Pantsers Vs Plotters – The Age-old debate

Pantsers Vs Plotters – The Age-old debate

There are two schools of thought for writing: plan it, or wing it. I would argue there are many distillations of that two-maxim theme – various mixes that include more of one than the other, and vice versa. But it’s accepted that writers fall into one of two camps: those that plan or outline what they write beforehand, and those that sit down at the keyboard and have at it. Stephen King is a Pantser; J. K. Rowling is a Plotter, both by their own admission, but no one can say that one is better than the other—they are both world-class writers—just look at the top one-hundred on Amazon: you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve always been a Pantser. Sometimes I don’t know who my main protagonist is until I get to chapter three and she lets me know. I start a novel with a vague idea and the hint of an ending, and it grows on its own, revealing the story as I write. I almost feel the tale already exists: like these people are there, in some different dimension, and I’m just writing it down for people in our mundane existence to read. I’m just chronicling what my characters say and do, as much in awe of what’s happening as the reader will be—I hope. The only difference between my readers and me is I have the power to influence the story, but I try not to let it go to my head.

I tried the Plotter-route several times, and what happens is, I get stuck perfecting the plot and leave character development to take care of itself. But the problem with that is readers fall in love with your characters, not your story. You can have the best plot in the world. Your story can have interesting side-plots and intriguing dialogue that leads the reader through a twisted tale of villainy and deceit but have boring people doing it, and they won’t make it past chapter three. I have a rule: I spend most of my time thinking about what my characters are thinking about, not about where the story is going, and magically, the story seems to write itself.

I understand how planning can make things easier. Some say it’s impossible to get blocked when you have a plan, and that’s fine. I would rather discover those intriguing side-plots as they happen; it seems more organic. Finding out that John has a long-lost twin brother he never knew about because they were separated at birth when a fire in the hospital caused an earthquake that killed his parents… (I’m making this up as I go), well that just makes me want to sit down and write—more than a Roman numeral outline ever could.

And why Roman numerals? Don’t we have perfectly good numerals that aren’t three-thousand-years old? I’m being sarcastic, but I’m also making a point. We cleave to tradition sometimes at the expense of progress. Remember, I write this from a Pantser point-of-view, and I hate outlines. If you’re a Plotter and it works for you, that’s great, and I salute you. But here’s a challenge…

Sit at your computer and write one sentence. Make up a character that you don’t know yet (all you need is a cool sounding name) and put them in an interesting situation—see what they do. Don’t think about it; just let it come to you.

Here’s an example, off the top of my head:

—Jack always hated the sound a knife made when he shoved it between the ribs: you could hit a bone, and it made a clicking noise as it slid in. He knew a good sharpening was coming, and that just took him away from more pressing things: like increasing his body-count. Lately, he’d been aiming lower; there was less chance of nicking the blade.—

I’ll make a Pantser out of you yet…