Writing Tip #24: What Are Plotters and Pantsers?

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What Are Plotters and Pantsers?

There are many types of writers, but when it comes to planning a piece of writing, we can be separated broadly into two lots: plotters and pantsers, which we introduced back in Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Plotters like to plan out their work. Strict plotters will not write an actual word of fiction until the entire story is mapped out.
Pantsers “fly by the seat of their pants.” This means they do not do any planning. They essentially let the story write itself - meaning, they begin writing and see where the story goes.

Now, it is probably obvious to you that the difference between these two approaches matters far more to novel writers than short story writers, and you would be right. And since our focus here is on short fiction, we won't go into any deep detail.

But I think it is useful to consider your approach to writing even if you are a short story writer. Let’s explore.

Plotting vs. Pantsing for Short Story Writers

If you try to write and get bogged down or frustrated, you may need to switch approaches. You may be plotting when you really are innately a pantser. Or you may be writing without a plan when a better approach for you would be to be a plotter.

From Pantser to Plotter

There’s a great article on Reedsy about switching from being a pantser to being a plotter. This could be especially useful if you begin working on longer writing projects.

From Plotter to Pantser

It’s also possible that even if you like to plot your stories, trying on the “pantser” approach could help you shake out of writer’s block when you get stuck. If you have never tried “freewriting,” it’s a really nice way to try out writing without plotting. The whole idea is to write without a plan. You can set a timer for a certain amount of time and just make sure you write without stopping to see what emerges. There’s a whole freewriting initiative on Hive - the @freewritehouse by @mariannewest, if you’re not familiar with it. It’s a great way to remove that judgmental inner editor from your writing process!

Confessions of a Pantser

As an avowed pantser, I will share with you that I have tried plotting and failed. In fact, I have multiple projects (short stories and novels) that blossomed in my mind but fizzled when I tried to plot them out. We were just discussing this in one of my writing groups the other day, and I discovered I’m not alone. Several of us shared that the minute we try plotting a story it dies on the vine. It loses its luster. The motivation to actually write it is simply gone.

The writing process, for me, works like this:

  1. An idea comes to mind - it could be as simple as a phrase, a bit of dialog or a character.
  2. I begin writing a scene with characters and a situation.
    The main character (MC) emerges and his or her personality begins to come to life.
  3. One or more sub-characters, such as the MC’s side-kick or antagonist, enters the story, sometimes in the very first paragraph, sometimes later.
  4. I discover what is bothering the MC, or what is motivating him or her, and what is causing that character to be in some sort of crisis or pivotal point in their life.
  5. Very often I discover that I have two challenges that the MC must overcome to achieve his or her goal, and my focus shifts to making sure that both of them are addressed in the arc of the story and its resolution.

All of my best stories develop in exactly this way.

Things to Try

It might be useful to you to try different approaches to writing, and when you write a successful story with one method, try using the same methodology to write your next story. You may find that you can build momentum.

A writing friend introduced me to an interesting resource, which I’ll share below. In this video, Ellen Brock describes not only the spectrum of plotters and pantsers, but also a spectrum of intuitive and methodological writers. You could be an intuitive or methodological plotter, or an intuitive or methodological pantser!

I am an intuitive pantser, myself. Trust me, I wish I was a methodological plotter. I think the Stephen Kings and the J.K. Rowlings of the world are most likely methodological plotters. But at the end of the day, we can each only be ourselves.

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

Writing Tip #13: Character Types in Fiction

Writing Tip #14: Clichés - Avoid the Conspiratorial Wink

Writing Tip #15: Developing Memorable Characters

Writing Tip #16: Writing Character Descriptions

Writing Tip #17: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writing Tip #18: Don’t Be a Copycat (Plagiarism is Wrong)

Writing Tip #19: Hook Your Readers

Writing Tip #20: Lessons in Tense Part 1

Writing Tip #21: Editing Your Work with Fresh Eyes

Writing Tip #22: We want to hear from you! What do you want to know?

Writing Tip #23: The Value of Workshops and Feedback

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