From Pantser To Plotter: Why The Pantser Fears Plotting

When Lynn did her call for Left Behind and Loving It contributors this year, I decided right off that I wanted to do a series chronicling my shift from pantser to plotter.  It’s a conversion that many have made and even more fear.  There’s this idea that one is born a pantser or a plotter and that never the twain shall meet.

Well, I’m living proof that that isn’t the case.

Before I go on, I feel compelled to offer a definition of this term for any who are unfamiliar with it.  A “pantser” is someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a plan, without an outline, merely allowing the story and characters to go where they will.  A “plotter”, by contrast, usually has some measure of plan, outline, or story map to follow before they begin writing.

All my writing life (from the age of 12 on), I have been a pantser.  I tend to get bitten by the bug for a new story and I take the bit in my teeth and run with it as fas and far as I can.  Inevitably this tends to run out somewhere in the vicinity of the Dreaded Valley of the Shadow of the Middle (DVSM).  That’s usually the point at which I begin to wish I had a map or outline of some kind to follow so that I know what comes next.  But I, like many of my fellow pantser compatriots, feared plotting.

There are many reasons for such fear.  I’ll spare you the deep, psychological analysis and narrow it down to some of the most popular fears I’ve heard among fellow pantsers.  Among them are:

  • It will kill creativity: Many pantsers are convinced that if they do try to hammer out an entire plot before writing that it will simply kill their creativity–that their plot will simply drown like an overwatered houseplant.
  • I work organically: Many pantsers feel that their plot grows out of the story itself as it is written, sprouting forth new growth each day like kudzu.  They feel that plotting goes entirely against that organic approach and that fixing the story in a hard and fast outline will, again, kill their creativity.
  • I learn my characters as I go:  This was a huge one for me.  Sometimes I will know one or two of my characters before I ever put a word on the page, but more often, I simply learn them as I go.  How can I possibly plan an entire book around characters that I don’t know yet?  If I don’t know them, I don’t know what they will do or how they will react to certain situations.  Ergo, I cannot plot.
  • Knowing what happens–where’s the fun in that? Also a huge one for me.  I really love the surprise in writing.  I adore when my characters pop up and do something unexpected.  Knowing exactly what happens and having a detailed outline absolutely ruins that surprise.  It’s like being that kid who peeks at presents before Christmas morning.
  • It’s boring: The entire process of plotting is boring.  There’s none of the fun of snappy dialogue or the drama of conflict.  It’s like writing out the main points of a research paper–which is one of the most horrifyingly boring thinks you can do.  Which brings us to…
  • Feels like school: That research paper?  Yeah it’s like doing homework.  It sucks and it’s not fun.  And finally…

  • Dude, it’s HARD! Plotting is not for the faint of heart.  Anybody who thinks that plotting–real plotting wherein you figure out an entire plot, built on a solid foundation of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict for the characters–is not easy.  Like dieting, every time I tried I wound up falling off the wagon.  Pantsing is like cookie dough–it is my diet Kryptonite–or rather my writing Kryptonite.

For some people, I really think that they feel that plotting, which is, by its very nature, a very organized sort of activity, is the absolute antithesis of the artistic personality.  There’s this connotation that we’re supposed to be these organic, not quite connected to reality kind of people.  Many pantsers see plotting as work.  And, well, it is.  I have also heard some pantsers talk with a sort of disdain for plotters, as if taking the time to plot and figure things out on the front end somehow diminishes the accomplishment of writing a book.  I’ve heard born plotters (they do exist) look to pantsers (or rather their end results) with a sort of awe that they were able to take that leap of faith and just write. There’s a certain expectation that the pantser is somehow better because they don’t have to plot and organize.  As if the initial imaginative spew IS the thing we read on the published page.

To that, I say, have you ever read a pantser’s true first draft?  I daresay most of them bear very little resemblance to their final product.  When picking your way through the pantser/plotter dynamic, never ever forget that there is much editing and revision involved.

Whether such prejudices are on the pantser side or the plotter side, they are simply not true.  And that’s something I had to learn the hard way over the last three years. Despite my assorted fears, something in me kept pushing me to try to plot.  I had a number of problems with pantsing that I’ll talk about tomorrow.

Are you a pantser who fears plotting?  How about a plotter who’s terrified of pantsing?  Let us know which side of the fence you fall on and why you’re scared of the other side, and you’ll be entered to win a gently used copy of Jennifer St. Giles’ Touch a Dark Wolf. I’m willing to ship anywhere (though if you’re outside the U.S. it’ll probably be via a slow boat…as I’m on a budget).  A winner will be drawn from all commenters who comment before tomorrow’s post goes up.

18 thoughts on “From Pantser To Plotter: Why The Pantser Fears Plotting

  1. Pantser who recognizes the inefficiency of the method (or lack of method, as the case may be) and is trying to find some form of plotting that doesn’t make me feel like I’m in a straightjacket (which encompasses most of the issues you raised).

