Pantsing Vs. Plotting – A Collection of Opinions on Planning or Not Planning Your Novel

A little while ago I asked various professional and aspiring authors their opinions on writing by the seat of their pants versus plotting their novel. They commented on the post their thoughts and why they preferred that method. These are them. You may use them for whatever purpose you’d like, but hopefully their original reasoning will guide you in your choices when writing. Enjoy!

Wayne Thomas Batson

The Door Within Trilogy, GHOST, The Bernifell Prophecies, and Many More

I don’t think there’s a right answer to the question. Each approach can work and work well for different authors. I am a staunch Outliner, and I’m very detailed. It works for me. Without it, the writing process takes ten times as long. The misunderstanding of outlining is that some feel outlining takes away the spontaneity of the scene. That doesn’t need to be true at all. My outlining process is full of just as much crazy SURPRISE stuff is any seat of the pants story. After all, creating the outline of the story really is just seat of the pant in miniature. You create the outline as you go. Sometimes, I allow a month or more for the outlining process, and in that way, I have plenty of fun with creation. 😀

No Plot? No Problem!

–NaNoWriMo’s Motto

“Joking Koala”

Writing by the seat of your pants is so much better. One of the prime reasons that this is true is that you experience what the character is experiencing. For example, how can you portray a character’s fear if you know that they are going to be all right? How can you simulate the unknown if you all ready know what lurks beyond? It is important that your story is suspenseful, and too much planning makes your writing seem too structured and predictable. It’s okay to have a general idea for your beginning, climax, and resolution, but that is all I recommend for an unpredictable, dangerous, and very real story.

I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all of our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

–Stephen King

Sarah Spradlin

Kingsblade and I Will Not Be Moved

So, I actually write kind of in a happy ground in between seat-of-your-pants and outlining. Brooke does this as well. Not sure about Brenna. xD She is always the wild card of awesomeness 😉 But, my general tactic is to create a tentative outline, get a rough idea of what’s going to happen in each chapter, set a goal word count, and then begin to write. If I think a new chapter needs to be interjected, or removed, or completely redirected, then I change the outline to reflect that. I create my outlines to give me a good starting point and then I make the dive after that. I’m not held down by a strict plan, but I’m also not leaving home without a map (or handkerchief). So, I guess my thoughts overall are get a good mix of both, but that’s what works for me. It changes from person to person. 🙂 Great topic to bring up! There are a lot of opinions out there 😉 God bless!

Did you know J. R. R. Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by the seat of his famous britches?

Julianne Cassetta

I’ve tried both and never gotten far when using either extreme. I’ve always had to fit somewhere in between to write well. Spontaneous writing is tons of fun for me, but (at least when I’m writing by myself) I tend to feel like it’s awesome as I write it, but when I come back to it later it seems wimpy and lame.

When I plan my writing, however, I tend to overdo it. I can’t just make a general outline, I have to plan every little detail or else when I start writing I improvise to the extent that my outline isn’t even for the same story anymore. While that may not be bad, I’ve never gotten to that point and NOT felt discouraged. If, however, I do plan out every detail, the writing just isn’t fun. I can’t use my cool ideas that I have while I’m writing.

Something interesting I’ve noticed is that the same doesn’t apply when I’m writing with someone else. In that case, the other person’s perspective really gives me better ideas than I otherwise would have without planning, and I can develop them faster and create much better scenes than either of us would have were we working alone. When we plan together, we both have different ideas of where the story should go and when, so any outline we create ends up much more flexible than what I would have made on my own. I would definitely rather write with someone than by myself!

So, I guess I would say that I can plan my writing, but I have to be flexible. (It’s also worth pointing out that no amount of planning is going to redeem a plot that was lame from the beginning, something that has happened to me more than once.) Sorry for the super long reply, Harry, but you asked for it.

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

–George R. R. Martin

Christopher Hopper

The White Lion Chronicles, Berinfell Prophecies, and Inventors World Novels

Great topic for discussion. I’ve done both and settled somewhere in the middle; yet I know authors who are successful in both extremes.

