mentally flexible enough to recognize when his/her story is not working as originally conceived and adjustments must be made. Otherwise, the end result will be a good argument for literary abortion!

Conversely, if the self-proclaimed pantser has no vision of who his characters are, what they are doing, where they are going... the author may as well be writing a grocery list, though the end result here may only cause the reader to lose his/her appetite.

So the truth lies somewhere in-between? Absolutely yes. Some people are more methodical and lean more toward some basic, concrete structure for their road - the Word Map; while others do better with perhaps less structure and more intuition as they Follow the Sun to their goals.

But both camps are following the same road: start with a concept; envision the people, the problem, the end result. Who gets there first - the pantser or the plotter? That's an individual, case-by-case result. Which is better? That, too, is very personal and something which can only be determined by each writer. So, as our 'Bott-anist' friend, Ian, noted above:


There's no right or wrong.
The only thing that you'll be judged on is the finished manuscript.
How you arrive there is all about what works for you
.





Your post suggests that you believe that this is a contest to determine which method is better. But I don't believe that's the point. For many people, their optimal process evolves with time and practice. Yes, all endeavors will have elements both of planning and spontaneity, but those struggling to find their own happy medium might find that path expedited by the experience of others.

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Botanist 9 Apr 2015 at 07:34  
Quote by: Onalimb

Your post suggests that you believe that this is a contest to determine which method is better. But I don't believe that's the point. For many people, their optimal process evolves with time and practice. Yes, all endeavors will have elements both of planning and spontaneity, but those struggling to find their own happy medium might find that path expedited by the experience of others.
<br>



Just in case anyone misconstrued my post, I'm in complete agreement with this. It isn't a contest. Having said that, I thought the original blog post was an excellent tongue-in-cheek look at pros and cons of one versus the other, because both plotting and pantsing have their inherent advantages and challenging aspects.
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Life is not a spectator sport.
Blog: Views From the Bald Patch Web site: Ian S Bott, writer and artist

Swat 9 Apr 2015 at 08:21  
It's cool, guys! It's satire!
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Fairchild 9 Apr 2015 at 09:29  
I lol'ed a couple times. Good article. I have recently endeavored to put more plotting into my pantsing, and it is good to know that plot-con #2 is a thing. A very, very true thing.
Swat 9 Apr 2015 at 18:48  
Quote by: Wrdsmth
I'm sorry, but this is drivel... Hardly pure and anything but simple.





Come on, brah, don't be like that. D:
__________________
Crease 9 Apr 2015 at 19:57  
I totally panster my outlines.
Fictiondog 9 Apr 2015 at 20:29  
Thank you Swat, for this really interesting and helpful blog post.

I consider myself a plotter, which many people find surprising, considering how much I pant.

I mean, I PANT.

A LOT.

Mouth open, tongue dangling, drip drip drip. I'm from a family of big panters, the heavy fur, you know. It's how dogs sweat. Ask Megrim, she's a vet — Sorry, Swat, what was that? Not panters, pantsers? People who don't plan, but write by the seat of their pants?

Oh.

Never mind.




Swat 9 Apr 2015 at 20:48  
I like to think this helpful list is applicable to a variety of people! Next up "Panting versus Plotting... World Domination."
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Fictiondog 9 Apr 2015 at 21:57  
Again with the panting! But I'm with ya for World Dogination!
Fictiondog 9 Apr 2015 at 21:58  
Oh. Domination. Domination.

Sigh.
Tylermarab 10 Apr 2015 at 22:59  
I agree what works for you works for you, but you definitely shouldn't be afraid of getting outside your comfort zone. If you're a pantser, you should try plotting and vice versa.

When I started writing, I was a pantser then I learned about plotting. I thought I'd try it. I found plotting helped my storytelling improve exponentially.

If you're a pantser, give plotting a serious try. It doesn't have to be intensive and complicated as 100 posted notes on the wall or notebooks filled with pages and pages of character traits, history, etc. It can be as simple as a one page 3 act structure or a feytag pyramid.

Act 1= inciting incident (this is where the protagonist's world is shaking). Story problem and conflict is introduced. Try to end it in a crisis.

Act 2=The story deepens. The conflict is intensified.

Act 3=Story conflict is resolved. Tie up loose ends.


Ambrosiam 11 Apr 2015 at 12:25  
I'm a complete pantser. I mean, I write a basic structure (meaning the main idea, the ending, and what happens about half-way through) but that's pretty much it. I couldn't ever plot my story out chapter-by-chapter. I get bored with it if I know exactly what's going to happen.

Besides, no pants every day is such a good idea!
Marisaw 11 Apr 2015 at 20:31  
I think it's a distortion to suggest that a pantster "has no vision of who his characters are, what they are doing, where they are going... "

I think that's an extreme example of what a pantster is. Personally, I could never sit down with a blank piece of paper and just start writing. I need to have an idea - some interesting characters in an in intriguing situation. That means I do have a vision of who those characters are, and I do know what they are doing. I may not know where they are going but that's what makes it all so fascinating.


