Pantser or Plotter? Deciding Which Can Save Your Writing Life

plotting and outlining

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Today’s guest post is by novelist Jess Lourey (@jesslourey), author of the critically acclaimed Murder-by-Month mysteries.

I’ve led over 50 creative writing workshops across the United States, and I start each one by asking everyone in attendance to raise their hand if they’ve written a book. About 75% of the attendees usually indicate they’ve penned a complete novel.

“Great. Keep your hands up if you have published that book, either traditionally or self-published.”

About half the room still has their hands in the air. I then ask them to keep them up if they are a plotter, i.e. someone who outlines their book before writing it. Fifty percent of the remaining hands drop. Those whose don’t sit up a little straighter, their hands a little higher (we plotters have an inclination to also be brown-nosers).

“Awesome. Drop your hands, plotters, and let me see the pantsers’ hands.” Pansters are writers who prefer to create by the seat of their pants. In other words, rather than outline their novel, they hop in their concept like it’s a car, letting it take them where it takes them, only seeing as far ahead as their headlights allow.

The plotters drop their hands so the pantsers can tentatively raise theirs. In general, I’ve discovered that pantsers are shy about the way they create, worrying on some level that they should maybe be more organized. But here’s the point that I’m always trying to make with this activity, and it’s undeniable: about half of published writers are plotters, and about half are pantsers. One is not the right way or the wrong way; there is only the way that works best for you.

But how do you know which that is?

I agree with my friend Shannon Baker, author of the upcoming Kate Fox mystery, Dark Signal, who says it depends on the project, but regardless, “The plot is the toughest job in novel writing. I love creating characters and relationships, the setting, the premise, the general idea of the book. The nuts and bolts and twists, reversals, keeping the middle from falling like a failed soufflé, creating an ending no one saw coming? That is hard.”

My personal preference—to find my way through that mess—is to outline. With my first eight novels, I created a very structured writing map, consisting of a table where the lefthand column contained dates and the righthand column was scene summaries. I would summarize a scene in two or three sentences, just enough so that I knew what direction I was going but not so much that it took all the fun out of writing the scene. This level of outlining allowed me to make sure I wasn’t making common plotting mistakes before I’d gotten too far into the book to correct them.

However, when I wrote The Toadhouse Trilogy, my young adult novel about kids who can travel inside of classical literature, that method failed. I spent weeks trying to fit the story into that table, but I simply could not cram it in there. I was so dependent on what had worked for me before that I almost gave up on the novel all together. Only the frustration at the amount of time I’d devoted to it drove me to try a new method of outlining. I grabbed a sheet of paper and drew a small circle in the middle, and the drew ever-larger circles around that. It looked like the top of a pond after you’d dropped a rock into it. I wrote the inciting incident in the center circle, and then the resulting conflicts in the outer circle, one leading to the other. This was a simplified version of a plot planner that worked for me.

When it came time to write The Catalain Book of Secrets, my magical realism novel which features multiple points of view, though, neither of those methods would work. I ended up pantsing for 10,000 words, then physically printing out those pages and cutting the paper into scenes. Once I had a stack of crazy notes, I bought a roll of butcher paper, moving around the scenes, adding some and deleting others, and finally pasting it (with actual Elmer’s glue) onto the butcher paper once I had everything where I wanted it. I sketched pictures where it was helpful.

My point is, don’t trap your creativity in a label. Shannon backs this up: “Write the book how it works for you. If you typically write three chapters, stall out and quit, then try a more detailed outline. If plotting makes you feel confined, freewrite the sucker. Don’t let anyone tell you how you should work, but keep your mind open to what might help you do it better. Don’t stop writing, no matter what.”

In other words, if you are pantsing, and it’s going well, pants on! If you are outlining and feel safe and creative, then keep outlining. If your go-to used to work but isn’t for this project, try something new. It’s called “creative” writing for a reason, after all.

If you want to explore other methods of story planning

Tell us in the comments: Are you a pantser or a plotter? What methods have you devised for planning or structuring your work?

