Are You a Planner or a Pantser?

I’ve never considered myself a very organized person––but for a long time, I always carefully planned out my novels. Before writing a single word, I would sit down and try to figure out the entire plot, scene by scene. By the time I sat down to write the story, I would pretty much know the whole thing from beginning to end.

This outlining method worked just fine for me for a few years. Then … something happened. I would get excited about a story as I was outlining it––but when it came to writing it, I would feel like all the life had been sucked out of it. I would lose interest after a few chapters. And even if I forced myself to keep writing, it would feel like a chore.

The idea of “pantsing” a novel (that is, writing it without planning it first) had always scared me a bit. I couldn’t imagine diving into a story without a full outline (or at least most of one). To me, that was comparable to being dropped in the middle of an unfamiliar city without a map.

But more recently, I’ve started to find detailed outlines suffocating. I missed the days when I could throw myself into writing without abandon––when writing felt more like an adventure and less like a rigid path I had to take.

When I started to write The Resurrectionists––my NaNo ’15 novel––I was nervous that I didn’t know enough about the story beforehand. I had a vague idea of the first couple of chapters and a little background research. But otherwise, it was a mystery to me.

I thought I would get stuck after a few chapters and have no idea what to do. Instead, I soon found the opposite to be true.

The more I wrote, the more I understood about the story. The more inspired I felt. Writing didn’t feel like a chore because I didn’t feel like certain things “had” to happen. I could let the story flow naturally without worrying that I wasn’t following a pre-planned set of events.

And that made the process of writing much more fun. Not only that, but I think the story benefited. I took risks with it that I might not have taken otherwise.

Sure, I got stuck sometimes, and I would plan another chapter or two––but I wouldn’t get too carried away with planning. I left room to experiment and to let the story keep surprising me.

At least for now, I seem to have found a balance between planning and pantsing that seems to be working well for me, and I plan to keep trying it with The Resurrectionists and other future writing projects.

But enough about me! How about you guys? Do you outline your stories before you write them? Do you “pants” your stories? Do you do some of each? Comment and let me know!

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23 thoughts on “Are You a Planner or a Pantser?

  1. Kelly @ Stellar Scrutiny

    I typically write a vague outline (about 2 sentences to describe what goes on in each chapter), but mainly just ‘pants’ it…I hardly ever write anything down though, lol.

    1. Even my more “detailed” outlines usually have pretty vague descriptions too––like you said, just a bullet point or two about what happens. Haha yeah that’s the problem … I have so many stories I’ve planned out but haven’t actually written/finished. 😀

  2. I’ve found having at least a few chapters planned ahead of where I’m writing helps me keep going. I also have no problem going back into my outline and changing things as I go. Once I started doing that I felt a lot less trapped by my own plans.

    1. I should probably be more open to changing my outlines. I think part of my problem is that once I write down an outline, a part of me feels like the story is set in stone––even though I know that’s not true. So if I stray from what I outline, I kind of panic because one change might have a domino effect, where it changes a bunch of other plot points. And then I feel like my whole outline is a “waste”. 😛 So I guess outlining as I go helps me from running into that problem as often.

  3. I completely pantsed my NaNo ’15 novel this year. It was super fun to write, but it had its frustrating points. I had something else planned out pretty well, but like you, I felt suffocated by it. I just wanted to write for fun. I felt too much pressure with the outline.
    I think I need SOME structure, because my novel is somewhat of a trainwreck right now, but at the same time, it’s not worthy of being burned in a dumpster.

