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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About disperser

Odd guy with odd views living an odd life during odd times.
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18 Responses to Pantser vs. Plotter (Outliner)

  1. Hey, I saw that photo before! In fact, that’s the one I voted for but I noticed that the one with the owl won. Oh well. This picture has by far the best composition but I have to admit that I voted for it primarily because of Brando. BTW, Stella was a character in another Brando movie, On the Waterfront. The picture in your photo is from The Wild One.
    Now for your plotters and pantsers. In my reading experience (I read 50 books last year, 30 the year before) I don’t see everything falling into one or the other of these categories. Most writers outline. You showed one of your own examples. Maybe the major difference in writers is that some plot all the way to the end while others plot only so far before starting to write. I also read both of your references. Neither talks about characters but you imply that only pantsers have great characters. Yes, Grisham is a plotter. So is Rowling. But Rowling also has great characters. You say Hemingway is a pantser. I say he is a plotter. He pondered over every word in his stories which are mostly autobiographical and I believe he knew how every book was going to end before he started. His one major weakness, however, is that his characters are not great. I have not read much of Heinlein, Bradbury or Vonnegut; so I don’t really know if they are pantsers or not. But I would think that writers of science fiction and fantasy would have to outline a lot as they build their stories. Tolkien spent his whole life building his alternate universe and his notes for his stories are more copious than his stories. The greatest works of literature have great plots and great characters. My favorite of all is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is up there, too. So is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. And one of those 50 books I read last year was Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (for the third time).


    • disperser says:

      I imply that pantsers have characters who act more like real people. Of course, there are exceptions to everything. I’ve not read Rowling but have read a number of reviews and critical analysis of her work. She may have characters that resonated with her audience (why she is a multi-billionaire) but they fall into the other category I mention. Namely, they are plot-driven characters. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good characters, but they don’t act consistently (or so I’ve read). Again, I could not get into either the books or movies. Understandable as they are a hero’s journey for adolescent (although they grow up and the stories get darker).

      I won’t argue about Hemingway; it’s just what I read. Perhaps he was a plotter. Not sure about the statement “most writers are plotters”. I would go with many. Some have very fluid writing processes that are difficult to peg as one or the other.

      Tolkien had other interests intersecting his desire to write and what he wrote was a whole alternate history and then fitted a story to it. So yes, he outlined in spades. Heinlein did not. Bradbury and Vonnegut are on record as not outlining. Stephen King is a big-time pantser who disparages plotters.

      My outline example is after the fact and not really an outline; just notes . . . I write something, I make a note on the Scapple file; something happens a new character emerges, I add it to the file along with a link as to why and how they are related. In that novel, I did that for the characters and only started adding general plot ideas once I was about a third of the way through.

      For my second novel, I just had character names and no plot points.

      For my third novel, I had an initial idea for the plot, discarded it after 10k words or so, came up with another one, discarded that one, and then just winged it to the end.

      I really don’t plot and I can tell you why; the moment I start to plot, I have scenes that surface and if I don’t write them, I end up losing them (this is from experience). Any outline I have are more to do with mapping what I already wrote to ensure I don’t accidentally contradict anything as I go. Typically, I don’t “see” more than one or two scenes ahead of where I am until I get past the halfway mark or even later. At some indeterminate point, I start thinking about how I might end the story but that too is very fluid.

      The two links I give at the end make the case as to why one should plot and why it will make you a better writer. I don’t know that this applies to everyone, but it certainly applies to the authors of those pieces as they saw success once they started outlining and plotting out their works.

      The books you mention as favorite are not even on my radar (they are not what I would call escapist). A few I’ve read but it was in my teens and twenties and they didn’t make an impression and frankly, I don’t recall them. I do recall books I read when I was much younger (I still have a few of them) but they are not considered what one would call literary masterpieces. They did, I think, help shape my own writing.

      As for the photo, by Friday, no photo had more than one vote, so I picked one that diem3 liked. I agree that the Brando shot was very good. It was difficult picking a favorite. I also thought there were a lot of good entries in this week’s MM and I think people were surprised that street art translated so well into B&W offerings.


  2. I read it, I enjoyed it. I rather like works that go with the flow together with their errors and contradictions although I confess that I am not a great reader of modern novels.


    • disperser says:

      Wait, I’m confused . . . on the one hand, you might like my work because of the errors and contradictions but, on the other hand, you wouldn’t like my work because — by accident of birth — I’m a modern era writer. Hmm . . .

      Just curious; outliner or not? How do you approach your writing?


      • I was talking about literature/novels in general but I do specifically like your work.
        I have never considered trying to write fiction but when I set out a blog post I outline it and let it evolve and then I go back many times to check it through.
        I try to use the Bryson formula of a personal story, a nugget of hidden information and an anecdote!


      • disperser says:

        I’ll have to look up the Bryson formula once I return from the gym (got to keep in shape so I can sit for many hours a day).

        My blog posts are completely off the cuff as are responses to comments. Your posts are very well organized and flow like good stories. Score one for outlining.

        Perhaps you should try your hand at writing fiction.


