It’s an expression among writers; Pantsers write by the seat of their pants going where the work takes them, plotters sit down and get the whole thing structured and organized before word one hits the page.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both, both as an author and as an audience. Neither is the truly correct way to write a story; we all have our preferences. It should help to compare them, though, to see which suits you better as an author, and maybe to identify it better as an audience.
Pantsing is a lot more freeform and word association. It’s your improv night and your tabletop gaming. It’s an important skillset to pick up if you’re going to run Dungeons and Dragons style games, because it’s the style most resilient to collaboration and other’s input. Which also means it’s a writing style that you can do socially.
There are no goals, no directions, just whatever you think would be the most interesting avenue to take the story next. It’s a free and liberating writing style, and one of its strongest appeals is just how good it can feel to write like that.
… until you hit writer’s block.
Terry Pratchett once said:
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”
Which is how you immediately know he was a plotter, through and through.
When you have no directions, no goals to take your writing, it’s free and liberating. But sometimes you will write yourself into a corner. A character that was exciting to kill off a few pages ago… well, shit, they’re gone now, and they’d be really useful here. It’s a real complication to resolve! That’s good. That’s exciting. That’s tense! It’s… also something you absolutely did not think to figure out ahead of time, shit.
Pantsing can have huge bursts of inspiration followed by long periods of banging your head against a wall for this reason, moreso I’d say than plotters. Plotters aren’t immune to the problem, by any means, but when they get lost… well, they’ve got a map and a compass, where pantsers only have their wits and their wiles.
And all goes according to plan.
This isn’t a magic button. It simply isn’t true that sitting down and planning everything in advance for weeks will make for a better work than if you’d pants’d it. The most successful living author in the world, Stephen King, is a pantser through-and-through for instance, and has great difficulty writing longform planned works. Planning is usually antithetical to his writing process, as you’ll see him talk about in On Writing.
However, I would argue that the best works of the best plotters are better than the best works of the best pantsers. Plotting means knowing the setups and payoffs, the character and narrative arcs, what goes where, when and why. It means being able to put strong themes and experiments into your story and understanding why things work a certain way.
It can definitely make your works more consistent. Let’s compare Pratchett and King for a moment, both extremely prolific writers who produce quickly. How many of Pratchett’s books seem weak, or a misstep? King, meanwhile, is characterized by peaks and valleys. Pratchett’s “Nation” might not have been my favourite of his works, but it certainly wasn’t as much a stumble as King’s “Cell”.
Plotting can ensure that there isn’t a single wasted word in the final manuscript, something that can only be ensured by multiple horrendous editing passes by pantsers.
… Pantsers do seem to make better editors though, possibly for that reason.
The flipside is knowing what you’re planning. There is a dark side to consistency as well.
Plotters run the risk of being formulaic.
This shouldn’t surprise you. You’ve seen a mainstream blockbuster in your life. If you’re a writer worth your salt, you should have been able to count the major beats off in your head a solid fifteen minutes before they happen. You’re never surprised by the twists and turns of the story, you’re just waiting for it to follow the natural, prescribed arc that the writers have deemed free of risk.
If it worked once, it’ll work forever.
There’s a certain degree of truth to this. Transformers continue to be a blockbuster success. Television sitcoms live and die by how strong they can pull off the consistent storylines. Screenwriters are gambling with immense sums of money; It’s not their job to take risks with it, it’s their job to guarantee a safe investment, and art is inherently risky.
When I was a reviewer with Novastream, I got tickets to see one of the earlier Wolverine movies, the Japanese one (whichever it was), and fifteen minutes in I turned to the friend I’d dragged with me for moral support and said; Here’s the real villain, here’s the love interest, here’s the full character arc, here’s the entire story, and here’s what Wolverine’s witty one liner will be when he kills the bad guy. And lo, I was right. So, obviously, he punched my arm very hard.
One could argue that it was a well-constructed movie that they set it up so well, that I could see the strings so clearly. But by God was it boring to watch for it.
Plotting is a means by which you try to kill everything about your story that could surprise you. Don’t let that process be chemotherapy.
I keep mentioning King, the champion of writing by the seat of your pants, and I’ll come back to him again. Needful Things is an amazing work of his. It’s unpredictable, it’s shocking, the tension keeps rising. King didn’t really plan a word of it as he wrote beyond the idea, the people. In his words;
“If even I don’t know what’s going to happen, you won’t either.”
It works. Another notable storyteller in this vein is George R. R. Martin. Game of Thrones is absolutely a pantsing story.
Homestuck is the ur-example here, to me. I know of only one person who is a truly fierce advocate for the ending of it, and his reasoning is immaculate, but it is an intellectual appeal to an emotional problem. Game of Thrones, I am certain, will run into a similar brick wall, though only time will tell on that one. It’s simply much harder to write an ending that ties your story together, that makes it compelling at the end.
