Plotter or Panster? And Why You Should Be Both.

A lot of authors often ask the same question – “Are you a plotter or a panster?”

In case you’re wondering what the term is, it basically describes your method of planning out and writing a book. A panster does it by ‘the seat of their pants’, hence the term, and there will be total freefall in where the story goes and how it pans out. Whereas a plotter, as the name suggests, plots everything from the ground up.

Now obviously, some genres will require more plotting than others, such as mysteries (where you will probably need to know whodunnit long before the actual beginning), and epic fantasies, where you will probably need to at least work out lands, names, maps, etc., before fingers touch keyboard. There’s no hard and fast rules to this, as it also depends on how you work yourself, and how you want the book to turn out. But personally, I think that every writer needs to be a little bit of both panster and plotter. And here’s why:


Pansters Have All The Fun

ANARCHY. It'll be fun, until someone loses a metaphorical eye.

ANARCHY. It’ll be fun, until someone loses a metaphorical eye.

And that they do! You simply get an idea in your head, decide your main character, and start typing. The story could go anywhere, and even you don’t know where it’s going, which can be an exciting way of writing. But only a few people can do this really well, with no plotting at all, and I personally only know about four people who can. Because there’s another danger with doing nothing but panstering. Aside from the fact you will have to keep making pauses when you write to check facts in your manuscript, you’ve got almost too much freedom.

Remember those prompts you used to get given in little school? Something like, ‘You go into the garden, and find someone has left a mysterious box. You go to open it and…write what happens next.’ Sounds good, right? Except it’s not that good. Sure, it gives a great beginning to work from, same as an idea for a story, but it’s missing a few things. There’s no twists, there’s no problems, there’s no story. (I read something yesterday on a blog that goes much deeper into all of this, and it’s a good article to read over. You can find it here, at Writer Unboxed.) This means that all the complex parts of a story have to be worked out as you’re writing the story, which may mean you have to go back to change huge chunks, or risk continuity errors. This seems like a really freeing idea, but in fact, it can be crippling. It’s easy to work on to start with, but as you get further into a long book, or into sequels to a series, you may find that not having a plan gives you too much freedom. Characters act out of character (pun!), events that shouldn’t happen will happen, and you’ll get confused over what happened in Chapter 3, Book 2.

As I say, there are some authors who can do this, and do it incredibly well. This isn’t everyone. But for most, and especially the average writer just starting out, this can end in one of those ‘I’ll-finish-it-one-day’ manuscripts.


Plotters Are Too Rigid

Of characters, people, OF CHARACTERS!

Of characters, people, OF CHARACTERS!

Just as the complete panster can have too much freedom, a complete plotter can have too little. It seems like a great plan. Detail every inch of the story out, know what’s going to happen around every bend, and get writing. Right? Except, no. If you plot everything out, you do have the pros of being able to check notes at a glance, not worry about continuity, and you’ll create a great story.

But by planning every tiny detail, you miss out the creative freedom that comes with intuitive writing. What if you’re creating the perfect scenario for your main character walking through the city, and – oh, wait. You can’t put that in, because otherwise you won’t be able to write out your next carefully-planned chapter, because it won’t make sense otherwise. By being so rigid, you cut out any chances of allowing the natural flow of writing as it occurs, which means that what you’re left with is a technically perfect book, but one that’s a bit flat. It’s a book you’ll enjoy, but it won’t have that memorable ‘something’, that leaves you unable to forget it the next day. Imagine it as a film you’ve once enjoyed, but wasn’t memorable. Good actors, probably well-written dialogue, and great scenes. But it lacked a spark behind it, a glimmer of talent unbridled by the twists the story should take.

Plotting is a great tool, and it’s a hugely important one. But relying on it entirely can take away your author’s ‘voice’, making it feel and seem like something only you could have written, and something with your particular talent behind it. But most good writers I know, however much they plot, always have a bit of panstering about them, which leads on to…


Plotter/Panster – A Bit Of Everything

Yes, you too can have it all and go crazy on the dancefloor. I mean...with your manuscript.

Yes, you too can have it all and go crazy on the dancefloor. I mean…with your manuscript.

