Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pantsing Versus Plotting

This post first ran on Sunday, October 19, 2008

Any method of writing is valid if it produces something worth reading.

I am a writer who outlines meticulously. But I do know that all of the different methods can work really well for the type of writer that they suit. Call it what you will - pantsing versus plotting, freewriting versus crafted writing, plus the third option (a bit of both: start with the beginning and end in mind, freewrite until you get stuck then plot your way out of it) - all these methods work somewhere for someone. Once you've figured out how you need to write to suit your personality, you've got it made. And when you do reach that point, do not let the so-called pros convince you that you're doing it wrong.

Stephen King has said some nasty things in the past about writers who outline before they write. He's softened his tone, though, in the last twenty years. But I'm going to poke back, anyway, with the comment that many of Stephen King's books could have done with some plotting - Dreamcatcher and the Dark Tower series come to mind. These books could have been really clever with a bit of hindsight. Mr King is in too much of a hurry to publish. But then, aren't we all?

I hope he gets a chance to reconsider his anti-plotting stance. I know it's not for him, but there are really good writers who plot. Everyone is different, and different is good.

Seriously - this is really a case of semantics. What Stephen King does in 3 months pounding out a first draft, I tend to do for a similar time period in my head. I like it in my head. Stephen likes it down in black and white.

I just know that when I'm plotting my soul sings. When I write what I've plotted it's like watching bread bake - it wouldn't rise (for me) without all the hours of kneading and waiting beforehand. Perhaps Stephen King uses baking powder, requiring speed of mixing and a rush to the oven before the chemical reaction dissipates.

I prefer to weave layer upon layer of plot threads and tighten them all in the first and subsequent drafts. But I would never tell another writer that this is the only way to write. I would certainly not tell him he is a dullard and his writing is weak without even having read his work. It's a silly presumption to make.

The only point I will make is that any manuscript needs work after the initial writing is completed. Without wanting to generalise too much, I believe that craft writers are more willing and prepared to put in this editorial work. Freewriters can very easily get caught up in the ease with which the manuscript is produced and come to dislike the tedium of editing and rewriting, or even basic proofreading. And you can't expect that your publisher will be able to provide you with an editor to fix any errors that you haven't caught yourself.

So, do I have to have every word lined up before I start writing? No, of course not. So much still surprises me, no matter how tightly I've plotted. I certainly don't need to know every word, and I've easily changed endings and let the characters run with new plot threads. It's a balance between knowing where you're going and knowing when to let go and let the story happen.

Over-plotting can box your characters in, making them behave like puppets with no life of their own. You do need to know when to trust the story, but that's the easy part: your characters tell you.

Elsa Neal
Elle Carter Neal is the author of Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin, due out in 2014. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at or


  1. I do so hate it when anyone claims that there is only one way to do something. The one way is nearly always their own way.

    I recently blogged about my latest plotting process. I have coloured post-it notes all over my bedroom wall at the moment. It's so much fun to do and provides a great visual guide to the flow and density of the plot, plus you can move things about easily when it comes to the edits.
    If I ever feel like avoiding writing I just think of making the plot come alive and I am enthused again.

  2. I'm a mindmapper. I plan almost everything including plots using that technique, which I learned from a Tony Buzan workshop handout. The things I picked up working for one of those dreaded huge corporations, and here I am mindmapping my way through a writing career. LOL. Life can be stranger than fiction.


  3. Lordy, I've done plotting in so many different ways, from none to waaay too much. Currently, I'm like Melody-Jane. I have an 8-foot bulletin board that I work on.

    Either way, it's good to have an editor look at your work after it's finished. An editor can see book threads that disappear and are left hanging, for one thing.

  4. I am a pantser through and through.
    I know a little bit about the characters. I know point A and maybe point b, but not how they are getting there.

  5. I didn't outline my first book. My characters repaid me by refusing to do anything I asked. I was trying to write something literary - I ended up with a romance novel, and a bad one at that. I don't read romance novels, but I recognize dreck. It sits in a file on my computer, being used for parts.

    My next novel got some outlining, some form that I could always get back to when my characters strayed. It's a murder mystery, altho the subplot about the main character's personal life was not outlined - it grew organically out of the plot. This is the book that sold.

    I'm now starting the next book. You can bet I didn't start writing until I had a basic outline of where I wanted it to go.

  6. There is always more than one way to do things, and what works for one may not work for someone else. I tend to be a combination minimal planner/plot diver. I start out with an idea or a character and see where their voice takes me quite often.

    I would also like to wholeheartedly agree that King could have used a little time to add actual plot to a few of his novels. His name became so big that after awhile the novels themselves were larger than life. Great post, Elsa.

    I used coloured post-it notes for my second novel. You're right, it's a lot of fun to plot that way.

    Mindmapping is a good technique for plotting.

    I read so many books where I wonder what happened to the editor.

    In my current book, I know my characters are going on a journey, but I don't know any of the details of the journey yet. Scary, but fun.

    Indeed, you have to keep an eye on those characters. Too much leeway and they have way too much fun at your expense.

    Thank you. You know, I suspect that publishers and their editors become scared of offending the big-name authors. They either say the book is perfect as is, or the editor just looks for typos and is too scared to ask for major changes. This is why I believe it is a really good idea to find an independent editor you trust at the outset of your career - someone you know will still be honest about your work even if/when you're a big-name.

  8. Love the title! How could I not read an article about pantsing?

    I'm writing my story all the way through without an outline. I don't want to risk slowing down and maybe not finishing. I've tried working out a beginning before, but always shot myself in the foot. However, I am writing an outline as I go along so I can come back and rework as needed. Is that backwards?

    Just heard of a book on writing by Terry Brooks called Sometimes the Magic Works. It's supposed to be the polar opposite of Stephen King's book on writing. Apparently Terry is a big fan of outlining!

  9. I never set out on a road trip without a map and I never start a novel without at least a partial outline. Sometimes I leave the ending a little open, because I tend to get great ideas about halfway through. That strategy worked very well for The Sex Club.

  10. EMMA,
    I don't think it's exactly "backwards" - it's certainly wise to capture that outline at some stage and you're giving yourself a good summary of your book that will help when you edit and rewrite.

    Yes, Terry Brooks is well-known as one of the big outlining authors. JK Rowling is another. So one can't say that outlining doesn't work based on King's arguments.

    I agree, flexibility is very important.

  11. "It's a balance between knowing where you're going and knowing when to let go and let the story happen." That is so true, Elle. Too many new writers think if you do an outline you need to stick to it. In some ways writing is like building a house. You have a basic framework, but add personal touches as you finish each room.

    1. Indeed, Maryann. And I also know of writers who refuse to outline because they don't want to be constrained by it, not realising that an outline is just a guide, not a contract. Another analogy is that of going on a road-trip. You might decide your route beforehand, but if you see a sign to something interesting you could take a detour or revise your route entirely. Even those who prefer to set off without looking at a map should consider charting where they've been each day.


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