Headshot - Catherine McLean pantsers vs plotters

Outlining vs Chaos: the Pantser vs Plotter Dilemma

I have a tendency to just sit and write, developing a mind map as I go in order to keep track of characters and events. Is that how Pantsers work? In this post on how to be an author, Catherine McLean outlines the differences between Pantsers and Plotters, giving us a clear insight into the technical side of writing.

Which are you? Give your reactions to this article in the comments below.
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Outlining or Chaos: the Pantser vs Plotter Dilemma

by Catherine E McLean

Headshot - Catherine McLean pantsers vs plotters Of the ten types of story-generation styles I've been able to discover, most people only know of the top two: The Pantser and The Plotter. Most writers start out as Pantsers. I think this is due to the "artsy" concept that creativity and inspiration are "The Force" behind a work of fiction and to let it flow. Embrace the Muse. Put your butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard, and write, write, write. Unfortunately, the down side is that the Muse doesn't always cooperate and so writer's block sets in or the trite and cliched appears on the page.

As to the linear-thinkers, those Plotters expound on the virtues of plotting, delineation of characters, and calculating every aspect of the story. Many go into such detail that, by the time they are ready to write, they have lost interest in the story. After all, they know it from beginning to end in detail, minute detail, so why write it.

But there is more to the Pantser and the Plotter dilemma

[pullquote]The Pantser is driven by inspiration[/pullquote] (the Muse). A Pantser may have an instinctive grasp of story from extensive reading of well-told stories, but they are clueless to the techniques, the underpinnings and technical aspects of plotting, or what makes a story work for a reader. Most don't want to learn craft, thinking it stifles creativity. In reality, craft liberates and provides possibilities.

A Pantser is also easily sidetracked while writing and will find they've gone off on tangents, digressed, filled pages with back story and back histories. Sadly, the Pantser also believes none of their darling words or characters should be changed or cut.

Then, too, the Pantser is often wrapped up in enjoying the high that comes from creating and the excitement of not knowing what will happen next. Which leads to characters stumbling into situations unprepared, or without motivation or a clear goal, let alone a way out of the situation. What the Pantser fails to grasp is that the first solution or idea that popped into their mind is likely contrived, corny, cliched, trite, or unrealistic (unbelievable).

And when a Pantser discovers a problem, their energy wanes. After all, solving the problem means rewriting, which is time-consuming, hard work, and boring. So why bother. Then, too, whenever the enthusiasm wanes, the Pantser tends to move on to a new story to re-stoke the "high" of creativity. Which means, stories never get completed.

The Pantser then bemoans their Muse not cooperating or secretly fears the Muse has abandoned them.

Now, as to the Plotter? The Plotter has a need, a desire, for assurance that things are orderly and accounted for. The Plotter analytically understands story structure and uses "plotting tools" like forms, questionnaires, cheat sheets, a project bible—whatever works—to develop an idea into a full-blown story. The Plotter uses craft techniques in order to better their stories and maintain control of the Muse and its output.

[pullquote]The Plotter takes advantage of plot boards[/pullquote] to weigh solutions for scenes and goals, thus preventing the protagonist falling into traps unprepared and unmotivated — and insuring there is a way out of the situation.

Most plotters plod along, unafraid of losing momentum or of losing elements that make for great conflict, which saves the Plotter energy and time in rewriting and polishing because the first draft is five or six times better than a Pantser's. That is, if the Plotter actually does write the draft.

In all honesty, most of the Pantsers I've met believe structure is sterilizing, boring, and stifles creativity. And I have met Plotters who never allow their Muse out of the shackles and cage they keep them in.

Producing Authors

The reality is that there are many great, tightly structured novels by producing authors. Emphasis on producing. So, what's their secret? It's this: producing authors have a system and habits that work for them and which have enabled them to consistently produce story after story. Here's a home truth: what works for one writer won't work for others. Why? Because writers are individuals. Any "system" must be tailored for the individual, their relationship with their Muse, and the talent, desire, and perseverance to achieve specific writing goals.

However, what a lot of newbie writers fail to grasp is that [pullquote]creativity can benefit from some structure[/pullquote]. And, yes, it's okay to take advantage of outlines, plot patterns, a "project bible," or forms as long as the writer tailors them for themselves and doesn't get carried to extremes by using such documentation. It's about realizing the shortcomings of the current story-generating method and compensating for them that truly works. Think of it as blending a pantser's inspiration to a plotter's need to know what and where and why. Thus structuring creativity isn't smothering the Muse but brings order to the chaos the Muse revels in and still provides the creation "high."

So, if you've been having problems with producing story drafts in a timely fashion or you desire to be a producing writer, why not consider blending logic and creativity to make your writing blossom?

Catherine writes "Women's Starscape Fiction" because she likes a story where characters are real people facing real dilemmas, and where their journey (their adventure-quest, with or without a romance) is among the stars and solar systems, and where there's always a satisfying ending. You can find her books on Amazon here.

A most interesting and informative article, Catherine - thank you very much!

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2 thoughts on “Outlining vs Chaos: the Pantser vs Plotter Dilemma

  1. I would disagree–your method actually falls into the “plotter” category because part of the plotter method is “outlining”–which you’re doing when you make that skeleton. In other words, you have a direction to go with your story. You are not just sitting at the keyboard and discovering the whole story like a pantser does. :))

    Have a great day!
    Catherine

  2. When I get interviewed, many times I’m asked whether I’m a Plotter ot a Pantser, I always answer by telling them that I’d probably that I’m a little of both. As I said in the above, I made a skeleton of an outside, writing down the basic plot points I’d like to hit as the story unfolded; and as a sculptor starting with a wire base of what they’d like to have, I added material, then took some away, until I had the finished product I had in mind.

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