Maxc 12 Apr 2015 at 14:46  
I haven't written fiction for nearly 20 years, until I got the urge to write a novel after a flash of inspiration for a story. I'm finding many of the characters take on a bit of a life their own. I have a vague plan for them regarding story arc, personality and the role they perform in the plot - but that evolves the more I write.
The novel I'm working on is an ensemble piece with several major characters - but I'm actually finding the lesser characters elbowing those I envisaged as being the main characters out of the way.
I've also found myself killing one (admittedly minor) contemporary character off unexpectedly, because it seemed a fun way to the end the scene.
That decision has also given me a whole new sub plot to explore - which suggests I'm more panster than I thought.
Maxc 12 Apr 2015 at 14:46  
I haven't written fiction for nearly 20 years, until I got the urge to write a novel after a flash of inspiration for a story. I'm finding many of the characters take on a bit of a life their own. I have a vague plan for them regarding story arc, personality and the role they perform in the plot - but that evolves the more I write.
The novel I'm working on is an ensemble piece with several major characters - but I'm actually finding the lesser characters elbowing those I envisaged as being the main characters out of the way.
I've also found myself killing one (admittedly minor) contemporary character off unexpectedly, because it seemed a fun way to the end the scene.
That decision has also given me a whole new sub plot to explore - which suggests I'm more panster than I thought.
Edwardra3 14 Apr 2015 at 04:46  
I'll flesh out the overall structure and then let the characters decide how to solve the problem I gave them in that chapter.
Bean60 14 Apr 2015 at 07:13  
Just a little note about my pantsing problem while writing my novel. I had written about halfway through when my sister and I went to visit my son who was away at school. Got to thinking about the book when I couldn't sleep on the lumpy mattress overnight and thought, 'The story is way too sweet.'

At breakfast the next morning my sister asked what I was going to do when I got home. I blurted out that I had to go home and kill two people. The folks at the next table looked at me like I had two heads and was about to devour them. My sister just waved at them and told them, 'Oh, she's a writer.'

But I did use an alligator pond to dispose of a body in a short story, buried one in a rose garden. There's no telling what you can do when your computer gets warmed up.
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Jaramsli 17 Apr 2015 at 07:57  
I'm plotting the outline on abstraction level one. Then, by a process of stepwise refinement, I recursively reify each step into instances of goal, conflict, disaster until I get a series of scenes, easy to implement with action-reaction sequences.

Then I write a totally unrelated story, following tangents to the edge of the Universe, forgetting time, space and plot.

This article made me realize that the truth lies in the middle.


Aryllia 7 May 2015 at 08:32  
Personally, I find it much easier to work in new ideas when I'm plotting.

"Oh hey, wouldn't it be neat to gather the whole main cast in a light-hearted Christmas chapter? Hmm, but when would they all be together?"
I look at my chronological plot sheet/story calendar and yes! Year four, after they fight the soul-sucking monsters but before those two cast members get killed, that's just what I need there to cushion the action!

It has also happened that I've replaced a plotted point with a new idea, and the plot map (thankfully digital and easily edited) then helps me remember what has to change from my original map.

Also, it does up the feeling of productivity somewhat, at least for me. I too, have a hard time writing out a scene if I don't feel inspired, even if I've planned it. But that's fine. Put some kind of mark there (in my case, something in all-caps with a hot pink highlight about having forgotten something - usually dialogue), and then go on with another scene I have planned. If nothing else, I scan the plot map for that inspired scene I thought of this morning and add a few hundred words there. Best case scenario, there will be something in there that will either need foreshadowing (add another few hundred words in a previous scene) or is linked to a later event (better crank out at least a hundred words on that while the steam is up).

Then again, I've usually been mentally pantsing the story for years before I start writing down whatever plot-points my caffeine-addled mind have reached by then. I've already gotten to know most of the story's basics by then so I write down the things as if I was telling them to someone (reading out loud for the cat is optional). Then more detail. The remember that this or that thread isn't attached to anything, better tuck it in somewhere. Refill coffee-cup, and remember to use that pile of old junk mail and paid bills as a coaster. Move cup away from the pile of notes and unpaid bills, and put it on the correct pile this time. Make a note somewhere that those bills ought to be paid tomorrow. Maybe not make that note in the plot map.


Mind you, those are somewhat idealized scenarios. I'm also drowning in dirty dishes, am constantly hungry, my cat is constantly hungry and very loud about it, I need to harvest radishes or something in that RPG game and I'm so behind on that webcomic. ... When the heck did it become 11 PM I haven't written a thing today and I don't have any clean forks for my night snack
Ruckeme 12 May 2015 at 19:31  
another pointless article...by the SAME author.
Swat 12 May 2015 at 20:55  
It must be hard to live without a sense of humour.
__________________
Jeremy97 15 May 2015 at 19:16  
I always write whatever comes to mind and, after a great idea appears before me, I go with that. Sometimes I write out a plot in my head and go after I figure out a few strong characters, but I prefer letting my mind do the work since it's very reliable. However my mind loves to be depressing too so catch yourself on a good day unless you want your writing to be depressing.
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