The Writing Zone: Stage 5
"Whoa, hold on, buddy! You posted the day before Monday - that totally threw off my morning reading plans!" said nobody because this coming Monday is Christmas Day.
Yes, I'm kinda cheating in that this is, as all my posts, scheduled ahead of time so I technically could have had this publish on Monday, as scheduled, but come on - it's Christmas! Even I won't be sitting in front of a computer to read much of anything that day, and I practically have a monitor glued to my face when I'm not with family or my daughter.
But I digress.
Today's Writing Zone will tackle a subject that's been discussed and debated ad nauseam for decades within the writing world. The subject is large enough that I could just keep writing until your mousewheel breaks! What subject matter can be so massive that I may not have enough space to cover it all in a single sitting?
PLOTTERS vs PANTSERS
It doesn't matter what kind of work you are writing, or the genre it falls into - in the end, if you are writing any kind of story you will either be a plotter or a pantser. What does this mean? Are there advantages or disadvantages to being one or the other? Is there a middle ground because you don't like being bucketed into groups? Let's begin.
A plotter is another term for someone that prepares an outline for their novel which could contain all manners of details that would help with the crafting of the book from beginning to end. This very organized method of writing would have everything laid out on the table (or the cork board or giant oaktag covered with meticulously-placed, color-coded diagrams and trees), including full character sheets, location details, every act with their complete list of summarized scenes, and details on the books beginning and ending - to name a few critical aspects of a novel that would be covered.
If there was one word to describe a plotter, it would be detailed. For characters, they would have full knowledge of each main, secondary and tertiary character written out (think completed character sheets from Dungeons & Dragons), complete with their motives, birthdays, physical descriptions, likes and dislikes. They most likely would also include details like relationships they have with the other characters or even heavy spoilers (ex: Macy Jane will murder Gordon Miles in Act 2, Chapter 9, Scene 5 with a magnum pistol that she stole from her ex-husband, then turn the gun on herself).
And that's just covering the plotter that is character-driven. If they are plot-driven, they may create elaborate story trees that connect every single scene within each act. Color-coordination would likely be leveraged to help with identifying which characters are in each scene, along with ways to tell when plot twists are triggered.
Speaking of plot, plotters also have systems in place to ensure their story structure is rock-solid, with some wiggle room for flexibility. For example, a common structure used by plotters is the three-act structure. The concept comes from screenplays where a performance would have three distinct sections, or acts. Act One would be the setup: establishing main characters, the environment, and the inciting incident that jump-starts the core plot of the book. Act Two raises the stakes for all characters involved, also called rising action. This act usually culminates with some form of confrontation between the protagonists and the antagonist even though the main characters may not have the skills or personal revelation needed to overcome whatever is presented to them. Act Three is the climax, followed by the resolution. Everything that's been building up from the first two acts comes to a head here - and for better or worse, the resolution is achieved.
To summarize, plotters are very structured, invest a lot of time upfront to plan everything, and tend to know everything there is to know about their story before actually fleshing it out.
A pantser is, in just about every way, the complete opposite. As the term implies, pantsers write "at the seat of their pants".
In other words, there's little to no planning involved - you start writing your novel and you just go. The book essentially writes itself, the ideas, characters, and plot all weave themselves into existence as you put down each sentence, each paragraph, each scene. A pantser may not know how the story will end, nor will they likely know details like the number of characters involved or who dies or who becomes the hero or antihero.
To put it another way, the story of a pantser forms organically instead of structurally. There may be a semblance of a plot that is planned out - they know how the story begins and have a good idea of how it will end - but everything in-between is in Schrödinger's Box (everything is possible until one possibility is written down).
Based on everything you've read, you may have determined some of the advantages and disadvantages of these two methods of writing.
Plotters have a solid framework for their story to be built on. Because of this, even the smallest detail regarding their characters are not overlooked and plot devices and overarching plots and sub-plots are properly resolved by the end of the book. In addition, the very nature of plotting allows for formalized writing methods and strategies that can not only work, but could be applied to any number of your novels - the three-act structure being one of them (there are quite a few).
Pantsers are more spontaneous with their writing due to the lack of structured planning, which could lead to events and actions that were unforeseen - which could make your story that much more engaging to your readers. The nature of pantsing not only applies to the writing, but to the frequency in which you find yourself writing - the moment an idea comes to mind for your work, you can just load your story WIP and punch it in to see what happens from there. This idea translates, overall, to the positive feeling of not being tied down to a script or formal structure that would otherwise constrain the creativity of a pantser. The pantser, therefore, can hammer out a first draft significantly faster than a plotter.
Plotters tend to spend as much time managing their outline as writing the actual story. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but what it translates to is the plotter spending a lot more time writing their first draft, spending several months - if not years - completing their work.
Pantsers, due to the unplanned nature of the writing style, tend to spend more time cleaning up their manuscript once it is complete. Nobody said streams of consciousness writing would be scrubbed coming out! In most cases, multiple drafts of a pantser's manuscript will be created as part of tiding up loose ends, fixing plotlines, and patching up any holes that may be present throughout the story. Not having your chapters and scenes planned out means that there is the potential for legit writer's block - it's one thing where you may not know how to top off a scene that's part of a series of planned scenes, but if you're writing and don't know what happens next because you haven't gotten there yet, that could pose a problem, to say the least.
I consider myself to be more of a pantser, but if I am honest, I am also a bit of a plotter, too. I don't have a formal outline, but I do have a fair bit of structure on the back-end, with character and location sheets being the bulk of my organization and planning. I've always known how my story would end, and a few major events were also predetermined, but overall, I've been writing from scene to scene, though with a conscious effort to keep the story cohesive and not appear so spontaneously written.
It's worth pointing out that Stephen King, one of my all-time favorite authors, is a certified pantser, to the point where he all but loathes the idea of plotting. At the same time, J. K. Rowling is 100% plotter. It is safe to assume there are many authors that fall in the spectrum that exists between the two writing methods, too.
Every writer is different, just as every person you meet is unique, with their own quirks and personality traits. When you begin to write for the first time, you may decide, like I did, to try both methods to see where you fall. In the end, one writing method isn't better than the other, for at the end of it all, you come out with a manuscript that is a reflection of your creativity and desire to share a story with the world.