If you are a writer, are you a plotter or a pantser?

A plotter is someone who works out the outline of their story before they write – generally they have everything worked out, characters fleshed-out, the story and its resolution completely decided before they write. I’m currently reading “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett on the recommendation of a fellow OC Babe. I recently saw him interviewed by Oprah and, much to my amazement, he said he had taken a full year to completely plot the book before he even started writing a word of it. He had every single chapter worked out, every single plot point decided. Now, this book is over 1,000 pages with many, many characters, and I think it would be almost impossible to write without a plan to guide you.

A pantser ( from the saying ‘flying by the seat of your pants’) is someone who writes as they go, who just lets the story guide them. They might have some idea of how the story is going to progress, but they don’t have any formal plan.

A cute medical analogy from the Story Fix link below is that pantsing and plotting are different in the way that exploratory surgery is different  to an appendectomy.

I sit somewhere between both. At first I’m a pantser. And then a plotter. And then I might go back to being a pantser for the last few chapters. (Apparently it’s called being an organic writer – glad to know there’s a pigeon hole for everyone…)

I love starting a story with a fantastic opening scene in my head and then finding out, as I write, what is going to happen to my characters and their situation. Then, about two-thirds of the way through, once I’ve discovered the surprises and I’ve worked out where things are heading, I do a little plotting. I go back and see if the earlier chapters provide the right clues and hints as to where the story is heading. I go back and make sure that my characters’ motivations and behaviour are consistent and work to explain the plot and their actions as the story progresses. My final chapter/s are often a bit more ‘pantsing’ and can sometimes even surprise me as something unexpected happens. Of course that then requires another bit of ‘plotting’ and going back and reviewing the story as a whole again.

I was quite excited when I found The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning at the Story Fix blog. It has some really useful points about what key things you really need to focus on when you are a pantser. There are some essential elements to any well-constructed and smoothly-flowing story that even pantsers can’t afford to ignore. I like this approach because while I can see the value of ensuring you cover off these key elements, I simply can’t plot in advance without it completely ruining the joy of the writing process for me.

My ‘organic’ writing approach is the main reason that I don’t post my stories until I’m either completely finished writing or very close to. I hate being trapped by an earlier story point that has been already published and so I can’t change it to make the story flow the way I want to. I usually have all but the last two or three chapters (depending on the length of the story) completely written before I will even begin posting.

(And, on a side note: I know that some fan fic readers get annoyed by writers who don’t post every day especially when they know that the story is completely written. But each time I post, I take the opportunity to do one last edit/review of the chapter and check for all those typos I missed the first three hundred times I read it. 🙂 So I don’t necessarily have time to post every day when I have to fit in editing time as well. And, I will admit, my personal experience is that by posting every day you limit the number of reviews your story receives. I’ve talked before about how important the number of reviews you receive can be.)

I would hazard a guess that most fan fic writers are pantsers. Many of them begin to post before they have finished writing the story and without any kind of outline that will guide future chapters. I think, unfortunately, that sometimes that approach can give stories an awkward feel. It can also make the writing process more difficult and frustrating because as a pantser, you’re left trying to tie up the threads of the story as it stands and, because it’s published, you can’t go back and change anything.

Now, publishing fan fic is not quite the same as writing a book that you aim to get published. For a start, most fan fic writers can’t devote the time (a whole year in Ken Follett’s case!) to perfecting their story. And as fan fic readers we are forgiving of storylines that don’t quite tie up, minor characters that get lost along the way, and uneven or illogical character motivations. But I’m sure you agree that the very best fan fic stories are like novels in their scope and structure, and we have a clear sense of:

  • a set-up
  • a response to the new journey
  • attack on the problem
  • resolution

(Taken from Part two of The Pantser’s Guide to Story Planning, “The Nine Things You Should Know Before You Begin Writing”.)

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Let me know your approach when you write and publish fan fic. There is no right or wrong answer! And if you are a reader, can you notice the difference in the stories you read?