Plotter or Pantser?


Well-Known Member
Jun 17, 2007
I'd love to hear what everyone's writing process is.

When I started writing a book seriously for the first time, I just wrote whatever came to my head at the moment.
It worked for about 2 chapters and then i realized I had no idea where it was going.
I started over with an idea and made it to chapter 4. Then found it was a dead end and had an even better idea...
I must have written the first 4 chapters a dozen times before finally deciding to write out a plot first.

And I suddenly became a plotter. I plot. A lot. I have spreadsheets on the plot, notes on characters and setting and the species in my book. The story blossomed and turned into a series. I work on it on and off and I have only 8 good chapters to show for it. Part of this is because it is so damn hard to really pull all this work together and because it's a series I have to think of the future less I write myself into a corner. I also stopped for like 3-4 years while I looked for a job and struggled through my 20's.

Sometimes I am afraid it is rubbish and stop working on it for days, or life gets in the way. Then I return to it and have to remember where I left off...
Part of me wonders if at this point I should return to panstering and hoping things fix themselves. But I'm afraid I will end up ruining all my hard and calculated work. It does move forward the way it is, but sometimes really slowly. Other times ideas come in bursts.

I never understood how a good book could come from panstering. I mean, I see that a lot of great authors do just that and I am mesmerized on how it works out. Without knowing what's ahead how can you foreshadow, or leave clues or hints or really organize a good story? A GPS without an address cannot calculate the route. You need to know the ending!

I have read some awful books out there and I can tell they were panstered. The main character is just walking through the forest aimlessly for chapters and cannot figure out why he is. So how does panstering work? there must be more to it than I understand...

So who here plots and who here pansters?
What are your writing processes? Reveal them!
I have been a bit of a plotter before but at the mo if I don't write, just research or plot, I lose interest so I'm writing (but idea had done quite a lot of composting in my head first). And I will be setting out the chronology on paper soon. I guess I'm a simultaneous plotter if that's a thing
I have been a bit of a plotter before but at the mo if I don't write, just research or plot, I lose interest so I'm writing (but idea had done quite a lot of composting in my head first). And I will be setting out the chronology on paper soon. I guess I'm a simultaneous plotter if that's a thing
Your a hybrid!
Maybe that’s what I need to be. But I’m so afraid of letting the book take control of itself when it resulted in me riding so many ways to chapters when I first started. But that was quite a long time ago…
I'm a complete pantster. I can't understand how anyone can plot tightly and still tell a story that has life and breathes naturally. :)

Anyhow, my process. I get an idea, normally a 'what-if' idea. I muse on it quietly for a period of time - could be a few days, a month, or even years. At some point, a character will turn up during my musings - or, sometimes, at first draft stage - and they'll be the person I start basing the story around.

Then I start with where I think the beginning is. Sometimes the beginning doesn't change, sometimes it changes many times. I write the story in a linear pattern. Sometimes, if I get a bit stuck I do some mind mapping to progress the next few chapters. Sometimes things stall and I go off and edit something else while my brain works out what it was trying to say.

Eventually I'll have a very loose first draft - which is, really, my planning document. Then the real writing begins when I tidy it all up, flesh out characters and scenes, remove all the bits where I've told myself the story and turn those into meaningful scenes. Then the beta/editing process goes on until I have a finished book. By then, it's hard in my mind and it's difficult to believe this wasn't always the story was going to be told, or that I had times when I wasn't sure of it.

Mostly, I think my subconcious knows what it wants to do and I mainly just facilitate it in doing so....
Started as a pantser, definitely moving towards having some form of plotting in place. Stuff still needs to be rewritten, and the structure will change, but plotting can make it easier to see gaps in the narrative and beats for emotional development.
I can pants for a short story, and in that space I can feel what the pantsers are talking about--there's an organic feel to it. But, and it's a but that makes these pants look big, in every short story I've written I've always been able to feel the shape of the story in my mind. I always have one or more characters, however tentative. I always know the ending, more or less. I always know the story has to start somehere right around here. The details are vague and the details are the fun part of writing it. It's akin to feeling a statue in the dark. The lights don't come up until the actual writing is done, but the finished product is still a human not a car or an elephant, and I knew that from the first.

With novels I can fool myself into thinking I know the shape, but it's often far from what I first imagined. When I'm just discovering as I was in my first novel, that's sort of ok, though terribly inefficient (endless rewrites). In my last book it was closer to the short story experience in that I knew the outline in my head and because the story was of the there-and-back-again type, I knew that wasn't going to change much. I even knew what the character arcs were going to be.

