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Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

There is ongoing debate among novelists as to the ‘right’ way to write. There are two main groups, both roughly equal in size, with different names depending on who you ask:

Plotter

The plotter will undertake a great deal of preparation before beginning to write their novel. They will have researched their locations, will have formed their characters and know the internal and external GMC of their characters. They will have prepared a detailed outline of the events in their novel, often on a scene-by-scene basis. The plotter will know where the plot is going to go and how the characters are going to develop and change before they write the first line of the novel.

The advantage of this is it enables writers to follow their plan, ignoring all distractions and rabbit holes, and know they will finish with a well-crafted novel as major (and minor) plot or character issues will have been resolved during the outlining stage.

The disadvantage is that outlining is often seen to deter creativity and the element of surprise. After all, if the author knows where the book is going from the first page, it’s possible the reader will too.

Pantser

Other authors prefer to write by the seat of their pants. They don’t have a full written outline, and they may only have the vaguest idea of their story’s direction or the characters it will feature. As they write, they discover more information about their plot and characters.

The advantage of this is it gives an immense about of space for creativity, as the pantser won’t feel locked in to taking the plot in any specific direction.

The disadvantage is the pantser might write themselves into a hole they can’t get out of (as was done in movies such as The Matrix, or the TV series Lost). It can mean a lot of deleting and rewriting, in an effort to ensure the plot is credible and the characters believable.

Plotter or Pantster?

I suspect that many first novels are written by the seat of the pants, as first novels are often written as the author learns the craft of writing—the ins and outs of building a plot that will engage readers, an imaginary world inhabited by characters the readers can care about and root for. As they learn more about writing (and the inevitable revising and rewriting), they realise the benefits of planning, despite the initial work involved.

Equally, I suspect multi-published writers are more likely to be plotters. This might not be their preference, but once an author has a track record, they are not submitting a full manuscript to potential publishers. They are writing the first three chapters and a detailed synopsis, and the publisher will offer a contract on that basis. That’s a plan.

The Impact of Genre

Does genre have an impact on whether a writer is a plotter or a pantser?

For example, the two key features of a romance novel (as defined by Romance Writers of America) are that the novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (the Happy Ever After, or HEA), and the relationship between the hero and heroine must be the central plot point. That, to me, says ‘outline’, as the author must show from the first page:

  • The identity of the hero and heroine
  • The hero and heroine will get their HEA
  • The development of an ongoing relationship, with a series of ups and downs

Yes, some of the details might only come out as the novel is being written, but the structure is inherent in the genre.

The same could be said for a murder mystery. The author must know:

  • Who the victim will be
  • How they will die
  • The identity of the detective(s)
  • The identity of the murderer
  • Which clues are real clues and which are red herrings
  • How the detective will identify and unveil the murderer

Other genres might be different. For example, in a thriller the reader may discover the identity of the antagonist early in the novel, and the suspense comes from not knowing if the protagonist will discover the necessary information in time to prevent another crime.

I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … If I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the damned thing is going to turn out, even with my inside knowledge of coming events, I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety. (Stephen King)

What do you think?

Are you an outline writer or a discovery writer? A plotter or a pantser? Have you changed since you started writing? Does genre play a part?