Plotter vs Pantser: An Exercise For Writers

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Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Plotters outline the books they want to write in great detail before they begin to write.  They know what happens in each chapter, and they create a roadmap to get them from start to finish.

Pantsers write by the seat of their pants.   Well, not literally, but they get an idea or a character and start writing.  They let the story development follow where the muse takes them.

My creative writing style is more pantser than plotter which surprises me since in everything else, I'm a planner. For example, when I write training materials or business policies and procedures, I'm a plotter.

But when I try to outline my whole story like a plotter, I lose my creative drive.  It becomes too formulaic.  Like the plotter, I do know where the story is going, but I haven't laid out a road map to get me there.  Plotters often use spreadsheets, too. I keep a spreadsheet, but it gets filled in as I go, not before I write.

This is what works for me, but you may operate differently.

Recently, I attended Hub City's Writing in Place conference.  It was a weekend of intensive study on writing as well as an opportunity to write something new.  Lydia Netzer taught the fiction workshop I attended, and she encouraged all of us to try the pantser approach.  She told us, "If you don't leave holes in your book, then you don't leave room for inspiration to work."

With some unusual exercises, she helped us start developing the idea of our story.  Our first exercise involved looking through photos of people clipped from magazines.  If a person in the photo spoke to us, we took it.

Our second exercise, called Allowing Randomness, really stood us on our heads. The worksheet had space for two character profiles, each with five blank fields.  Lydia directed us to write an emotion on the first line, then pass the sheet to our left.  In the second line, we wrote an article of clothing, the third, a piece of furniture, the fourth a city, and the last a family member (mother, father, etc.).  Since we had ten people in our group, by the time the sheet got back to me, I had ten items listed.

This is what I had to work with:

Character 1:  Determination, red high heels, vanity, Philadelphia, step-mother

Character 2:  Obstinence, vestment, rocking chair, Los Angeles, nephew

After a few other discussions, she sent us on our way for the night with the following instructions:  Sit with uncertainty.  Do not plan.  Do not figure it out.

On the second day, we did more exercises before we began to write, but she advised us, "The connections you create in your mind are a mystery to you.  Trust your own brain.  Trust that your brain will fill in the holes and make connections for you.  Unleash your brain to do things without instruction."

I'm really excited about the story I started writing that weekend.  The concept has some weird connections, but they are cool and unique.

For the plotters in our group, this exercise might have been uncomfortable, but I think her points are valid.  We need a certain amount of randomness in how we write.

So, if you're a plotter, maybe try a little randomness.

If you're a pantser, try a bit of planning.  Some areas of planning I benefit from are:

  • Fleshing out who my character is and what they look like
  • Knowing where the story is going, just not every detail about how we are going to get there
  • Understanding the world in my story, and if I'm writing fantasy, knowing the laws of nature and magic

What unique methods have you used to create your art?

Are you a plotter or a pantser?


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