Plotters Versus Pantsers
The ‘plotters versus pantsers’ debate often rages between writers. Should we …
- … plot everything in advance, writing outlines and even populating spreadsheets with everything that will happen?
- Or should we fly ‘by the seats of our pants’ and surprise even ourselves AS we write?
The mighty Margaret Atwood and Stephen King count themselves as pantsers. King even goes so far to say, ‘Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.’
EXCEPT not so fast hombre! With famous plotters including the likes of JK Rowling and John Grisham, I think that might be a teensy exaggeration!
Screenplays Versus Novels
As every Bang2writer knows, I am both a novelist and as a script editor. For the latter, I mostly work with screenwriters, especially for feature film and shorts. I also dabble in screenwriting myself and am currently adapting one of my previous crime novels for TV. So I guess I am a hybrid in that I work in both mediums.
In screenwriting, writing outlines and treatments is a MUST. When ‘screenwriting is structure’ (and it is), then the notion of starting writing without knowing the ending is madness. We end up in a whole world of pain!
Also, producers DEMAND we write outlines and treatments. We have no choice. Much of the time, screenwriters are not even ALLOWED to go to draft before their outline has been signed off. It’s standard practice.
In contrast, novel writing is much ‘freer’. As a novelist, I’ve discovered as long as you turn in pages by certain agreed deadlines, you can do what you like. I remember the first time I offered an outline to a publisher, they were surprised. They told me they’d never been given one voluntarily before. I’d just assumed I had to, like screenwriting! Oops.
On Being A Plotter
That said, even though I am ‘off the hook’ re: outlines as an novelist, I still do them. My latest crime novel Never Have I Ever is crime fiction so very plot-heavy, just like screenwriting. I’m honestly not too sure how someone can write mysteries or even just a twist in the tale WITHOUT writing an outline. Of course, anything in writing is possible. But I can’t shake the feeling there will be opportunities missed in the very least.
So in this sense, I am a total plotter. Being overt when it comes to plotting means being able to put everything under the microscope. I often START with the ending and plot backwards. This way I can decide if it all ‘matches up’. I learned this from a comedian, who calls this ‘The Punchline Method’, though it arguably works for ALL genres.
The above will include characterisation, especially when it comes character role function and motivation. I also may look at archetype, if appropriate. This is because I feel ultimately, characterisation and structure are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without the other. I may even ‘draw the story’, using a worksheet I designed myself. This way I can literally see where there are ‘gaps’ in the plot.
On Being A Pantser
But once I have done all the plotting stuff, I am much more relaxed. I think of my outline as being a ‘foundation’ – nothing more, nothing less. It is both a springboard AND a safety net.
Next is where ‘pantsing’ comes in, for me. I will think about my protagonist and what s/he wants and why. I will also think about what the antagonist wants and why. I will then surround them with a cast of supporting characters, who will either help or hinder them in the main character in their respective missions. They too will have their own reasons for doing this.
However, despite all my plotting in advance, my characters will not always do what I tell them.
Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Anti-plotters like King might insist that outlining kills creativity and spontaneity, but this has never been the case in my experience. Writing my own scripts and novels, I have had surprise after surprise from my characters over the years, including …
- Goodies turning bad (and vice versa)
- Characters have refused to do certain things, or go to certain places
- Others have started relationships (cheeky!)
- Some have even DIED when they weren’t supposed to!
Once, I started off writing one novel, complete with outline, only to end up with a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT one!
So, looks like you can ‘pants’ your characters even within a plotted framework … I know I do. Every time. This is why I don’t think writers have to be plotters OR pantsers … I think we can be both.
Always enjoy your column and learn something new. RE: Plotter or Panster. I think it’s time we substituted Flyer for Panster. Not just because Panster seems to have an illicit taint of something sexually deviant – “Did you hear? He’s a Panster!” Also, it’s the very opposite of what flyers do – fly on, not by the seat of your pants but by the freedom and openness of your imagination. Or maybe that’s a better word: An Imagineer.
As you can probably tell, I’m a Flyer or an Imagineer.
When I set out on the road trip that’s going to be my book, I know I’m traveling from L.A. to N.Y. and I might plan to go by the now vanished Route 66, but like Bugs Bunny, “took that wrong turn at Albuquerque” and go through Colorado, down to Mississippi before realizing I’d better head north.
Yes, never really sure how it turned into ‘Pantser’ – ‘Flyer’ seems much more logical! Imagineer is good too. Good luck with your projects 🙂
one who plants their butt in chair and just writes until it is done
i.e. they write by the seat of their pants
Yes, the definition is in the article. I was agreeing with Jack Polo that ‘Flyer’ is more logical
Ah the organic or full fat writer conundrum… I confess I am both. Oh yes missus. It tends to depend on what I’m writing and for whom. If it’s a speculative script (which it usually is) I’ll be flying by pant seats all the way, then I’ll draw up a treatment, synopsis etc… Then I might spot flaw that need fixing and I’ll go back into the script and make changes. But if I’m working on something I’ve been asked to do for a friend or whatever, then I’ll draw up the treatment/outline, plot points etc before going into the screenplay writing itself. So I guess that makes me a plotty pantser? Yikes!
Love your articles and discussions Lucy… Keep em coming.
and then I spot a typo that needs fixing after pressing submit… flaw = flaws! aargh!
Don’t worry about it 😉 I think I am the opposite to you, a ‘Pantsy Plotter’! Arf
Begrudgingly becoming more of a plotter, but it’s so miserable and unnatural having to be so.
I find that those with the power are quite keen on this thing called structure, and any modicum of success has been as a result of plotting properly.
It’s art not science!
How do you suggest these two concepts would work for TV series, especially when it’s Serialized. By the time you get to the last ep. your ending, may no longer work organically as envisioned. Examples of these misfires would be Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc.
LOST was apparently written by the seat of its pants and if true (because myth-making happens) then it really shows imho. I think it’s a massive disadvantage to be a pantser as a screenwriter.
I find I have to do both. I will fly by the seat of my pants ‘free writing’ scenes between characters that fit a specific circumstance I’ve plotted. This is the way I discover my characters and differentiate their voices from my own. I find I do a lot of structure work, and practice screenwriting really helps find the ‘less is more’ in a story idea.
Sometimes it’s like I have a logline for a particular scene in my head. I throw the characters in and the dialogue emerges. I take the free written scenes and assemble them into my first guess at the structure, then I edit. Lots. Then lots more.
One has to have the attitude that words are cheap but story is gold to go this way, because the ‘pants’ writing produces a lot of words that will never make it into the book.
I’ve got into a lot of trouble by simply pantsying it. While it has worked in some circumstances, I have about half a dozen unfinished books that I may return to someday. (What’s the likelihood of that?) and so have come to realise that some plotting is really necessary (it goes very much against the grain of: great idea, I’ll write about that, syndrome) as otherwise I can end up in a plot hole.
Doing some planning of how the novel will pan out is, after the above experience, something I am coming round to. That is not to say I’m going to work it out scene by scene, as some advise, but at least have the key elements in place. And getting the triad of character — plot — theme right.
All very tricky, really 🙂
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