Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The great debate.....

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers

That plot or to pant.

Until I saw all the panster v plotter discussions on the various writers forums, it never occurred to me there might be different types of writers. I assumed, rather ignorantly probably, that writers opened up their manuscripts, be it longhand or typed, and just wrote the story in their head. 

I might have a working title and an idea of a story when I start, but I never know what's going to come out of my fingertips until I'm at my desk in front of my laptop. I don't even know if I have enough for a short, a novella, or a full-length novel until I start writing. 

As I understand the definitions, a plotter knows all the events of the story in advance and follows the route they mapped out to get the story from beginning to end. A panster writes the events as they occur in the writer's mind and has no idea how they will get to the end until they get there. From what I read in the discussions, each type of writer fiercely defends their own style and some have a hard time understanding the other.  

The dictionary definition of "plotting" is: secretly make plans to carry out (something illegal or wrong). Very appealing to all mystery/thriller writers. Plotting is also to mark a route or position. Maybe it's my horrible sense of direction (or my inability to concentrate for long periods of time), but I cannot plot. I've tried it and screwed up the bits of paper in frustration. Plotting (for me) hampers my creativity. I begin to feel like I'm following a formula and falling into old routines. I'm a true panster.

Whenever I write, without a map, it reminds me of a time when I drove with my parents from La Havre to Versailles and detoured off the road map we brought with us at every available opportunity. We wanted to escape the regular "route" and explore all the intricate little places we would have missed, or never even known about, if we stuck to the map. These places are hidden surprises, and often gems. I like to think of it when I write, not knowing where I'll end up or what I might find along the way. 

I googled to "fly by the seat of your pants", which is from where I imagine the term "panster" originates. It means: to pilot a plane by feel and instinct rather than by instruments. This about sums up how I feel when I write without any guide. I find it more thrilling, more energizing. I certainly wander off track and sometimes get lost, but I always find my way back - often on a surprising path and one I couldn't have plotted ahead of time, if I'd tried.

I'm intrigued by plotters. I imagine they must be extremely organized, detailed people with a clear idea of where they want to go. I imagine the editing process is less time-consuming for them.

I have a decent plot and numerous twists in my finished products, even though I'm not a plotter. Sometimes when I read, I can predict the ending of the book because of the way the plot is constructed and I wonder if the writer is a "plotter."

There is no answer and no write (pardon the pun) or wrong about the difference in styles. It's interesting to me how often this topic comes up in the writing forums. I've even seen these debates turn quite heated. I'd like to have some snazzy ending to this blog post, but, as you now know, I can't plot anything out in advance........ 


  1. Hi Jenny, I began writing fiction as a pantser, but soon realized that I wanted at least a general idea of where the story was going to go. I don't really create an outline, but prefer a mind map that lets me explore all of the different avenues, plots, and subplots that will occur in the book.

    With that said, in my latest WIP, I brought in a character midway through the novel that I hadn't anticipated and now she's become a major part of a main character's development. I suppose that makes me what someone here (in a previous post) referred to as a "plotser."

    To me, your story about the trip is exactly the way I write a novel. I have a route in mind, but then when I want to deviate, I'll follow that and plot a new course.

  2. I don't fit neatly into either category. I can't fly blind; I become paralyzed by all the possibilities and then can't write at all. But I also can't outline and plot each section without the outline taking over and me ending up with no time to actually write.

    I try to think in terms of scenes. If I have at least an idea (written down) of where each scene should take place, who is involved, and what major conflict the characters must deal with, then I can begin writing. This way I have neither the fear of too many options, nor the straightjacket of a detailed outline.

  3. It would appear that "Anonymous" and I write in very similar ways. Perhaps that just makes us "conflicted" writers?

  4. I definitely plot my stories in advance. My first agent (a NY powerhouse) said "Send me an outline of what you're working on," and since then, I've always mapped out my stories to a certain extent.

    But readers never say they can predict where my stories are going. In fact, they say the opposite. Just because I'm not surprised by the ending, doesn't mean I can't surprise my readers.

    But I have no reason to defend how I write. It works for me. And what you do works for you. And readers don't care as long as they like the story.

  5. As anonymous says, I can understand the paralysis a writer might feel by all the open possibilities when they have no outline whatsoever. Sometimes I feel like that, too, but I still can't plot it out - I get into more of a mess if I try.

    I love the way new characters invite themselves, Terry. I'm looking forward to your next novel.

    LJ - you're right, readers just want to enjoy the story. Each book of yours I've read, I've enjoyed - and certainly not been able to guess the ending.

  6. Self-professed pantser here, and proud of it. I know even if I created an outline, I'd never follow it. I rely on my spontaneity and my characters to drive my stories. It's a more chaotic, nerve-racking process, but it seems to work for me.

    The right way is whatever works best for you. If you feel better writing while standing on your head, I'm not going to do it myself, but will applaud your effort.

  7. I'm new to all of this. Probably because of how green I am, I find myself a little all over the place with my process, and it changes with each manuscript I write. And a short story is different than a novel. Blog posts are kind of like throwing the words up against the wall and if they stick longer than ten seconds, I hit the 'publish' button.

    What's working for me now for a manuscript is a wonderful freestyle launch into the meat of the story. It's stream of conscioiusness and completely pantster. I play and ask questions and turn corners and spread the wings of the story. But when that begins to sing and come together in a wonderful way, I put togehter a little scene list—not unlike the roadmap you mentioned, Jenny. But, being the bit of a rebel I am, I know I'm completely free to take a path not on the map as I write. Side trips, unplanned trips, are the magic of any vacation and often the magic of a story.

    For me, right now, (If you quote me, date me), having no idea of where I'm going with a story will only lead me to so many dead ends. I don't need or want all of the answers, but I like to sense some kind of a direction.


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