This is what you’re aiming for, if you want the best manuscript you can come up with. Too much of either plotting or panstering can be too much of a good thing, so a balance is the way to go. But how do you set this up? (By the way, this method below completely depends on how you write, and what genre, so take it only as a basic of the basics.) Well, as we know panstering to start with will leave us with questions later on, let’s do the next thing.

Plotting The Framework

The best way to create the merest of plotting isn’t notes – it’s a synopsis. A synopsis is literally a very thinned-out, 2-4 page description of what happens in your story, including twists and the conclusion. I know, I know, that sounds crazy because it seems more rigid. But I promise it’s not. And this isn’t necessarily the synopsis you’ll put over to a publisher, (but it may be, depending on how well you write it, up to you) it’s just for you to use. Once you’ve got your idea, whether it’s a kind of character, an object, or even just a random jumble of thoughts that came to you in the shower, jot it down. Now decide how it’s going to begin, remembering that it’s always best to go straight into action, rather than slow build-up. This doesn’t mean it has to be a car chase, but put the reader straight into the middle of a conversation, or into the middle of someone moving house, whatever fits. The first line is hugely important (and there’ll be another post on that soon), as it’s the one that will hit your reader first, and the whole first chapter lives by the same rules.

After you’ve got your beginning, what happens next? This is where the plotting comes in useful. Create a problem for your character(s), something that won’t be worked out easily. Now onto the next chapter, where you aim to start resolving this for them. There should be minor twists along the way, backstabbing, secret conversations, whatever you want to use to keep the pace and the storyline flowing well. By the time you get to the middle, you should have half-resolved the problem. I say ‘half-resolved’, because you don’t want it completely worked out. But you need enough that the reader doesn’t sit there going, “Why haven’t the characters done the reasonable stuff yet?”. It should also lead onto another problem, for the second half of your book. (Not forgetting that ‘the middle’ is an objective term, and generally means you’ve hit this point, rather than a certain word count.) Here’s an example:

Beginning: Tracy has to move out of her apartment, because she’s being evicted.

Problem: She hasn’t got anywhere else to go.

Attempts to solve the problem: Friends put her up, but it’s not the same as having her own house, and she can’t fit all her stuff in.

Half-resolved: She finds a new flat (resolved), but she has to share it with a room-mate who she can’t stand, and irritates her. (new problem, so only half-resolved.)

The half-resolved issue leads onto another, bigger problem that needs to be solved. This would give you the next part of your story, with the same method as before. (Problem, attempts to solve problem), with the difference of actually solving and concluding the story. The other important thing as you’re working through your synopsis should be to make your characters change in some way. In the example above, Tracy could perhaps work out that she’s being difficult, and they end up being friends – or in a romance, perhaps she falls in love with her hunky but annoying room-mate.

So by now, you should have characters, a basic storyline, and where it’s headed. Don’t worry about filling in details, such as ‘why’ Tracy was evicted, why she finds the flatmate annoying, or why she can’t find a new flat. You just need the structure here. The important things to have are twists, beginning, conclusion, middle twist, and main characters. (Not even minor characters!) Now…for the panstering.


Making Some Changes

The beauty of not being so rigid on yourself with the synopsis means that you can now have some fun playing with it. You know where the beginning is going, so get going on it! As you know what the next twist will be, but not how your characters will get there, if gives you a chance to have freedom with how that will happen. Filling in the gaps of your synopsis are where you can put your panster hat on, and wave your story as it flows naturally from your fingers flying across the keyboard.

And if you want to change something? With a synopsis, rather than a chapter-by-chapter analysis of how the story will go, you’ve got the room to do it. Remember how there are ‘twists’ in there, but they’re not necessarily listed by chapter. So why not take one out, if it’s too long? Add another one, if you think of something great. Or even make them change places, if it makes more sense. When you do something chapter-by-chapter, you line the bricks up and number exactly where they should go. With a synopsis, you can lay the bricks out, but change the order and even add more bricks.


So here’s a good place to start, if you’re wondering how to make a start on that manuscript that’s running around your brain. Get your ideas down on (virtual) paper, and work out the major kinks, remembering Problem, Attempts to Fix, Half-Resolved, Attempts to Fix, Characters’ Changes, Conclusion. Then use your writing mojo to panster all the gaps inbetween, letting your characters show you how to link one plotting part to the next. 🙂

How about you guys? What methods do you use when working out a new story? Are a panster, plotter, or both?