    Sticky notes seem to be working so far because of their flexibility, but it’s too early to declare them a success when I’ve written only Chapter 1 with their guidance…

  2. I look at pantser/plotter as a continuum, rather than an either/or situation. I think I fall somewhere past the middle and a little way towards ‘plotter’ on an imaginary 10-cm line, with ‘pantser’ on one end and ‘plotter’ on the other. I have discovered that if I try to plot every single moment of the story, then I get into conflict with my characters, as I begin to know them better. Then forcing the story to my original plan ends up a losing proposition.

    However, without any sort of outline/map, I quickly get mired in the quicksand of the middle.

    So I have learned to look at my outline as “more of a guideline” (apologies to the Pirate Code), giving myself permission to change it, as circumstances dictate.

    Looking forward to the rest of your workshop.


  3. I’m also a pantser-shifting-to-plotter. I like sitting down with nothing but a single character (who I only know by name) in a single scene, and just writing whatever comes next. But having recently tried to edit one of my completed drafts (incidentally, the only one I thought might be worth editing), I’ve come to realize that even the barest minimum of plotting would have made that task at least doable. As it is, I’m afraid to look at it again.

    I’ve been using plotting techniques for my more recent drafts, and it’s really changed the way I write (for the better). I can’t wait to get the drafts done so I can see the difference when I go to edit!

    Looking forward to the rest of your articles on this…

  4. I’d have to say I’m a reformed pantser… I say reformed because even though I can plot on the go, it’s so much easier to have a goal in mind before you start. Not to mention saves time in re-write and ‘how do I get out of this pickle?’

    That said, I’m a loose plotter. For the last short I wrote (and it’s easier with shorts) I know the opening line, the turning point of the story in the middle, and the conclusion. How the characters got there was pretty blank. But those things work like guide posts.

    I do the same thing with my full lengths (Only with more guide posts)

    First I narrow down motivation. What do my characters want? Decide on the goal and then think of things that would keep them from it (feeling deliciously evil the whole time)

    When I have an outline, I go for it. I’m not sure if that’s technically a plotter or not, but it’s closer than I’ve ever been. : )

    Sometimes the characters surprise me and for me, that’s one of the most rewarding parts of writing: when the characters come alive enough to ‘speak up’. One of my favorite characters was meant to be a side character, one scene kind of guy for the purpose of the heroine’s characterization. I was shocked when I typed, “I’m going with you.” or something like that but it worked out well, took very little adjusting of the plot and added something that it had lacked before.

  5. The last time I sat down and just plain wrote without planning, I came up with my most favourite (and most trunked) story. Now I write rather more slower, but without planning beyond the next few chapters… so I guess I’m half way between the two.

    Plotting is kinda scary, from this place; I can’t yet comprehend knowing more than a quarter of the story in advance, and to my mind it’s not safe to walk on solid rock and not have something in place in case the rock bridge is destroyed by a storm surge of a plot twist. But so is pantsing and writing lots of words at once, because I burned out, and that was terrifying. (But I *was* sixteen at the time. Early enough for the fear of not having words to impress itself in my mind and frighten me five years later.)

    But one of the more practical criteria in my methodology is that I’m also very, very bad at editing my own work. So I cheat, produce an almost spotless first draft, and steal bits from both sides. 😉 Something you can do when your characters tend to show up wholesale, so you don’t have to get to know them so much… now if only the stories would, too…

  6. I can see exactly where you’re coming from. I used to be strictly a pantser. But then I realized the reason my stories kept running out of steam is I didn’t know enough about the world or characters and didn’t plan anything. Planning a bit, not everything, but a bit, helps keep me going.

    Thanks for the article!

  7. Pantser – guilty, interested in reforming, and on the road but still . . . more than a tad bit nervous about it all. My biggest fear – a mixture of that Romantic elitism: “true creativity cannot be planned, scheduled, outlined” and have just never tried. It’s bizarre, because my brain thinks in outline form and everything else gets broken down into it automatically: sermons, class notes, meeting notes, you name it. But my creative work . . . surely not that too!

    It’s the latest novel that has me considering the bridge – not enough big, outer conflict. I’m stuck in my character’s heads and that won’t intrigue anyone but me for that long. So I have to do some retooling, and it seems plotting is the logical next step.

    Still dreading it.

  8. I started off trying to outline before I wrote, and found that, for me, creating the outline “forced” the story into a certain mold, and that mold never (at least, not in the three novels I “completed” outlining first) allowed for the fullest expression of the story I had in mind.

    So I started writing without outlining — but that is NOT to say that I didn’t think about the story I wanted to tell beforehand. It is also not to say that my finished draft was a mess, either; for the first time (and second; I’ve finished two novels without outlining), I got pretty darned close to the story vision in my head.

