Panster or Plotter...What Does It All Mean?

There is only one way to write a novel. Sit and write it. Whether using paper and pen, typewriter and paper, computer and disk, or chisel and rock, writing is the putting of meaningful symbols in a place by one person for another, who is absent, to read. The miracle and wonder of it is that the writer and reader may be separated by distance and centuries.

After that, writing is a personal adventure and like all adventures has some similarities as well as things that are very different. Take the two major separations of writers, pantsters and plotters. Pantsters are those who get an idea and then explore it as they write. Sometimes their stories come to them as visual pictures or movies that play in their heads and their fingers become the instrument that writes down what happens. They continue to follow the story as it unfolds letting the characters go whither they will, pretty much doing whatever they will. The plotter will be more like a person with a dollhouse. They will decide the room’s d├ęcor, select the furniture, and decide who will be where and what they will be doing while they are there.

There is a wide range of mix between the two extremes of pantsters and plotters. To go along with the different mixes there are as many methods to express that mix as there are writers or so it can seem to the beginner. The most important thing any aspiring writer can do is get the damned thing written. A writer isn’t much of a novelist if nothing is ever finished. If one keeps that one salient fact in mind, then how the story is written doesn’t really matter. Writing may be scribed on toilet paper in those odd free moments and still become a novel. But how does one begin? With all of the confusing methods that everyone has an opinion about, how do you start? That precious idea. That’s where. When? Whenever a writer has a moment. How? Ah, that’s a paragraph.

How. Three letters and we’re already stuck. But guess what? It doesn’t matter. A writer may start anywhere. Once the idea for a story has taken hold, it will build on its own. A plotter will likely begin with a type of character, say a cowboy. Where will we put him? Kansas. Why we ask? (And an answer pops up—may not be a good one, but one pops into mind.) Because his brother wants to farm and plow up the ancestral pasture. What keeps our cowboy from moving? He’s in love with his brother’s wife’s kid sister and she’s been abandoned with a newborn. How’s he gonna convince her to take another chance and leave with him for parts not explored when he wants to give her stability? A story is born. Or a title might beg a story, The Children of Easy Virtue, Texas. I refuse to write westerns so that one will probably never be written, but I can tell you it is easier to live in Easy Virtue, Texas than explain where you come from. How a story idea will play out or be changed will be up to the writer as he pantsters his way through or plots the changes or as he is writing his plot a vision comes to mind and temporarily he goes with the vision.

Editing. Pantsters tend to edit as they go because changes determine where the story wanders. They tend to depend more on their subconscious to do the writing and attending to details than do plotters. Plotters tend to be concise and edit more when they are finished. Some put a lot of detail in as they write; others get down the bare bones of the story. Then, like watercolorists, they go back through, layer in different details, and sometimes flesh out plot twists.

Whatever your method will be or mix of methods, make sure you are the one who determines it. When an idea resonates as making sense, then it may be an idea that will work for you. Be reasonably cautious about changing the way you write. Rewriting because someone tried to tell you how to write is a horrid way to waste your time. Rest assured that whatever method gets the story written and finished is a good one because that is the goal. Can you be faster or more efficient? Probably. Experience is wonderful for that, and one of the best reasons to be always working on another story while the ones before it are in the process of being sent out, marinating in dust for the final edit, or hidden judiciously for your heirs to dig up and sell for a fortune after you expire.

After the first sale, a writer may not wish to waste time completing a book whose premise isn’t promising to their editor. This is where a plotter or someone who is more used to doing some plotting has it above pantsters. I’ve been told that plotting makes it easier to sell an idea on a synopsis and I hear that plotting helps to focus thoughts and tighten up plot issues. I concede it might.

About a month after I started writing I thought I was going insane. Mind videos and stills started appearing in my head. Why was I so worried? Because other writers and well meaning non-writers but well educated people told me, I was doing it (writing) all wrong. That’s when a very good friend of mine recognized my soul-deep distress and did some research and presented it to me. Less than twenty percent of writers are truly pantsters. By this I mean, they have an idea of a beginning and know somewhat how the story will end but everything in between is completely a mystery to them when they begin. Some bestselling authors are pantsters. I have no idea what their selling methods are. As I have explored this plotting/pantsters question, I’ve been amazed at the incredible variety of ways that writers get the essence of their story.

Best advice? Join a writer’s group so that you can be exposed to a variety of methods and get the encouragement of writers who have entered the forest of writing before you. They have successful navigated a path and seen other paths. But what is the most important? Getting the story written. That is a constant no matter what the method or mix of methods. Don’t make your eyes bleed from the stress of figuring out how your idea fits a story arc, instead consider going forth to sit and think up some what-ifs and then scribble a bit and get your story written. Perfection is in the editing—a different process.

PS No one was more surprised than I was to finish the first novel at 467 pages. I had wondered if it would finish. It came to a natural close and took eight months to get there. Weirdly, the second novel finished at 473. I’m only 83 pages into the third and am afraid it will not make it to minimal novel length—around 250 pages. For me, only time will tell (and sitting down in front of the computer and writing it).


