Pantser vs. Plotter (Outliner)

This post is about writing and stuff (2,100 words). I’ll throw in a photo . . .

. . . for them who wandered in here by mistake. The rest of the post consists of words and more words beside other words.

Also interesting (to me, not to the readers) is that just by writing this piece I’ll pick up at least three new followers and perhaps as many as six. They will all be writers or have something to do with the writing industry. They will not leave a comment; only a like and a follow, and I’ll never hear from them again because all they are doing is spreading their names and sites.

Twenty-one new followers in the last three weeks, right after my book reviews and my other piece on writing.

I don’t mind, really; it’s tough making it as a writer. The pay is bad, and anonymity is a feature of the profession. So, to any writer who reads this far, I understand; vade con spaghetti monstrum volantes.

To the other seven new followers in the last three weeks, I’m not interested in financial advice, women from Ukraine or Peru, supporting your travel blog, or hearing about how god shines on your life.

With that out of the way . . .

The title should give you an idea what this post is about. For them not familiar with the terms:

Pantser — someone who sneaks up behind you and pulls your pants down.

Plotter — someone who plots to sneak up behind you so they can pull your pants down.

OK, them be not the definitions.

A pantser is a writer who writes without a plot outline in mind.

A plotter is a writer who outlines a story’s plot before they sit down writing.

There are overlaps between those two terms, but here are the extremes:

The extreme plotter takes an idea, works out an associated plot, works out the personality of the characters (including backstory supporting their personality), plans key scenes (corresponding to tried-and-true stories structures and pacing), and finally fills in the blanks without deviating from the outline (because they have it all worked out). 

An extreme pantser is a writer who has an idea (a scene), has no planned characters, no clue on the plot or pacing or additional scenes or action of their story. They start writing that scene and sees where it takes them.

One could argue that both writers start with an idea, both end with a finished product — a story with a beginning, middle, and end — and what’s in between is the same process but executed differently. I made that argument HERE.

About now, writers reading this are rolling their eyes and questioning the hubris of an unpublished writer writing about something explored ad nauseam by people far more qualified to do so.

Fair enough, but let me tell you why I’m a pantser. Perhaps it will move you to try it. Or, it will explain why I only have six readers. Ready?

Here’s the first big reason:

Characters drive the plot better than a plot drives characters.

Duh, the plotter says. It’s why I write detailed character traits and backstories and physical descriptions.

OK, but you do it before the characters interact, before the plot develops. You then have to bend the character’s will to your will, shape and mold them to fit the plot, and fit their behavior into however many acts you have in your story.

My number one complaint with books and movies — right after “that plot is stupid!” — is characters acting out of character. Meaning, the plot dictates their actions to where I stand up and yell “a real person would never do that!” at the screen. Heck, even the character as defined would never do what the writer has them do.

That simple fact has turned me off from watching most movies and television shows and had me stop reading new books. I’m forcing myself to read books again (many in this past year) and that’s still my number one complaint.

This is true — and most egregious — in trilogies and longer series, so much so that I’ve not gotten past the first book of even one of them.

There’s a group of readers out there who don’t mind contrived reasons why something that could fit into a 120K words book requires three 140K words books.

Wait, am I telling you not to write successful books?

No; I’m telling you to let your characters drive your plot as opposed to the other way around. Can you plot out a long story arc and organically and realistically fit characters into the unfolding of it? You can as long as you recognize when you’re not doing it.

Here’s the second big reason to be a pantser:

Characters drive the plot better than a plot drives characters.

Wait! . . . that looks like the first big reason! Ok, I’ll give you that, but it’s not. I’m now addressing the pitfalls of molding the actions of the character into certain established story-telling beats. It still sounds like the first reason and here’s why; many plotters follow a structure.

I’ve read a lot about Three Acts, Five Acts, Six Stages (a variant of the Three Acts model), Seven Points (another variant of the Three Acts model).

I understand bringing the reader along and controlling their emotions to provide a satisfying resolution. But, here’s my beef . . . just by looking where I am in the book (or movie, or TV show) I can tell a lot about what to expect. For instance, in a lot of works, there’s a point when the initial problem seems solved only for it to crop up again with a vengeance.

It’s so ingrained in storytelling that even in real life people find it difficult to accept good fortune, conflict resolution, or that, no, bad things don’t happen in three.  

It looks like good vanquished the forces of evil, but it’s only a third into the book; well, gorsh durn it, why are the good guys celebrating? Why are they letting their guard down? Don’t they know life is one big Three Acts Play?

Few books made me forget I was reading a book. The feeling that events are unfolding organically (and logically and at least somewhat realistically) is what I aim for in my storytelling. I’m not saying I hit that sweet spot (not a published writer, I am) but sure as heck I know when the book I’m reading doesn’t.

