Pantsers and Plotters

Until I run out of material, my normal routine will probably involve going back and forth between the double narratives of my life when I decided to write and of the writing process itself. Since the first entry was a life story, today will be a writing day. Hopefully you remember the jumbled plot of my life from the last entry where we left off.

I was waiting for breakfast and had just typed the first few words of my first project. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the first of many mistakes.


As I mentioned before, I came up with the basic concept of the story when was I just a teen. I was a child who daydreamed. A lot. My mind was my happy place. Does that make me sound a little insane and a little bit sad? Maybe.

Anyways, my mind was my playground, and I always enjoyed making up stories and filling it up with playthings.

I remember I was sitting at the end of a dock at the edge of a lake during a weeklong canoe trip with my friends (we were boy scouts at the time). I was tired and sat enjoying the view of the sunset over the calm water. At some point—between the moments where the sky smolders warm vermillion with the light of the setting sun then cools to indigo with the dark of the coming night—I decided to create an entire world for me, by me. Why not?

With that, Lily, the protagonist of this story, just leaped into my head. With her as my starting point, I began constructing this, my world. As I attempted to play god in my mind, all that the others could see was a kid sitting at the end of the dock for a very, very long time. Alone. They thought I was either depressed or homesick and felt sorry for me.

There’s a lot of that world that I may never get to share, either because I’m just incapable of doing so or because the story wouldn’t allow it, but it’s been one of my favorite playgrounds since that day.

So what was the whole point of that did-you-just-lose-your-little-mind-and-went-off-on-trip-down-your-childhood-that-no-one-cares-about? It’s this. This story has been brewing in my mind for so long that I felt like I knew all there is to know about. I had the arrogance to believe that I could simply tell it without an actual planning process. Thinking back, another reason why I was so eager to start without proper preparations was probably because it was so liberating to finally be able to bring the story out of the imaginary and into reality. Only I didn’t fully realize what kind of planning and structure that process would actually take.

You see, despite my overabundant, ignorant courage (later to be digested and recognized as arrogance), I didn’t recognize that the story I was trying to tell wasn’t and couldn’t be the story that was in my head. What’s in your head simply can’t be put directly on the paper—the writer has to be the translator between the mind and the reality. Furthermore, I realized as I worked further and further into the story that the way I wanted to tell the story could not be done without meticulous planning. There’s a good chance that I always knew this. It floated in the back of my head, but the rush and anxiety of wanting to get everything on paper before I forgot, before the realities of walking this path caught up to me, and simply wanting to face the greater challenges I’d have to face once the story was written made me want to just get it done.

As I mentioned a few times already, ignorance is fine fuel for confidence and courage.

This brings me to the title of today’s post.

“Pantser” and “plotter” are terms for two different kinds of storytellers.

But for those who are unfamiliar with them, here’s the quick and dirty difference between the two.

“Pantsers” improv, “Plotters” rehearse.

Okay, a bit more explanation…

I was told the term “pantser” comes from the days where pilots had to fly their planes by the seat of their pants. They had to navigate simply from the feel of the vibrations of the machine and the sky instead of depending on the technology of their craft.

In writing this applies to those who have a basic idea of the general story they want to tell, but who let the story write itself to its end. The end is usually a mystery to even the authors themselves, as it depends entirely on the natural consequences of what the characters do and how the plot turns out for them based on their choices.

“Plotter” should be obvious: it’s the pantser’s exact opposite. Plotters plan every detail to the end. Outlines, story webs, and booklet of notes all detailing exactly what will happen in each chapter leading up to the determined ending.

Between the two, the result usually is that pantsers produce more organic stories while the “plotters” produce more organized ones.

Obviously, there are writers who dabble in both disciplines, and they will usually learn which method they prefer as they become more comfortable with their writing. Though, as I found out, the choice also seems to depend entirely on the story itself and how you want to tell it.

Sometimes you want to be pantser for a story even though you are usually a plotter, vice versa, or sometimes even both.

There are a lot of reasons a project can take longer than planned. As for me it took about 2 years longer to finish than I expected.

There are inevitable delays, many of which when asked about can be explained only with palms raised and a short “life happened.” My journey was no different: my computer deciding to die, dumping my whole manuscript into a virtual blackhole; saving up money for my book, only to have it suddenly drain away in a family financial crisis; and a menagerie of unforeseen troubles, such as being accused (falsely, mind you) of being a truck thief.

But there are other, foreseeable delays that should have been prevented to offset the surprise ones. For example: the nightmarish number of rewrites the story underwent in order to match the story I had written with the story I had intended to tell and vice versa, working with people, and *shudder* the editing process.

(Look! More topics for future posts!)

You have to accept that you need to dirty your hands to till the dirt before you can plant the seed.

After learning my lesson I accepted that I’m a plottin’ pantser, who figured out his tale needed more plottin’ but ended up pantsin’ a little because he felt some of the plottin’ was unnatural.  I learned to make the two cooperate by setting and keeping to a strict structure. And at the same time, by keeping the space open within those walls as a sandbox and by changing the walls themselves—if I needed to.

I plotted by making physical data of all the general and key details I needed for the story. I made character bios, flowchart of the story progressions, and scribbles of unorganized notes. I don’t know what was appropriate or not so I decided to do simply what I knew and worked for me. I drew out scenes that I didn’t know how to write in notebooks and eventually even made a simple storyboard for myself. I wrote to myself various summaries of the story to see how well it worked outside of my mind and then tried to criticize every aspect of it.

(Throughout this experience, I discovered a certain truth—one that I’m not entirely certain is true for anyone else—that some problems within the story are inevitable and sometimes better left unfixed. This is another topic that I am hoping to dive into some other day and even reach out to the readers for their opinions.)

But even after all this plotting, I found myself pantsing as I wrote. There are a few chapters in the book that veered away from the plans (and ultimately changed the plot significantly) because I let the characters take control of the plot when it felt more natural to do so—the story belonged to the characters, and they were the ones who had to tell it.

In a somewhat of a paradoxical sentiment, there were also times when I simply realized I needed to or wanted to add, subtract, or change certain events and characters to enrich the overall story. Obviously anytime I did this I had to give myself sometime to take a step back to see how much damage I’d caused and do some maintenance.

Through both the pantsing and plotting process I had to do as much research as possible but I feel whole research aspect should be a separate topic that I hope to remember to touch on later.

At this point some of you more veteran writers may be raising eyebrows (or maybe pitchforks) over the fact that I may be blurring the definitions of plotting and pantsing or that I may be presenting the definitions in a poor way. To those veteran writers: oops? Please let me know so I can correct it? Even if this were the case I hope the idea I was trying to deliver (and my self imposed suffering) was conveyed.

So this whole entry is about a hard lesson I took for myself: next time figure out what kind of writer I am, figure out what kind of style I want and need for the tale I want to tell, and figure out how to make the two cooperate before delving too deeply into the project.

Anyways, that seems like more than enough for this entry. The next entry will be about “life,” as I mentioned before. Somewhere in-between I should probably introduce you all more to the story itself.


P.S. Just FYI I’m pants-plottin’ this blog as well.


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Twitter: @ASAramiru

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