With my WIP, though, there's a story already there, because it's based on historical events. So there's a bunch of outlining involved in just getting the chronology and the geography right. It feels more like producing a play or making a movie, where I have to scout locations and design sets in which the action will take place. There's still plenty of room for character development, though, and I'm leaving that organic.

IOW, there is no method. Every new story is a new experience, with different dynamics. I figure maybe after ten or twelve novels, the differences will become fewer. I picture it as more settling into a pattern than coming up with the best method. The most comfortable method, maybe. Georges Simenon, who wrote over 200 novels, had an absolute routine, at least later in his career.
I think @Jo Zebedee has hit on an important point in that I expect to do a lot of refining after the first draft. My first draft this time will be in some ways an exploraton. I'm also writing several points in the story simultaneously - i'm not sure if I've found the start or not- which I know would drive some people mad...
I do a bit of both. When I get an idea, I run it through my head a bit like a hazy movie until I have a beginning, several stepping stone plot points and an ending. This can take years. At that point, if it looks dense enough to be a novel, I start writing and that's when the characters start turning up and the wrestling starts as I try to make them stick to the plot.
I generally plot the whole story in advance. This tells me whether there is actually a story there in the ideas, setting, and characters, and that it is worth going ahead. There have been a few times when this part of the process comes to an abrupt halt and refuses to go forward. Then I have to wait until a new premise comes to me, and when it does I put it to the same test.

Then I start writing the story, and sometimes I follow the plan and sometimes I don't. Usually there is a lot of don't in there. A whole lot of don't, as new and (I think) better ideas come to me as the story and the characters develop. I have no hesitation about making changes, many of them quite drastic. So before I start writing I am a plotter. Once I begin, I let things develop organically.

I'm a panster, though I have some sort of a plan for a story I'm working on. Given I'm yet to sell a story, I thought it was about time I try something different. One of the reasons I enjoy writing is not knowing what happens next, which is one reason I haven't planned before. But writing this planned story is interesting too. On the principle that some stories are good even though you know the ending is inevitable, maybe that's why I'm finding it interesting. I know the ending and only roughly how I'm going to get there.
I mix and match and I'm convinced 9 out of 10 writers do so in some form.

My most usual form of it is:

Get idea, flesh idea out a little in head - characters, major scenes, rough plot
Write about 10k words of various scenes, seeing whether the words flow, whether I like the character voices, whether they excite me
Write a plan
Stop being able to plan properly after 6 chapters
Write 6 chapters
Plan some more
Rinse and repeat to end

Although, I say usual, but I've only done all of those steps once. And I've also taken to doing first drafts as just screenplays for some scenes, because I hate writing scenes when I haven't lived it in my head.
This may be relevant.
I'm sort of a mix. I go in with a general idea of what is going to happen, and then I come up with something better as I write. Or something more.
@Teresa Edgerton when the story changes on you as you write, do you stop and go back and replot? Or is the plotting part done for good?

i find that I plot and then write. Certainly better ideas come to me and I need to stop and see if these are actually good ideas and I start replotting.

Yes. Neil is a big panster. I’ve read his ideas on writing. So is Stephen King. I don’t know how they do it!
I often know that they are better ideas because they make what I have already written work much better (though in unexpected ways) than what I had originally planned. It's as if my subconscious mind is ahead of me and knew about this new thing all along. Other times, yes, I have to back and do some rewriting. But that is what second (third, etc.) drafts are for.
Not dissimilar to mine once I start writing, except it usually takes more than two drafts to smooth out all the major problems.
General idea of story and characters --> general idea of story arc --> sketch out a few key scenes as test balloons --> write and polish one or two scenes plus maybe the opening paragraphs to figure out the style --> more detailed plot breakdown (tentatively into chapters) --> write out some more key scenes --> adjust plot breakdown if need be --> sit down and write book from beginning to end, while allowing for the possibility of additions to or deletions from the plan.
I think I'm somewhere in the middle of this. My process is something like this:

- have idea for something entertaining
- sit on idea until it clearly isn't just a passing thought
- work out very rough story (usually, start, end and main characters)
- work out moments of importance in course of story (I tend to think of them as islands to visit in a voyage)
- start writing with a view to getting to the first plot island
- reach island and plan next stage in more detail. The level of planning depends on the story.

I'm not sure what that makes me.

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