Home > Writing > On writing: Pantser’s dilemma

On writing: Pantser’s dilemma

When it comes to writing, I’m a pantser (as in fly by the seat of my pants). I’ve always been one. An idea will come to me … a scene, a line of dialogue, a title. Just about anything can start me off on something that I know is a bigger story. Once that happens, I’ll sit down and start typing away. Almost always, the words will then flow onto the virtual page. Soon, I feel like I’m watching a story unfold and I become an observer, there to simply record what’s happening, like a courtroom stenographer. When I’m in this mode of writing, there is no better feeling. It’s quite a magical journey. But there is a downside to this style of writing, and it finds me frequently (thankfully not always).

For example, my current work in progress is complete in the sense that it has an opening and an ending (both pretty close to what I originally thought of back when the story first came to me) and, for the most part, all that goes in between. But now I feel stuck. I have characters that I don’t think are fully realized, and a significant plot detail that I haven’t dealt with very well, at least in my mind. So I’ve been spinning my wheels over and over, trying to figure out how to flesh out my main characters. And the plot detail in question, which is central to the story, has been just about impossible for me to work with, leaving me less than satisfied with how it plays out through the book. So what does this have to do with anything?

Well, I’ve begun wondering if I would be in this same position had I switched over to the other end of the writing spectrum, to that of a plotter. The plotter, unlike me, thinks about the structure of their story and outlines the plot and characters and chapters and scenes before typing away at the story itself. If I’d spent time thinking about everything beforehand, would I have envisioned the problematic plot element earlier and perhaps avoided missing the mark? Would my characters be more three-dimensional and believable? And would my overall novel have turned out better? Or would it have fallen flat and felt stale from overthinking every detail? Would all the spontaneity and fun of writing evaporate, leaving the experience dull and boring?

I don’t have the answers to these questions for myself, yet, though I’ve read many writers on both sides of the fence swear by what they are doing, whether it’s taking a structured approach, or pantsing their way through from beginning to end, or even mixing the two together. Time will tell, but I am tempted to try writing my next book from somewhere over on the side of the plotter, just to see how it goes.

Anyone have opinions? Are you a plotter? A pantser? A combination of both, a hybrid method of sorts (making you an inbetweener as I’ve heard someone else call this)?


  1. August 27, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I’m a plotter all the way, and I’ve never felt it hinder or stifle me. I think one needs to approach the writing whichever way feels most comfortable. And if they’re not sure, then maybe try it both ways and see which was has the better fit. πŸ™‚

    • August 27, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      Hi Carrie – thanks for passing along your experience. Seeing as how I’ve never really tried plotting my way through a book, I suppose it really is time for me to consider trying it out next time. Or at least give the hybrid approach a go … that’s the only way I’ll know for sure.

  2. August 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Great article, interesting read. From a fellow panster, although these days in ever larger pansters, lol πŸ™‚

    • August 27, 2013 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks, Helen, for stopping by and taking the time to read this post and even leave a comment. Nice to hear from another pantser πŸ™‚

  3. August 27, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I’m a plotter for the most part, though do sometimes deviate from the outline. I do think though, whether you are a plotter or a pantser, the key is to make sure that you at the very least know the relationships you want to show, the desire line for each character, and the ending. How you get there can be determined in the moment, but knowing it at least guides the story. Before I ever have my characters strengths and weaknesses and names mapped out, I have their relationships to one another and their desire lines created. That way, how they are fleshed out is dependent on how they interact with one another to get what they want throughout the story.

    Whew! Way too long of an answer.

    • August 27, 2013 at 8:58 pm

      Hannah, I think you’ve hit upon an important point here. If nothing else, spending time identifying characters, their motivations and desires, and relationships, would have likely prevented my character problem, or at least limited it to something more manageable. I know I can overcome the current issues I have with the character, but it will likely take a bit more banging of my head against the wall πŸ™‚ Thanks for the advice!

  4. August 27, 2013 at 10:11 am

    I’m definitely a plotter, and I definitely don’t find it boring. But sometimes I get so caught up in plotting that I never actually write it down, and in those cases pantsing can be pretty fun πŸ™‚

    • August 27, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      Ha ha … yeah, that’s one of my worries about plotting, that it might slow me down to a near glacial pace. But you’re right … pantsing is fun! πŸ™‚

  5. August 27, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    I’m a pantser, and I really like it!

    • August 27, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      Somehow, I knew I could count on you, Katie πŸ™‚ Here’s to us pantsers!

  6. August 27, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    I’m like you, Dave (except not as good looking)… I love letting the story write itself. usually my best ideas hit me after I’m already in the middle of the story, and I would never have thought of them if I had planned it out. I’ve tried outlining and found that my outlined stories lack punch and turn out predictable.

    On the other hand, I’ve ended up with some logic holes and construction problems that are sometimes to big to overcome without rewriting the entire thing from the beginning. I gues that’s why they say “flying by the seat of your pants.” Sometimes you crash.

  7. August 27, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks for the compliment, Eric … but you’re way too kind. And besides, you’re way cooler than me by a long shot.

    I agree with everything you just said about pantsing. There’s something about it that’s, well, fun, and unpredictable, and it lets your story grow as you make your way through it, allowing for some wonderful ideas to develop. And did I say it’s lots of fun! Too bad those corners we tend to paint ourselves into exist … I think at some point, whether it’s the next book, or later, I’m going to have to take the plunge and try some outlining. I mean, how much can it hurt? Oh yeah, it might ruin the story, and take away all the fun. Or not. Guess there’s only one way to find out πŸ™‚

  8. August 28, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Normally I’m a pantser, always have been. For some insane reason, I’ve decided to attempt plotting my 2013 NaNoWriMo project…I’m hating it. Good luck to you!

    • August 28, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      Yay! Always happy to meet another pantser. Perhaps I should be bold and try plotting NaNoWriMo … hmmm, maybe not πŸ™‚ I’m curious as to how it will work out for you. Anyway, good luck plotting!

      • August 28, 2013 at 3:07 pm

        I wouldn’t recommend it. πŸ™‚ The plotting attempt is actually stealing some of the excitement I always have as NaNo approaches. We’ll see…I’ll keep you posted.

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