Pantsing reads like real life in a lot of ways; it’s unpredictable in ways that make sense to us. But we turn to stories to make sense of real life in a way real life can’t, and won’t. If you haven’t woven a consistent core purpose — if you haven’t planned the story out from the beginning — it’s much harder to figure out what the deeper meaning you’re trying to show is, what the philosophy you’re espousing is…
Pantsing is great when your only point is to be entertaining. And that can be a noble point. But how good your first chapter only sells this book; How the readers feel at the end of the last one sells your next.
This has largely been covered above, but I feel it does to reiterate: When you plot, you know exactly what your ending is meant to state, mean, represent, feel. You can move and re-organize chapters around so that the emotional highs line up with the lows and bounce off each other the most effectively. You can throw a brick up into the air on page fifty because you know for a fact you’re going to catch it on page one hundred and fifty.
Pantsers often have to resort to throwing a lot of bricks, and hoping one comes down in the right place when they need it to.
A big problem of writing to a structure that’s not of your own make? And I am especially critical of anyone who lives and dies by the Hero’s Journey? We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen the same story told the same way before.
That isn’t always bad. That can be comforting and reassuring. It can be nostalgic, and it can be used as artistic shorthand — you’ve heard this story before, but here’s where it’s different!
But it’s important to remember; If this is a structure you’ve seen in a textbook on how to write well? It’s the same structure everyone else who read that textbook is using.
What are you going to do to not get lost in the crowd?
This one has no explanation I can explain, but I’ve found it to be pretty strongly true that less-planned stories have much stronger dialogue. I suspect that it has something to do with giving the characters more agency over the scene than letting the scene have agency over the characters.
Stephen King has written in total about seven different characters that he puts in every book. I mean, there’s a whole drinking game about it. Several, honestly. The Pantsier the writer, I notice, the more their voice sounds like their own.
Now, this is fine if you’ve got an author with an interesting voice. Douglas Adams, a notorious pantser, has characters that often fall into “Adams Straight Man” and “Adams Banana Man” in terms of ‘voice’, but they’re still very interesting characters because Adams himself is a very interesting writer.
But. When you’re making freeform connections and writing by that, the ideas that come to you in that space are often going to be very similar because of the person having them. The dialogue that results is going to have a lot more of your mannerisms, your cadance, than they might otherwise have.
It can sound more natural because it sounds like a conversation you would have. It can also just sound like you’re talking to yourself, though.
If you build up the sum total of a person who isn’t-you before you put them to page, you have a stronger barrier between yourself and the final product. Less of your quirks and ticks will seep through.
It might at first sound surprising that the people I’ve most been able to talk to in-character are plotters. They’ve made another person they can inhabit and step inside, crafted for purpose. They know where they’re supposed to be in their story, and what they’re supposed to be dong.
Pantsers can still write fantastic, naturalistic characters, but I’ve found they can find it harder to fully ‘inhabit’ their characters — they get tangled on bits of themselves, and have to edit more.
An example of this done well would be Aaron Sorkin. He writes how people wished they spoke, how dialogue reads in an eloquent novel, how we wish the best and smartest of us communicated. He’s a planner through and through.
Nobody actually talks like that though. And if you’re not as good at Sorkin, or if you don’t have the intent that he does… often, if you don’t have a human being there to act as a filter for you, if it’s just words on a page?
When a plot is fully dictated, it can force a writer to push characters in a certain way they wouldn’t act organically. But it needs to be done for the scene to work, for the plan to work. A pantser is free to rewrite their ideas from that point to preserve the organic feeling of the person they’re writing. A plotter tries to work out how to force them into the space they’ve worked out as elegantly as possible.
And sometimes it’s as elegant as a sledgehammer.
The truth is, it’s a spectrum. I would say I’m two parts plotter to one part pantser. The people who know me would probably disagree, but I’m also certain they’d disagree in different directions.
I write the entire structural skeleton of the story before I write it, a series of scenes in the order I need them, the character list I’ll need. I plan the characters out, usually just a paragraph or two of keywords and footnotes. I write when the character arc happens, when the narrative arc happens, and where the two overlap and intersect.
With that done I get a bit more granular. I go back to the scene level and write a short list of events in terms of how I see them play out.
With that being done, I might have two full pages in total of short, flash-card style notes for a story that I expect to be in the 40,000 word range.
I personally believe that pantsing works best, for me, when it comes to conversation and characters. I find characters best by setting them in motion, but I plan them out beforehand so they don’t fill a role that steps on another’s toes, and so I can ensure they’re as distinct as possible.
I personally believe plotting works best, for me, when it comes to story beats, sequencing, and pacing. So that’s why I construct the skeleton in the style that I do, so I know what scene is supposed to lead into what.
There are better writers than I am who write better when they plan less than I do. There are better writers than I am who write better when they plan far more.
The trick to it is looking at the pros and cons and deciding what tradeoff feels right to you, and why. It also helps to be aware of them, so that you can better look for and mitigate them in your own style.