Plotters vs Pantsers

Chocolate – the life saver of writers.

I’m doing my Sunday Writing Craft Post early this week because I won’t get a chance over the weekend. It’s been a mad week for me at work and it’s not over yet, as I have commitments at Conquest this weekend. For anyone who is interested, Marianne de Pierres, Trent Jamieson and Kylie Chan will be there.  Here’s the programme, there’s panels and workshops. I’m doing my Pitching Workshop on the Sunday afternoon from 2-4pm.

After last week’s post on plotting Chris brought up an interesting point. He asked if writers of different genres plotted differently, for instance, were writers of hard SF more likely to be planners, than pantsers. (For those of you unfamiliar with this term a pantser is a writer who starts of with a character or a scene or an idea and let’s the story take them. They just grab ahold of that tiger’s tail and hold on).

I’ve chatted with lots of writers over the years about their style of plotting but I didn’t have a definitive answer, so I decided to survey some writing friends. I posted a list of questions asking what the genre/s they wrote,  whether they were pantsers or plotters and what length they wrote (short story or novel), whether this made a difference to their style of plotting and if they changed genre did they change their plotting style.

I surveyed the Vision list and the Darkside Romance list. These authors wrote in a wide variety of genres and across the age range. So we had:  children and young adult (across the genres), traditional paranormal romance (ie stand alone books where the hero and heroine end up together), dark urban fantasy, fantasy, horror, magic realism and science fiction. Some were dedicated to the novel length but most said they wrote both short and long fiction and they ranged from not published, through published in short stories, to published and also New York Times best seller authors. (Love being able to say that). Thanks to everyone who took the time to answer my survey!

I still don’t have a definitive answer to Chris’s question but I do have an insight.

When I asked writers if they were a plotter or a pantser the response was mixed, they could be both, depending on the length.

If they were a pantsers tended to say things like this writer:

‘Generally I have the feel of the story and a good sense of the world and the characters and I know how I want it to end, but exactly what the story is and how it will happen is then discovered as I write.’

I must admit, I did expect hard SF writers to be plotters yet the one writer who identified with this sub-genre of SF said:

‘I’m a plotter – but not a very thorough one. Generally, before I start writing, I’ll know what will happen to each of the main characters as the story unfolds – I tend to chart this with a rough timeline, splitting the novel into perhaps twenty ‘milestones’ with a sentence or two about who is doing what and why at each point, for each character. This is enough to get me started and generally keeps me on course to the end of the book. I also do character sketches and write a couple of pages about the ‘world’ to get me started. If the book is set in the future, I also sketch out a timeline for the various technical and social changes that have led to the ‘world’ of the book.’

So even though he didn’t plot every event, he did a lot of preparation before starting on the book because of the complexity. (Not that writing fantasy isn’t complex). Yet another SF writer said the opposite:

‘I think I’d be more inclined to pants-it on sci-fi because it seems to have more complex plotlines, and I don’t think I could imagine it all through without writing the story. Apart from that, if I was in love with a character I wouldn’t plot. I’d write her (or his) experiences to enjoy the journey and find out what happens together. Plotting first would ruin that.’

You’d think it would be simple enough to answer my questions with a yes or no, but these wonderful authors write across several genres, at different lengths, then they go and do things like experiment by plotting some books, and pansting others.

Others were wary of changing their plotting style. One author who favoured plotting felt ‘If I try to pants it, I end up in the most terrible mess.’

What was curious, was that if someone was a pantser for novels, they would often plot a short story. Or if they were a plotter for novels, they would pants a short story.

If they change their writing style from pantser to plotter for short stories it was because: ‘In short stories I tend to plot before I write — I find writing short stories is harder to be a panster, because short stories do not allow that “flexibility” to go off in to tangents.  One has to maintain focus.’

Alternatively, if they were a plotter for novels and they changed for short stories, they said things like this: ‘the shorter it is the less I plot!’

If they changed their plotting style it was because:   ‘The  odd  short  story that  comes  to  me  arrives  in  one package, so I  can  plot  in  advance. With  novels,  I  tend to  start  with  a  character  and a  situation and a general  idea  of  the  end,  so  I  have  to  flimmer  the first  draft,  at  least  until  I  have  an  idea  what the  plot  is!’

Many writers said the genre didn’t influence the way they plotted but others found it did.

‘The focus of the story/the genre does dictate how one plots e.g., a romance has to be closely plotted to the developing relationship with not many tangents, whereas a fantasy50/50 allows more plot other than the “romance”.’

Or their style of plotting changed ‘because some stories need a lot of world-building and/or backstory and/or timelines, so the ‘how’ varies from something that looks like a genealogy chart to something that covers the whole table with pieces of paper and card!’

So there you have it. There is no definitive answer on plotting styles when you look at genre. There isn’t even consistency in plotting style for authors regarding the story length because they switch from pantsing to plotting or vice a versa. Which just goes to show you why trying to organise anything with creative people is like trying to herd cats!

With something as individual as writing it all seems to come down to one thing, if it works, do it.

One Response to Plotters vs Pantsers

  1. Pingback: Sunday Musings: National Novel Writing Month, Part 3: Panster Or Planner? |

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