  3. hinterlanded says:

    Books have been a joy in my life and yes I think authors are artists – they create. For me the greatest pleasure as a reader is when the author’s ‘voice’ comes through. Where you have an author who digs into the human experience and interactions and can extend his/her empathy and compassion to their characters I just find that the best.


  4. Writing’s a tough gig. The only thing tougher than getting a novel finished is getting a novel finished that readers actually want to read.

    As for pantsing vs plotting, the factors in my decision making ran more along the lines of:
    – Which makes it more likely for me to finish the novel?
    – Which will make the novel better?

    I think the answers to those questions tend to depend both on the personal characteristics of the individual author and the stage of that author’s development.


    • disperser says:

      Those questions offer the possibility of conflicting answers. Shouldn’t the question be what process do I use to write a good novel? Meaning, one process that lets you finish the novel but also produces a good novel.

      Then again, “good” and “better” are subjective terms. I’ve seen good movies and books that don’t rate well with critics but that people love and vice-versa.

      One metric that pretty much everyone accepts is the number of copies sold, although, there too it can be misleading. Some awful movies still have amazing box office numbers, so someone liked them well enough.

      Personally, I don’t have a tough time writing and the three novels I’ve written were not ordeals to write and finish. Getting people to read them, that’s another matter, and again, I don’t know that has anything to do with them being “good” . . . they just have to be something that people want to read and there are plenty of different audiences out there.

      The trick is connecting with your audience. That, unfortunately, has very little to do with writing and a whole lot to do with marketing and a fortuitous break or two.


      • Or one could say that the trick of connecting with your audience is to make a concerted effort to determine what your audience wants and keep writing until you’re able to produce that.


      • disperser says:

        No, no, that’s not it at all.

        At least, that’s not what I’m doing. I expect everyone to change their tastes and start liking what I’m already writing.

        I realize it’s an approach with a low probability of success, but, boy, if it works, I’ll be the only one selling any books. It’ll be better than winning the lottery . . . although, I’d also be happy with that as an alternative; I think the odds are about the same.


  5. I find this post to be profounding!

    I knew nothing of pantsing and plotting in the writing world until I read this post. Thank you for teaching me!

    (I did know of plotters and pantsers (and even goosers) in the real world!)

    When I read a book, I like a great story. But, I REALLY want to like the characters and want to relate to one of them. Great characters I could pick up and put down in any setting and a story will emerge.

    I like, too, when I think of characters long after I’ve read the story and I wonder what they are doing or I think about how I can handle a life problem like they did or with the courage they did. Etc.

    I think there is an audience for all writers. Some just have a bigger audience (JK Rowling) than others (Joe Schmoe).

    Please keep eatin’ those snacks so you have the energy to write!


    • disperser says:

      . . . uh . . . I never mentioned goosers. Obviously, your life experiences and mine have taken divergent paths.

      . . . and now you’re telling me I not only have to compete with Rowling but some guy name Schmoe!? Life is just not fair, I tell you!

      Seriously, that’s the point I was making . . . the characters matter to me more than the story. Ideally, characters and story meld into a tasty offering for my brain, but of the two, I’ll take characters over story.

      I just finished reading a book with a protagonist who is an anti-hero in many aspects of the word; really, not a likable character. It was a difficult slog and only toward the end did the author allow the reader (me) to acquire some sympathy for the character, but there were a number of instances where he almost lost me. Even then, it’s not like I now care enough to pick up the second book with that character (a P. I. who is an assassin on the side; she is nearly completely unrelatable).

      Anyway, take care and hope you’ve got decent plans for the weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. paolsoren says:

    With regard to some particular thing you said, and I’m too old and worn out to go back and find it again, I remember an English Lit class in yr 12 and we were arguing about a particular line and the author’s meaning and our teacher invited the school gardener in to adjudicate. We didn’t know that he was in fact the author. When we got to the end and found out who he was we asked him what that particular line meant. He said it didn’t really mean anything, he just liked the way the words went together.


    • disperser says:

      That’s a different discussion . . . but, also another pet peeve of mine. I’ve told this story before, but here goes nothing . . .

      I took a few advanced English courses in college and I was struck by something. Namely, when asked to review/comment on a work, I would make up something based on this criterion: what will get me marks for a novel interpretation of the work. I got all As and was often complimented on my novel (get it? novel . . . nevermind) interpretations.

      But, I made stuff up. Not for a moment did I actually view the work as I presented it and I doubt the author did at the time. Side note: my professor tried — in my junior year — to talk me out of finishing my engineering degree and switching majors. I didn’t, but sometimes wish I had.

      The point is that even in my writing I get readers who “see” things (message, themes, morals) in my words that I neither thought about nor intended. They spin their own experiences, biases, and worldviews into what I wrote. Occasionally I might agree that it could be interpreted thus, but even then, I know that’s not what I was going for.

      That is, perhaps, peripherally tied to writing realistic characters who think and act as we would expect someone to act. But, we’re still left with the fact people have different life-experiences and interpret what they hear and read based on those experiences.

      My thinking is this: once I write something, unless it’s way out there (like, for instance, assuming I’m in favor of broccoli as a food), I’m happy letting readers interpret the work any way that lets them connect to it.

      I do object when academics ascribe intent I consider well beyond what authors (usually dead ones) intended. But, that’s another argument.


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