    1. I totally know how you feel! I’ve been working on one of my WIPs for like three years, and I’ve had a full outline for it pretty much this whole time, so I was starting to get pretty tired of it. NaNo this past year helped me start writing for fun again––and in turn, that made me feel more motivated to finish my other project. My NaNo will definitely need a lot of help with plot structure once I move on to later drafts. But in the first draft I think it’s okay if it jumps around a lot. The first draft is a place to explore and find out where the heart of the story is. 🙂

      1. I’m actually somewhere “other.” I’ve never been an outliner. Tried it once, and it didn’t work at all. But sitting down to write a novel without a good idea of what I’m trying to create? No way. I start with a ton of notes and questions. The notes eventually go into a rough chronological order that will indicate chapters. Once I know my characters pretty well, and have a good idea of where the plot is going, I’m ready to write. From that point on, I guess you could say I’m pantsing. But it’s more like figuring out how the meat fits on the bones. Lots of room for changing things around and getting surprised by what’s happening.

        Of course, all that takes time, up to several years, sometimes. I would never just plunge into writing up a brand-new idea.

        1. That’s also a great approach! I also find writing down a lot of notes and questions very useful. I use Scrivener and I always have one section just for brainstorming––writing down any thoughts, questions, etc. that I want to fit into the story somehow.

  4. Jay Argall

    I’ve recently had the same problem you describe with detailed outlines – I feel like I’ve written the whole thing once, so why am I writing it again? Now all I do is write down a few bullet points as an outline and try to get to them.

  5. This is exactly my sentiments on having been a planner. I used the Snowflake method and thought it was fantastic as far as incorporating backstory, plot twists, etc. Like yourself, it took all the joy and excitement out of the story by the time I got to actually writing the story.

    Now I call myself a “plotser.” I’ll have the basic outline of the story beginning to end with quite a few gaps in between, and then jump right into writing the story. Once I finish a chapter, I’ll make a summary of what happened and make a bullet list of what needs to happen next. It’s how I finished my first novel. And it was 20% work and 100% fun!

    So we are the “classic plotsers!”

    1. I had the same experience with the Snowflake method. I tried it for one of my NaNos and felt really good about it as I was planning it––but once I actually got to the story, the structure felt very rigid and I just found no joy in writing it. 😛 And I like the term “plotser”! I also like the idea of summarizing your chapters after you write them. Maybe I will try that!

      1. I think I’ll join you in adopting “plotser.”

        One benefit of doing NaNo every year (well, almost every year), is that the condensed time period allows me to get an overview of how I’m tackling the novel. It has changed from year to year — not drastically, but in a natural evolution. And the 2015 novel was the first one where I did a kind of summary of the chapters, post-NaNo.

  6. Before I start my stories–I know the beginning, middle, and end, and perhaps a couple of key events, characters, and whatnot. I’m a messy writer. I like to rip it apart and stitch it back together when I’m rewriting. Of course–that totally isn’t for everyone. But plotting and planning just isn’t for me. Great post!

    1. That’s usually how I start out––at least knowing the bare bones of the story. In the past I would try to fill in all those gaps between key plot points *before* I started writing, but nowadays I feel like that doesn’t work for me very well. I’m starting to like the “messy” rough draft more, and figuring things out when I’m editing/rewriting. 🙂

  7. It’s interesting reading the different approaches that everyone has. I take the same approach as Bridgett. I like to think of it as a flexible outline that I can change if necessary. For my first novel I didn’t have an outline initially but I then found that I had to rewrite areas of the novel to make my timeline work. With my second novel I found it much easier having an outline. 🙂

  8. I usually lean towards being a pantser, but I’ve mostly written short things. I did NaNoWriMo this November as well and started with an outline of the first couple of chapters, which went okay until I ran out and went back to making it up as I went along. (I already had the character fully formed in my head from earlier projects — they just needed their own story.) For the editing/rewrite I’m starting with doing a complete outline and will see what happens from there. And by complete I mean pretty detailed, haha, because I need to fix a lot of plot and chapter flow things. When that’s done I’ll probably end up taking each chapter outline and flesh it out with the dialogue, setting, etc. It’s how I used to write papers in college, but I’ve never tried it with a story before.

  9. I’m a bit of both. I plan my novel before I start writing and I know what needs to happen when and why, but there’s room for flexibility. You never know if a character suddenly introduces himself halfway through, and you can’t plan for plot bunnies. I’m organised but if my characters need to move into a different direction I let them.

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