Plotter or Pantser?

man in business suit flying

Do you plot your stories, or fly by the seat of your pants?

Plot means the story line.  When people talk about plotting, they mostly mean how to set up the situation, where to put the turning points, and what the characters will be doing in the end.  What happens.

Some fiction writers write organically, not knowing where the story they are writing is going.  These writers say it would be boring to know what’s going to happen next and they lose their enthusiasm to tell the story because they know the outcome already.  They prefer throwing themselves over the edge and into the void.  This method can be very anxiety-producing.  It means you need a lot of faith in your process.

Other writers plan the story before they begin.  In detective fiction the story definitely needs to be worked out beforehand so information can be drip-fed to the reader.

In the past, when creating my short stories, I have worked organically and not known where my stories were headed as I wrote them.  The shorter the piece of fiction, the less need for plot.  You can write an interesting story in which not very much happens.  A woman fights with her neighbour, a man quits his job, or an unhappy family goes out for a pizza.  Simple structures work better than something too complicated when the story is short.

Now that I’m working on a new novel, I feel the need to plot.

“A plot can, like a journey, begin with a single step.   A woman making up her mind to recover her father’s oil paintings may be enough to start.  The journey begins there, as it did for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment when he decided to commit his crime,”  Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction

The plot grows and develops out of what helps and what hinders the characters’ progress toward their goals.

The Writers’ Workshop  ask:

  • But how do you know if your draft plot has the right amount of weight to carry an entire novel?
  • What kind of structures work?
  • Is there a quick way to design your own plot template?
  • And how do you handle a book with multiple points of view?

“A good plot has a clear motivation.  It has a clear structure.  It has an outcome.  It has subplots.  A good plot looks something like the plot structure template below,” The Writers’ Workshop.


Motivation Lizzie Bennett wants to marry for love
Plot structure She meets Darcy & Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to fall for Wickham. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy; Darcy turns out to be a good guy. She now loves Darcy.
Outcome She marries Darcy
Subplot 1 Jane Bennett (Lizzie’s nice sister) loves Bingley. Bingley vanishes. He reappears. They get hitched.
Subplot 2 Lydia Bennett (Lizzie’s idiot sister) elopes with Wickham. She’s recovered.
Subplot 3 An idiot, Mr Collins, proposes marriage to Lizzie. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte, says yes.

Of course, there are a lot of things that the above plot template doesn’t tell you.  It doesn’t say where the novel is set, it doesn’t tell you anything about plot mechanics – it doesn’t say why Lizzie dislikes Mr Darcy, or how Lydia is recovered from her elopement.  It doesn’t have anything to say about character.

The Writers’ Workshop strongly advises us to build a template much like the one above before starting to write.  “If you’ve already started your MS then, for heaven’s sake, get to that template right away.”

So I’ve decided to put myself out of my misery and create a Plot Template for my new novel.  I already had my characters in place and knew what each character wanted.  But now I’m forced into planning an ending, which isn’t a bad thing.  Some writers don’t find the real beginning to their stories until they’ve written the ending.

So that’s all we need:  a beginning, a middle and an end.  Aristotle defined it like this:  a beginning is what requires nothing to precede it, an end is what requires nothing to follow it, and a middle needs something both before and after it.

Easy peasy.  Not.

What about you?  Do you plot or write organically?  What works and what sends you straight to the Writers Block Corner?

Header image:  Creative Commons

8 thoughts on “Plotter or Pantser?

  1. I have done both. My first book I had a small idea of where I was going and as a result had to spend time going back to fix things. The second time around I decided to avoid that and planned and planned. It was less fun. I need to find a place somewhere in the middle! Good luck with your plotting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. yes, Kathryn. i agree. a place somewhere between planning and not planning. plotting definitely takes the fun out of the writing process. sometimes having a vague idea of the ending is enough. it gives us a direction to work towards. hope your writing is progressing.


  2. I’m currently struggling through a writer’s block and trying to pick up inspiration to break through. My writing process, I think, is a simple one. I have an idea but not a plot. I like to be just as surprised as the reader would be! I like my characters and story to tell me what they want to do. I wouldn’t know where to begin to make an outline or a complete plot. I think I would easily get bored because then I know the outcome. It’s like reading the last chapter to see what happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. good luck with struggling through that ghastly writer’s block. sometimes stepping away from the work for a short time helps, or going back to morning pages (The Artists Way, Julia Cameron) for a few days or weeks to loosen up (spontaneous writing – Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg). i agree with everything you’ve said about plotting. it is the same for me. when i wrote this post i was feeling desperate, so had a go at plotting, but now i am back to flying by the seat of my pants 🙂 much more interesting, but also more angst-making. good luck with your writing. it’s a tough gig we’ve chosen 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When writing a novel I never really know what I am writing about until at least the end of the second draft. There is usually something in my mind that I want to say but I am unable to say it with sufficient clarity first off so I keep trying to say it until the fog clears and the purpose of the work emerges. Then the essential shape and the detail reveal themselves and the writing can begin in earnest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said. I think your writing process applies to all of us. We get the words on to the page to try and find out what we are writing about. Thanks so much for sharing. Excellent that you know what works for you when creating new work.

      Liked by 1 person

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