    Do I “fear” outlining or plotting ahead? No, not in the least. I’ve simply found that for me, it doesn’t result in a draft that’s anywhere close to the story I originally intended to write. Others’ mileage varies, I’m sure, but I’ve finally found what works for me.

  9. Well, I’ve done both. The plotted stories flow better but lack passion and depth. The pantser ones have the passion and depth but usually get bogged down somewhere. Truly need to find a happy medium…of course, I’m not published and am not sure if I’d ever take that step. Fabulous kick off to the workshops.

  10. I’m very much a pantser, but I usually have some idea of where the story is going when I start writing, though how to get there is still a big mystery.

    I cannot imagine working everything out beforehand, because my characters do tend to surprise me, e.g. in my current WIP I did not figure out what the hero’s big problem was until well into the manuscript.

    However, at about halfway into the manuscript I do use some plotting techniques to organize the chapters and scenes I have written and figure out what else I need.

  11. I’m a panster slowing reforming into a plotter. It’s just trying to find the method that works for you. So far I’m learning to work with a very loose outline, but I’d like to have a little more set before I start. I have outlined a story before, but it was as sloppily done as pantsing. I’ve discovered that fully pantsing a novel means I tend to get off track and don’t write the novel that was my original idea – in some cases that’s a good thing, but in many more it’s a bad. I want to find my happy medium.

  12. Kait….would you mind detailing how you outline (plot) now? Panster here who would really like to see where you ended up in the process.

  13. I’m a ‘pantser’, though I prefer the term ‘organic writer’, and intend to stay this way.

    I have the utmost respect for plotters; they work hard, but it’s just not me. I’ve tried it – particularly for Nano – on numerous occasions and found I wandered away after chapter three every time. The sky did not fall, I was not rendered immobile by fear… the muse merely chuckled gleefully, rubbed her hands together and said: “Now for some real work.”

    I usually have a character or two, a beginning and an end. The characters tell the story and will not deviate from their personalities. If I try to force them into doing something outside the scope of behaviour, they’ll stop and look at me, refuse to go any further no matter what I have in store for them.

    And while plotters put a lot of effort into the ‘pre-writing’, I think the difference is that organic writers have to concentrate that much more to stay true to the story.

    As Sheila says, there is no right way of writing, only your way. And ‘pantsering’ is my way.

  14. Kait I’m a pantser through and through. I’ve tried plotting and it never works. So now I use my first draft as my planning stage, then edit and edit until I’m happy. Mind you I hate editing. LOL. But I do it, well I’m editing now. I’ll be interested to see how you changed to a plotter.

  15. I started out as a pantser way back when and was proud of being one for many years. It wasn’t until I started writing novels that I realized I needed to evolve as a writer if I wanted to output anything remotely cohesive for a first draft. And, since I hate major edits, plotting looked like the direction to go.

    My first big fear was Knowing the Ending. The horror! What the heck would I need to know that for? Of course once I tried it out (on my fourth novel) it wasn’t so scary anymore. In fact it really helped me get past the scary middle part since I knew what the grand destination was.

    I still battle the other big fear in relation to outlining, which is getting the feeling of “So what? I know the story. It’s nice. Why bother writing it all out if I already know it?” I’m working to get over this and have found a generally happy medium with loose plot point style outlines that leave organic wiggle room for subplots and characters alike.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be a true plotter, but I think I can handle getting a little more on the plotter side of the fence 🙂

    Great kick off post! You really hit the nail on the head with the fears.

  16. I don’t know if we’ve every talked about this, but until I started writing with you, I hadn’t given the matter a lot of thought and I wouldn’t have labeled myself as either. I usually had a clear beginning, an idea of the end, some major stops on the way, and a good idea who my characters were. And then I just went from one event to the next–until I got stuck or got sick of it. Usually both at about the same time, not surprisingly.

    Then when we started writing together:
    Kettle: Ok, I can’t decide what happens next, a)….. or b)….
    Pot: Um, ok, where are you going with this? What are you trying to show?
    Kettle: It’s the next day and he comes over and they talk, but I’m not sure what happens.
    Pot: Yeah, but…why? What’s the point?
    Kettle:…….and then……and then……
    Pot: [bangs head /How can she not know where she’s going? How am I supposed to know? Arrrrrrrggggghhhhh!!!]
    Pot: B.

    And so, in championing the cause of plotting, I realized I’m a plotter. And I’ve only become more of one.
    So thanks!


  17. I think it all depends upon how you look at it. When you first sit down to plot, you begin with nothing, right? And then you start to create, just as you would if you were winging it. The plot isn’t just there, fully formed, when you first sit down to write, it develops. For me, my outline is so detailed (including dialogue) that I jokingly refer to it as my first draft. I don’t feel like it kills my creativity – at all. In fact, when I get down to actually writing, plot outlined, my creativity is unleashed and I just build upon what I already outlined.


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