From Pantser to Plotter

I’m betraying the Pantser camp. Pantsers are dirty and smelly, and they throw baby carrots at people for no reason. Jokes aside—after nearly two years of editing my novel and outlining new projects, I’ve come to prefer meticulous planning over off-the-cuff writing.

For those who don’t know, a Pantser is one who writes “by the seat of [his or her] pants” without planning ahead, whereas a Plotter is one who outlines the novel’s story and narration to a significant extent before writing the first chapter.

Writing as a Pantser just created more work for Future Me.

pantser story arc

Readers might get stuck in the crotch and never get to the other pant leg.

Three years ago, I started a manuscript with minimal planning. I had some ideas for the world and setting, created psychological profiles and backgrounds for a few main characters, and then I let those characters lead themselves through 80,000 words of meandering hi-jinks. My first draft, more appropriately referred to as a “junk draft” or “draft zero,” suffered from significant structural problems which has required a lot of editing.

Lack of planning leads to excessively lopsided story arcs.

In a misguided attempt to write a commercial YA with a literary feel, I wrote my first chapters as slice-of-life vignettes with the intent of creating a sense of normalcy before crazy junk happened (note: there’s nothing with a commercial-literary hybrid, I just didn’t do it right). I let my characters do whatever they wanted, and they did a whole lot of nothing for too many chapters (albeit with some fun banter). This problem extended into much of the “rising action” portion of the MS which, essentially, rose too slowly.

Characters, like children and actors, need some direction.

To be clear, even as a Pantser, I often had conclusions in mind as soon as I opened up a new plot line. The problem was I’d have two or three conclusions and take too long to decide on one of them.

Outlining reins in the characters and helps build a proper arc.


So much sexier.

Knowing a majority of the plot points, both major and minor, it’s easier to adjust the pace of individual scenes so they properly contribute to the pace of the overall novel. So, the rising action has only minor dips from the resolutions of subplots rather than momentum-breaking pitfalls which results in an anti-climactic ending.

“Double rainbow . . . what does this mean?” Well, it should mean something.

Ideally, everything described in a novel should tie into the overall plot, character development or world building—preferably all three. The more you know of the whole story, the better you’ll be able to emphasize the importance of the individual pieces by linking them together. A lot of these connections can be established and elaborated during the revision process, but it saves so much time if you plan things out a bit earlier as opposed to retroactively squeezing things in.

So, for my future novels . . .

Having more writing experience, I can probably be a much better Pantser if I choose to write without outlining. However, I’m definitely going to try to be a Plotter for my next project or two.

24 thoughts on “From Pantser to Plotter

  1. I’m definitely a plotter. Like you, I learned it ultimately saves time and work to have things planned out before. That doesn’t mean there isn’t wiggle room for change. I’ve never felt boxed in and can still add new dimensions and tangents I hadn’t planned. But when the overall structure is there beforehand, it makes filling in the blanks so much easier. For me, anyway, because my brain works better that way.


    • My outline, like my MS, is always subject to change. It’s definitely better, for me, to have certain major elements planned out beforehand. Squeezing them in afterward is just too much trouble.

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  2. Our cycle is very similar. I’m now outlining four at once. I’ll make them fight for my writing time. The beauty is the old ones will still be available and maturing while I write the first one. Maybe my next project will come sooner that way.

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  3. It is personal choice whether we write to a framework or not. Free flow writing does not hinder creative flow – editing & revision comes later. A well planned outline can enable some writers to ‘see’ the narrative more clearly. It all depends on how your mind works, I suppose.

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  4. I was always a “pantser” too, and to an extent I think I will always leave a little wiggle room for that mindset, but I discovered on my final rewrite of one of my screenplays, after plotting I was able to get the third act completely rewritten in a matter of days. Such a better feeling than meandering.

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  5. Even as a plotter, I find that I have to restructure entire story arcs in order to make a good manuscript. I can’t imagine how much more work I would have given myself had I pants’d this project!

    Oh wait, I do – I tried to pants it during NaNoWriMo 2012, and just ended up with 30,000 words I never used again.

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  6. I was kind of a pantser until I learned about the “plot clock”, i.e, the inciting incident, binding point, low point, yada yada .. Now I have a novel that feels a little stiff. Need to channel that pantser feeling again and give some chapters a much needed kick in the seat!

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  7. Committed pantser here. I imagine that makes the actual writing slower, since I have to address pacing and plot issues as I go, and sometimes I’ll get stuck for awhile, but were I writing to an outline, the process would seem more like drudgery than discovery. I expect I’d also have a greater tendency to force the characters’ actions to conform to the pre-planned plot instead of allowing them arise organically from their personalities and situations, which can result in an arc that feels, well, forced. So far my plots have tied up rather nicely, and I’ve had to do little in the way of plot reorganization. In fact, when I have tried to rearrange scenes, I’ve run into problems, since when scenes arise from character and situation, changing their order can break the chain of causation, resulting in character actions that lack motivation. To address some of the usual pantser concerns, I split the writing process into halves–in the first, I try to be wildly creative while defining setting, character and situation. In the second, I concern myself with making sure everything ties together in a way that makes sense and leaves no gaps. When the process works, it can seem like the product of a detailed outline. For example, I had no idea how The Demon of Histlewick Downs would end until I had only two chapters left to write, but I suspect many readers would think I’d planned it from the start.

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    • That sounds like a good plan. I do like characters to behave organically and realistically. I never really stopped to think that where a book or movie has unrealistic character reactions, it was a result of shifting scenes around for pace.


  8. Pingback: Best Fiction and Writing Blogs | M.C. Tuggle, Writer

  9. I was also a pantser. I have worked my way into being a plotter. It started as an experiment but now I found a method I like. If I had to label myself I would say I’m in between so maybe a plotting pantser? Pantsing plotter? Either way I’ve learned I need Some structure and my writing has improved. Now I never have to worry about losing the thread of an idea.

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