Pantser versus Plotter: Which one is right?

A question that comes up early on for all writers is: Pantser or Plotter?

Getting past how annoying those two terms are in that context, this question is at the heart of the process, or lack thereof depending what you choose.

Some common concerns are, “If I plot, I’ll miss out on the magic!” or “If I pants it, there’ll be too much work reshaping the story after I’m done with the first draft!” There is a measure of truth to both concerns but let’s take a closer look at these different approaches by two established authors: Stephen King and James Patterson.

Stephen King is famous for his approach to writing, a method he likens to uncovering a skeleton. The story reveals itself as he writes every day over a three-month period. James Patterson on the other hand, outlines his books down to the chapter over two months give or take, before writing the actual prose. Both are very prolific and successful in their own right. Stephen King has written sixty-two novels and hundreds of short stories and articles and Patterson’s books clock in at over two hundred! One might argue there seems to be a quality versus quantity issue here but I’ll let the individual judge that for themselves. Back to the question at hand.

Which way is better?

I think the first question you have to ask yourself is, fellow writer, can I be like Stephen King? Specifically, can I write a book in three months’ time, with a unique voice, dredged from the depths of my imagination that will become a bestseller?

Pretty tall order for most writers, especially ones juggling day jobs, families and pets. Let’s look at the Patterson method next.

Outline with a bullet point per chapter, each one containing as much or little information as is needed until the story works. I have no doubt he is applying a plot structure here as well containing three acts, midpoint, crisis, etc. You can find many variations of the three-act plot structure with a quick Google search.

The point I’m making is Stephen King is somewhat of a unicorn. He’s fast, his voice is unique and a large number of people love what he does. There are other authors who write this way, George R. R. Martin is one, but his output of late has slowed. Just ask Twitter! I can only guess as to why, but I assume it’s the amount of work it takes to reshape that first draft into something resembling a story. Who knows? I’m only guessing, I’m just some shlub who’s written one book. All I can really tell you is what I learned after trying both methods and what worked for me.

I wrote a fifty-thousand-word novel over about a three-month time. My very own, NaNoWriMo. It was a great experience, the freedom I felt while writing, the speed, the sense of accomplishment. It was heady. What I found difficult though, was remembering exactly what I had written the day before. As the piece got longer, I found myself skimming through more and more before I even started to see where I’d been. This left less time for actual writing, which was kind of the whole point. But I finished and put it in the drawer for six weeks, as Stephen King says to do, and wrote other stuff. What I came back to was…a mess.

The prose was purple and meandering, the pace was uneven. There was something there, and I may in fact go back and rewrite it. But the conclusion was obvious. I’m no Stephen King. What I also learned, was a sense of joy and discovery that happens when you are just…writing. I didn’t want to lose that. With this in mind, I applied this idea to the Patterson outlining method.

For my first novel, I used a three-act plot structure that I tweaked a little, with a bullet point for

each chapter. I then began outlining each chapter with just a line or two, sometimes fleshing it out

more if I had more ideas. The great thing about

this was seeing the story come together at this

rough and simple stage, all feeding through key

points of the three-act structure. I could quickly

see where the story had been and where it

needed to go, and update as needed. Need a

setup for a cool payoff later? Go back and add it earlier in the outline. Need to run to the store for milk or feed the dog?

No problem, my simple outline remembered everything for me and was waiting when I came back. Skimming became so much easier and faster than rifling through pages and

pages of previously toiled over prose.

This allowed me to focus more on cracking the story at a structural level, while still leaving room during the writing process to discover, improvise and have fun but still within the confines of the story itself. Like bumpers for when you first learn to bowl. Helps you stay inside the lane.

Something interesting I discovered through my experiments, though. The panster stuff I’d written is much more personal than the plotter stuff. Lyrical and heartfelt at best, meandering and directionless at its worst. I think there’s a fine line between lyrical and meandering, the difference say, between Stephen King’s It and Tommyknockers. My opinion of course. Don’t roast me, all you Tommyknockers out there.

I’ve learned to plot for the plotty stuff, what the characters want and the obstacles in their way, and pants for the emotional stuff. Let my writing find the heart of the scene, what the character is feeling and what they have learned that allow them to progress or hold them back. I can always edit later if it’s too melodramatic.

The final takeaway for me, is that I am a process person, a plotter, but I allow myself room to pants when I need to. I believe that process unlocks the magic instead of hindering it, if you allow room for it. What type of writer are you? That is a question you’ll have to answer for yourself. If you’re the next Stephen King, then I am envious.

For most of us though, we’ll just have to follow process and procedure, structure and outline and crack that story before the fun part begins: Quill to vellum. Pen to paper. Fingers to keyboard.


D.W. Whitlock is the author of Crucible of Fear: A Thriller, available now on Amazon.

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