Plotter vs. Pantser: When to Plot, When to Pants, and When to Combine Them

The article Plotter vs. Pantser: When to Plot, When to Pants, and When to Combine Them appeared first on The Write Practice.

How do you plan a story? Do you get caught up in the plotter vs. pantser debate and struggle to plan (or write) your story because of this?

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard about different creative writing methods to finish a first draft. Is there a right or wrong to these? Have you tried different method, but still don’t feel like it’s a perfect fit?

plotter vs pantser

At some point in your process, it’s likely that you will with primarily pants or plot a novel. Maybe you even do both at different times in your writing process.

In this article, you’ll learn when the best times are for planning your novel. You’ll also learn different stages of that planning process when you might prefer to pants, plot, or some hybrid method of the two.

Plotter vs. Pantser: A Little of Every Method

Some of us are pantsers. Some of us are plotters. I’ve been both.

I’ve said several times now in the articles I’ve written on The Write Practice. I was once the ultimate pantser, having pantsed my way through five NaNoWriMos and an entire 145K word novel. But when I failed to produce anything worth publishing, I learned to become a plotter—which has fortunately brought me far more success.

However, this is not to say you must be one or the type of writer. It’s never been a case of pantsers vs. plotters because the two writing methods exist side by side, and there are many ways to mix and match the two.

New writers tend to feel they must choose the “best way” and stick to it, or give up one to switch to the other. A skilled writer knows they can use both to varying degrees, switching up their method as the project needs to maximize efficiency.

All this to say that, depending on the type of writer you are, you might naturally gravitate to a certain way of writing.

However, at different stages in the writing process, it might be smart to temporarily pivot. You can take on a different role depending on what your writing process needs in the immediate.

When to Plot and When to Pants

You may be surprised to learn that I absolutely think that there is a place for pantsing. While I’m a big believer in plotting and planning, there’s no way to write a first draft in just a few weeks without some level of pantsing.

The key is to use plotting and pantsing in tandem. But before we get into that, it’s important to recognize when it’s more advantageous to plot and when pantsing might actually work in your favor.

Plotting is especially important in the following situations:

  • You have a clear storyline you want to follow. In other words, when you know what the core story of your book is with reasonable clarity
  • The plot of your book is multilayered and intricate, with multiple storylines and/or subplots
  • You have a specific message, theme, or character elements that you want to convey and need it to be embedded throughout the story
  • You have very specific events or cast of characters you want to ensure are present within the story

My novel Headspace was planned for three of these four reasons.

  1. I wanted to tell a specific story I had in mind about a different kind of alien invasion.
  2. I wanted to convey a theme of alienation even among one’s own kind.
  3. I had a very specific romantic subplot I wanted to carry out and needed to make sure it was handled with care, with the love interests interacting at all the right points of the plot to drive their relationship.

Pantsing, on the other hand, is more handy in the following situations:

  • You have a basic idea but are not sure how the actual scenes are going to turn out, so you’re writing to find out the story events alongside the characters.
  • You’re experimenting with a new writing style, such as a romance author trying out sci-fi for the first time, or a short story writer attempting a first novel.
  • You have some main plot lines but are uncertain of subplots and the particulars of character development.

All in all, plotting is the best route when you have a clear picture of your story in mind, and pantsing is ideal for free exploration and experimenting in new territory.

Some writers pants. Others plot. This article teaches you how to plan a story—and when to use a little of each writing style.
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Mix and Match

The truth is, no one is a pure plotter or pantser. Aside from certain rare genres of stream-of-conciousness writing, everyone uses some combination of the two. The key is to figure out how to balance the two methods to your personal preference.

Let’s take a look at few ways that you can mix and match pantsing and plotting to find the level of planning that works for you.

As a side note, I include the same two things in all of the options below:

  1. The five essential sections a story needs, referenced in this article. This is because I believe the a five-point plan is the most minimal planning you should do when writing a book. Even when pantsing, it’s important to know your story’s beginning, middle, and ending.
  2. The revision list referenced in this article. Whether you are plotting or pantsing, it’s important to keep track of changes you want to make in future drafts.

The Heavy Pantser Light Plotter

If you are looking for a route that focuses on pantsing with minimal plotting, this is the best course of action for you.

Start your plotting with a one-sentence summary. Really focus on what you’re trying to tell your target audience and reduce the basic plot to the main character and event. From there, build to the the five point plan. This is the only formal planning you will do.

Once you’ve completed the plan, write your first draft with focus on connecting the different parts of the plan. This will result in a story that has a definitive beginning, middle, and end, but you are still free to pants the events that take place in between as you see fit.

You are likely to spend a lot of time in discovery with this method, uncovering details of the story as it unfolds. Your first draft will also likely need more revision than the other methods, but you may also uncover a lot of unexpected plot points that enrich your story.

The Even Steven

For those looking for a balance between pantsing and plotting, the Even Steven approach works best.

In this approach, you would create your five point plan, but then go one step further and create a scene list as well. Using the scene list to lay out how the different parts of your plan should connect to each other and note any significant points of character development. Use the scene list as you write your first draft.

A major difference between this method and the previous one is that as you add things to your revision list while you write, you will be able to note which ones need fixing as well, or if certain scenes should be added or deleted.

The Light Pantser Heavy Plotter

This is my current primary method. In my very biased opinion, it’s the best one. But of course, that’s ultimately up to you to judge.

To use a heavy plotter approach, you start by creating the five point plan and the scene list, then follow up with a plot synopsis. A synopsis takes the scene list one step closer to becoming a proper book. In the synopsis, string together the scenes and try to turn each scene into a workable summary. Think of the synopsis as a much more detailed outline.

My plot synopsis usually ends up being fifteen to twenty pages long. This may seem long, and a little intimidating for someone approaching a book for the first time, but if you follow the steps of the plan and the scene list, you will find that your synopsis will easily grow to an impressive length.

There are also other things are can do as part of your own method of writing, such as character profiles, character arc notes, and major plot points.

And when you are ready to start tackling that book you’re going to find it flows much easier with that synopsis to guide you. It will cut down your writing time by a noticable amount.

This method also includes a few more parts, one being a revision list, which will help you organize your thoughts for the second draft. The next item is the plot treatment, which will be addressed in a later post.

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