Writing by the seat of my pants is super fun, exciting, and you’re just as surprised as the characters are; the downside is I tend to write more “plot-based” work instead of “character-based” work, so things feel thin. I then have to do a lot of re-writing as I think of things later on that need to be threaded back into the book to make it feel “beefier.”

Writing completely planned makes for great layers and intentional conflicts, but tends to take the joy out of it for me. I don’t feel surprised, and thus I don’t believe the reader is as surprised either.

My middle ground is “planning to be surprised.” In other words, I know where my characters need to start, and where I want them to end up; I also have scaled various arcs and events that will press them toward that goal. But much of the details need to be fleshed out in the moment. I also spend more time pre-visualizing the characters (traits, character, tendencies, habits) which then inform me as to how they’ll respond when something comes up that I throw at them.

I guess you could say my current approach is to truly know my characters (planned on the front end) and then watch (write spontaneously) as I plunge them into conflict.

Happy writing, all!

Did you know J.K. Rowling made a table to plan Harry Potter that described what happened each day in the book?

Lars Olsen

I agree with everyone here. Both techniques are equal in my book. I usually plan my story, but lots of stuff changes during the writing part.

Did you know Bryan Davis writes by the seat of his pants, but has eight separate drafts?

Brooke Norris

Musketeers and Masquerades

Like Sarah, I stand on middle ground. I usually spend many days thinking and writing down ideas (usually set to music or whatever happened to inspire the original idea to begin with), developing an outline, and then wrecking said outline! I have found that the longer I spend on pre-writing the less I usually have to tear things apart. Sometimes I get halfway through a book, like my current project, realize it could be better and gut most of it, leaving only a couple chapters here and there. The only bad thing about writing by the seat of your pants is that if you change something in the middle of the story, you must remember what you did! Sarah and I forgot a lot of little details when writing Wilderquest and as a result we had a jumbled pile of unfulfilled dragon prophecies and the like. My level of organization varies (I wrote all during NaNoWriMo 2013 without a book title…it drove me crazy!), but I at least have an outline and leave space in that outline to jot down new ideas if they come. And take the outline everywhere…which is why it has marks all over it and has places where it has gotten ripped, crumpled, etc.
Thank you for the opportunity to write! I apologize for taking so long to respond!

Anyone who says writing is easy isn’t doing it right.

-Amy Joy

Harry Olsen (Me)

Shadow Wars Trilogy

I will come out and say it: I am a plotter. I think going into a story without any planning is pointless and will lead you to as many dead ends as there are loopholes and flat characters. At least for me.

I’m sorta one of those people whose planning is actually longer than the manuscript itself. Not literally (I haven’t actually done that yet), but you get the point. For a new story concept I’m working on, I’m filling out a character questionnaire for each of the main characters, and have yet to plan each and every chapter. Not only do I know where I want them to begin and end up in, I know every step it takes to get there. And I know whether their stepping on dirt, grass, or mountains, and if they’re killing an ant on the way, and if that path has ever been trodden before.

However, I must respect all pantsers, because you guys all still make works of art. J. R. R Tolkien, for example, one of the most famous authors of all time, wrote the Lord of the Rings Trilogy completely pantsed. I have no doubt other great works like his have been crafted the same way. Somehow you guys can get to where you want to go without as Sarah said, a map, which is very impressive. You guys are as George R. R. Martin said, the gardeners. Which I commend.

But we architects are strong too.  J.K. Rowling planned, as have countless others. We can take each element of a novel and fit it in. We dive deeper than the sea into our characters, setting, and conflict. We know if our characters are tidy, what’s in their refrigerator, what’s their daily routine on a weekday and weekend, what facial expression they make for each feeling, what kind of people who get on their nerves, and much more. We know if our setting as foreign creatures, and if it does what they eat, where they live, and if they are predators or prey.

And for those of you in the middle ground, I commend you as well. I would say its a perfect balance, and not all can achieve it. Some lose creativity from planning, while some hit a dead end in the middle from not planning. Some do both. But you guys don’t, and if you do you power through it. Well done.

And that concludes this session. Thank you.

Thanks, everyone! I hoped this helped all readers and guides you in your course of action when writing. We’ll hopefully do something like this again soon. Bye! Hosanna in the highest!

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