Dun, dunn, dunnn! We hear so much about plotting vs pantsing when we’re in MFA programs. And there’s a good reason! Writers fall into either one of those categories when it comes to how they plan out their novels. Can we deviate? Of course! A traditionally fantasy-inspired writer who pantses can decide to write that cozy mystery they’ve been thinking about forever and plot out the novel. And a traditional plotter who has to know every detail (at least the main plot points including the beginning, middle, end, and any twists) could decide to wing it by the seat of their pants and plan nothing! But what do these terms mean?! I’m glad you asked–or at least clicked on the blog to find out!
Let’s start by defining each term to dig into them.
Plotter: organized writers. Plotters have outlines of the story, generally what will happen in each chapter, what (important information) will be revealed when, what will be exposed at which point. Know most of the smaller details of your novel before you even start writing that either make it into the story or even the things that don’t. Basically, if plotter was a zodiac trait, I’d put it down for Virgo. (I’m a Virgo, and no, I am not a plotter.)
Pantser: the “free spirit” writer. Doesn’t know where the story is going when they start, or may have a vague idea of how it ends, but start with absolutely no plan on how to get there. Really and truly starts a story by “winging” it. May just have a character’s name and personality in mind and run with it. May have an idea for a shocking ending and just start to type to see how they get there. Pantsers I’d put down as Gemini.
Plantser: doesn’t have the whole thing planned out, but has a more general idea than a pantser. Possibly have their opening scene, inciting incident, middle point, ending, or any combination of the aforementioned planned out in their head (and may even be inclined to write it down). A true “in betweener.” Plantsers have certain future scenes planned out in their head and write to get to that point, not knowing at the time how they are going to get there. This one was harder, but after some thinking and comparison of traits, I’d personally label plantsers as Libra.
Generally, most types of writers are plantsers–this new term. When the plotter and pantser were first coined, many stuck themselves into the box that “most fit,” but the general consensus is that the biggest percentage of writers are a mix of both. And I want to let you in on a little secret. I’ve finished novels as 2 out of the 3 options. I have at various times embodied both a pantser and plantser. I’ve written fantasy with a general idea in mind and a character with a certain attitude, but I knew nothing else. Not the opening, middle, or the way it would end. I decided maybe 2 or 3 chapters in who the antagonist would be. (My chapters are around 5,000 words each on average, so this is a bit into the book, isn’t it?)
Then there have been the books that I knew more about, or at least had various scenes in my head that I knew I was writing toward, and how it would end. I just didn’t know what would happen in between writing to all these certain “plot point” scenes I imagined in my head. For me, outlining these exciting, adventurous novels was a no-go. The one time I tried, I got the same sense of satisfaction I get from finishing a novel and promptly lost all desire to actually write the prose! There was no surprise. There was no intrigue for me. So I lost interest. The same goes for when I write out of chronological order and try to write random scenes and piece them together, which I’ll cover in another blog post, because that is also another part of being a writer that is uniquely each snowflaked individual.
And then there was the WIP (that is still being outlined) that’s out of my usual genre, and while it’s taking longer to really get started on, I felt like I needed all the plot points, chapter piques, and twists down and on paper in an outline before I started writing.
You can absolutely embody them all at different times for different WIPs. You can also be decidedly only one of these options for every project you work on. Humans are wonderful snowflakes–no one is exactly alike. We thankfully have others who do certain things similarly so we can compare and learn and keep bettering ourselves, but no one writes exactly like you, and that’s a beautiful thing! Because it means no one can write the exact story you’re writing.
Here are some other sources and fun extras!
- A quiz to see if you’re more plotter or pantser
- A fun article on some famous authors and their writing alignment
- A source with the pros and cons for each style as well as some helpful plotting links
The comments on the last one are also fun and interesting–writers talking about their experiences as each writing style/alignment!