Nothing takes me out of a book faster than recognizing the pattern of structure, and it comes to light when characters falter in their abilities, make stupid decisions, miss obvious clues, and do all they can to help fit the story into a structured plot instead of solving the problem they face. 

I understand I’m not a typical reader. I also understand that not following that structure in my writing lowers my odds of being published.

But wait . . . do I follow that structure? I don’t know. I might, and not even be aware of it.

My experiences condition me to certain expectations. As a modern human, every TV show I’ve ever watched, every movie, and most books I’ve read, all follow certain beats. They may vary slightly between genres, but when I listen to writers and editors review or dissect a book, it seems everything has these same beats, this same structure.

Deviating from it may leave a viewer or reader with an uncomfortable feeling.

As a pantser, I don’t know, but I might follow the same beats. In part, that’s because I visualize the unfolding action, the twists and turns, the progression of the plot, as a movie playing in my mind. If I know it or not, everything I liked about movies I watched and books I’ve read feeds my writing.

However, and this I hope, I’m allowing the characters to dictate these beats. Foremost, when faced with a problem, I want my character to be smart and act smart. It’s OK if they make a mistake or something doesn’t work because they didn’t know a crucial piece of information.

It’s OK if they suffer a setback . . . but it’s not OK if they suffer a setback because they suddenly turn incompetent. Or, because they ignored a crucial piece of data. Or, because they decided not to share that crucial piece of information. It’s not OK for me — the writer — to unfold the plot by turning the character stupid. It’s not OK for me — the reader — to see it happen.

That’s what I often see: competence turning into incompetence. No good reason for it other than — structurally — it’s time for a setback. Then, like magic, the character again can do no wrong and wins the day by making use of their superior abilities.

Except, I can’t forget that just a few pages prior, they were incompetent and behaved stupidly. 

After saying that, I’m sure someone will go back and read my stuff and point out where I did exactly that. As much as I read and re-read my stuff, I hope that’s not the case, but if someone can point to such instances, please do; I’d like to fix them.

Here’s the third big reason to be a pantser:

Characters drive the plot better than a plot drives characters.

No, it’s not a joke. I mean, yes, there’s humor in it . . . call it me hitting the beats of humor.

It should be evident I consider characters to be the important part of any story. Some might argue the point, but here’s my reasoning.

I believe people will overlook a weak plot if they enjoy, respect, and identify with the character. You might have a great idea beautifully executed, but if the characters don’t work, if they don’t connect with the readers or viewers, you have a problem.

Can you have great characters and still be a plotter? Sure . . . maybe . . . no, I don’t think so, at least for me. I’m sure many outliners can and have executed wonderful characters within a structured plotline, but I don’t currently have that ability inclination.

If you are like me, don’t fight it . . . sit down and let loose on the writing, come what may. You might even like what you write as much as I like what I write. It doesn’t mean others will, but what is it you really want? Money and a comfortable life or being an artist?

~ ~ ~

Counter-arguments and Epilogue:

Note: Chuck Wendig, of Terrible Minds blog, doesn’t pull punches and does use profanity to punctuate his views. Still, he makes a good argument.

Plotters: John Grisham, J. K. Rowling, Henry Miller, Faulkner

Pantsers: Hemingway, Heinlein, Bradbury, Vonnegut

I mention being an artist, but many artists starve, but don’t worry . . .  first, the sheer amount of snacks I eat makes that impossible. Second, I meant it in relation to fame and fortune (being published). Someone who invests money in a product (a publisher) likely wants their money back and a profit on top of it.

Orderly, well-paced, even if formulaic products are a sure thing for publishers. Those are not the books that attract me as a reader, but those books attract many readers. If you are a writer wanting commercial success, you’d do well following the advice of many plotters.

 There is something else about this discussion between plotter and pantser, and that is that even a pantser has to offer a structured plot that makes sense; a plot that you can put into an outline. Often, this involves more re-writes and more editing than what a plotter might need.

My process is not exactly stumbling in the dark with every word I write. In the beginning, I see nothing but the scene at hand. Within a few hundred words, I see the next two or three thousand words. After two or three thousand words, I see 80% of what the novel will be. However, it’s not until three-fourths of the novel I typically see the ending. And it’s not like I don’t outline as I go, mostly to check stuff for consistency and to remember things I’ve said (this next graphic is from my first NaNoWriMo):

Note that I don’t do that for short stories, but I probably should just to have a record of any unused idea.

Could I benefit from outlining? Probably, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoy writing by the seat of my pants.

That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.


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