Becky A said...

Hello Miss Nina,
Thanks for echoing what I was already thinking. I'm a pantster who had to get organized, after the fact. Keeping track of all those details can be work. I may try plotting one of these days because it fills a craving in my otherwise organized soul, but for now, I'm going to fly by the seat of my pants!

Rox Delaney said...

Great post, Nina!

Becky, I think everyone has to find their own best way to write. I also think no one should never say never. ::grin:: That means only to keeping an open mind open to possibilities, just in case one might find doing something a little different might be needed.

Rox Delaney said...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I WAS A PANTSTER.

(I feel like I'm at an AA meeting.)
Hello, my name is Roxann and I'm a pantster. LOL

I was convinced throughout every fiber of my being that if I even attempted to plot a book, I couldn't do it. When told I could, I was then convinced that the book, once plotted, would be a dead bore to write. I learned I was wrong about both.

But most writers actually do plot, even though they may not admit it. Most writers have at least a vague clue of who the characters are, what they want, why, and what's keeping them from getting it. Most writers have a vague idea of what the story is basically about and a wisp of an idea of what the HEA will be. Believe it or not, that's plotting. :)

So do what works best for you. When you need to add a little more to continue making it the best, then go ahead without worrying if you should. You'll know what you need. :)

Reese Mobley said...

The more manuscripts I complete, the more I realize how important it is to plot. I start out as a pantser and then plot out the turning points and then fill in the rest of the blanks. Believe me it makes writing the book so much easier. Everyone has their own way and this is what works for me.

Rox Delaney said...

I don't plot first either. I start writing so I can get to know my characters. Sometimes they aren't who I thought they were or have secrets they need to share. By the time I'm midway through the third chapter, I'm taking notes on turning points and will start plotting when I've finished writing chapters 1-3.

Dialogue/conversations between characters come to me at odd times, so I write all that down, script-style, usually in a file on my computer. The book has begun to write itself. :)

Starla Kaye said...

Yep, after reading your additional thoughts about panster vs. plotter, I'm definitely a panster and proud of it! Being a panster also makes it difficult to come up with a synopsis or story summary before actually writing the story.

Nina Sipes said...

I think plotting would be a very good tool and an excellent way to write. However, whenever I've tried so far, I'm so far off base to what my subconscious knows about the characters that I have to do serious re-writes. I think it is my subconscious that writes. Me, I try to stay out of her way.

I had hoped the blog article would encourage people not to worry about their process being right or wrong, but be open to trying different methods and techniques. You never know when someone else's way of doing something will improve your own. But don't despair if your writing process is different from theirs.

I never thought of delaying the plotting until later in the book. Rox, that has some possibilities...I'll have to think on that. Isn't it funny how sometimes we get to believing something is all or nothing?

Rox Delaney said...


I'd bet a small fortune (if I had one) that 99.9% of writers never started out plotting. Too, I think most writers plot, but not in the true sense and many don't write it down. They have an idea of where the story is going, what the TPs will be--or a general idea of what is going to happen to increase the conflict, a ghost of an idea of the black moment and that it will end happily. Getting there is all the fun!

If you saw my storyboards, you'd say, "Huh?", because some scenes are nothing but a vague idea. Something like: "Bobbi Jo encounters Jimmy John at the honkytonk." Some are even worse than that. LOL By the time I get to that scene, I know pretty much what's going to happen...because something MUST happen in a scene or it shouldn't be there.

When we get to the plotting part of all this, I'll post a few titles of books that may help. They may help some only a little or for others not at all, but for someone like me, even a little can be a miracle! ::grin:: (And if you understood that, I'm impressed!)

Penny Rader said...

Thanks for the great post, Nina! I think I lean more toward plotting because if I have an idea about what I'm writing toward, I can manage to get words on paper. If I don't know where I'm going, my brain freezes.

I'm also one of the layering and revise later people. Dialogue is usually the first thing I get. Then I go back and flesh it out. Sometimes I have to make a few passes, adding in movement, description, beefing up the emotion, etc. Then I go back and try to fix it. Revising and editing is my favorite part.

Rox, I'm looking forward to the future posts about plotting. I need all the help I can get. :D

Rox Delaney said...

So do I, Penny. So do I!

Nina Sipes said...

I don't know if all you pantsters are going to believe it, but most of people who have told me how writing MUST be done plot the darned thing from the beginning to the end. How did we end up with an enclave of pantsters in WARA? Really, it is only supposed to be about 20%! What Penny described as her process is more traditional. I'm jazzed to try some plotting!

Pat Davids said...

I will admit to being a Plotter. I have to know when the story is going to go, how long it will take, what turns are needed. That said, even the best plotter must be a pantster to some degree.

I know that my hero and heroine must kiss in this scene, but how they get their lips locked, what they are thinking and feeling, that all comes from the characters themselves.