If you enjoyed this post by Jess, take a look at her TED talk, Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Jess Lourey (rhymes with "dowry") is a bestselling Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty-nominated author known for her critically-acclaimed Mira James mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing "a splendid mix of humor and suspense." Jess also writes nonfiction, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, magical realism, and feminist thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft's Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a TEDx presenter (check out her TEDx Talk for the surprising inspiration behind her first published novel). When not teaching, reading, or dorking out with her family in Minneapolis, you can find her dreaming of her next story.

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Jane Friedman

Thank you, Jess! Delighted to have you as a guest.

Tiffany Dickinson

Great article, Jess. Thank you for giving us permission to use different styles at different times – not being locked into a particular style. I love your story about cutting up the printed story and the butcher paper. I can envision it and see how it could work. Good ideas!

Shirley Spain

Thank you for “giving permission” to write by whichever method serves the creative process best!

I’m an indie author and have published 10 suspense novels. After reading your article, I’m a plotser. Or might it be pantter? Plantser? 🙂 I find a combination of the two works best for me. I outline a tad to give me a general direction, then I just write a see what happens. I tweak the basic outline as necessary and pants to a finished first draft.

Again, thank you for the article.

Back to plotting and pantsing my next novel.

David Corbett

Hey, Jess: Nice to see you here. I usually tell my students that probably the most crucial thing you will ever learn as a writer is how you work–not Steven King, not James Patterson, not Fyodor Dostoyevsky–little ol’ you. It will take time to recognize and develop that methodology, but learn to trust what works for you and don’t worry about what works for others. I also teach them that whether they outline or not isn’t the issue. An outline is just a programmatic form of a first draft. Whether you sketch it out first or fly blind, that first… Read more »

Jeff Shear

I agree, a writer should be urged to discover her own working process. In my case, the process of developing a story in outline comes after developments in the story have reached a point of no return. The outline occurs out of necessity. I write first, plot later. In my short experience writing fiction (and having screwed up two long manuscripts), I discovered myself seeing the action more clearly by looking at its development through a rearview mirror (to borrow a phrase), which revealed the outline. Partly this discovery was a function of Scrivener’s split screen effect, which allows me… Read more »

Jeff Shear

I wish I could have written your line: “the necessity of causality.”

Marcy McKay

I soooo needed to hear this post, Jess. It took me SIX years to write my first novel (rewriting the entire 380 pages twice – OUCH). Gratefully, readers have loved the book, and are dying for the sequel. I currently have 290 pages and may have to rewrite the entire second half of the book. DOUBLE OUCH. I’m absolutely a pantser, but WISH I was more of a plotter. The problem is I do NOT SEE my story until I start writing. I could sit in front of a blank spreadsheet for the rest of my life. I’ve read both… Read more »

Marcy McKay

Hey Jess — yes, my novel is the one that the TWL called, “Unputdownable,” so I can WRITE….once I figure out the blasted story. I took that novel and broke it down, scene by scene to use as a template…but somewhere I got off course.

I’m trying to be kind to myself because I already knew REWRITING will (and should) always be part of the process, but I also hear that I’m not extending myself much grace. Sigh. I’ll keep at it.

LOVE The War of Art. I just gave it to a friend. Thanks for your reply.

Janet Sunderland

Nicely explained. I’m a serious pantser but I write memoir so it’s not as difficult as what you’re doing.
To your list of books, you might add “The Plot Whisperer” by Martha Alderson. It’s the book that finally made sense to me re: plot. Oh, beginning, middle, end… LOL. The cool thing about her book is she gives examples for both plotters and pantsers.

Jeff Lyons

I certainly understand the sentiment that everyone has to find their own process. And I agree (yes, there’s a “but” coming). But, I would argue that in this case there is a clear distinction between pantsering and plotting, in terms of value for the writer; in other words, one is wiser than the other. I say this because in my experience working with lots of writers, only a very few writers are good with developing story (storytelling and writing are two completely different things). Most writers are good writers, but when it comes to development, not so much. Sadly, many… Read more »

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[…] I’ll admit I’m a “pantser“, so I don’t always try to come up with the ending as soon as I have the idea for a […]

Laurie Marshall

Love this so much! My first creative writing classes were all about plotting and I eventually decided I simply wasn’t a fiction writer, and focused on essays. Thank goodness I found out there were more “pantsers” out there!! 🙂

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