Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?

The first time someone asked me Are you a pantser or a plotter? I was confused.

This was in the context of writing, but I had no clue what a pantser was.

Maybe it’s because I’m an Englishman of a certain age? When I was younger, we used to say – when something was poor quality – that it was pants. Absolute pants, for emphasis.

So – this conversation:

“That book you’re writing. Is it any good?”
“Oh dear me no! It’s absolute pants

I thought: someone who’s a pantser is clearly someone who writes pants.

But, while that might be true, why would so many people admit to writing rubbish? Even be a little proud of it? Because they seemed to be, the people identifying as pantsers.

I went on-line – as one does – to find the meaning of pantser. It wasn’t as easy then as it is now. It was hard to find a definition, but surprising how many people seemed shyly proud of calling themselves pantsers. As if it wasn’t something they ought to admit to, but that they still felt was a sign of them being true writers.

Snoopy and the Hobbits

Snoopy (a cartoon beagle) dressed as a pilot in an open air cockpit.

Eventually (I’m slow on the uptake) I realised pantser must come from the expression “to fly by the seat of your pants”. Airman’s slang from the very early days of flight. Canvas and wire biplanes, leather flying helmets and goggles. These pantsers saw themselves in Snoopy! Flying his dog house roof and typing:

It was a dark and stormy night.

Snoopy (cartoon beagle ) sitting with a typewriter on the roof of his dog house.

Of course, that’s not what they say. They say they are imitating this or that writer who they claim is a pantser. Stephen King, some people say. Or JRR Tolkien.

Maybe you know the story? There he was, the 30+ year old Tolkien, sitting in his study one sunny day in the 1930s, correcting student essays. So boring! He turned over a page and was suddenly confronted by a blank sheet of paper. In joy and freedom, he wrote down the first thing that came into his head:

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.

Still image of JRR Tolkien from documentary film
JRR Tolkien in later life

The first line of The Hobbit, that led on to The Lord of the Rings and all the rest.

Oh come on! Just look at his opus and tell me again you think this didn’t involve planning.

I’m a plodder

That first time I was asked, “Are you a pantser or a plotter?” I answered, plotter.

Actually I answered plodder, because that was the other word I heard. But plodder or plotter doesn’t matter. They both imply staid, process oriented, plugging away. A major contrast with the pantser, flying free in imagination.

The more I learned about those writers pantsers revere as fellow pantsers, the more I was confirmed in my belief that pantsers are just fantasising. As, what? A way to excuse not planning?

Me, I want to know where the story is coming from. Where it’s going.

And I became convinced that other published writers – even the ones claimed as pantsers – were actually, maybe secretly, plotters like me.

Challenged by NaNoWriMo

Thinking of myself as a plotter, it was a challenging experience, last November, to take part in NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo (for those who don’t know that’s the National – should be International – Novel Writing Month) challenges writers to push themselves to write a 50,000 word manuscript in one month. In some ways it’s a pantser’s dream and a plotter’s nightmare.

But last November, for the first time ever, I reached the goal! Writing an average of 1667 words daily, I produced a little more than 50,000 words of a book in one month.

Fantastic! I’ve never previously got beyond the second week of NaNoWriMo.

The story I wrote was a science fiction novel I’ve had in mind for a couple of years. (There’s the plotter, you see, I already had the frame of the story worked out.)

It’s set on Earth about 500 years into our future. Humans are quite advanced along the road to rebuilding after “the catastrophe”, and they are doing so with the help of Artificial Intelligence and robots. Or are they being manipulated by the AI?

So I had a plan. I had my characters, settings and events. I knew how the story would start and how it would end. All I had to do was follow the structure and write the story.

Except, that didn’t work.

The more I wrote, pushing forward into November, the more my plot felt hollow. And the more my characters grumbled.

Whose story is this?

Yes, they grumbled! It was the most interesting thing. My characters started to develop their own ideas about how the story should develop. Especially about their parts in the story.

I’ll give you an example.

I have a character who is a 352 year old robot – with machine intelligence – presenting as a seated middle aged man. (At least, that’s what it looks like from the waist up.) Creating this character I was thinking of a specific Renaissance portrait of one of the Doges of Venice. The robot is supposed to be teaching a child, Emmy, who is the daughter of the family that owns the building where the robot is housed. A third character, Ben, comes to visit the robot, asking for help.

I knew the robot would be reluctant to help, but would eventually agree. What I had not expected was that Emmy would listen in to Ben’s appeal. She was supposed to be sitting to one side doing her homework. Instead, she came over, put her hand on the robot’s shoulder and said to Ben: “Of course we’ll help.”

This was not something I’d planned. This came out of nowhere. (Well, out of my subconscious of course – but it was completely unexpected.)

Left to right: Ben, Emmy, the robot

I don’t know who was more surprised, the robot or me. But the more I looked at it, the more I liked it.

It said something about the relationship between the girl and the robot. It said something about the robot’s developing emotional intelligence and empathy, which are themes of the novel. And it solved the problem of getting the robot to agree to help Ben. After all, how could it refuse when Emmy had promised and included herself in the equation?

This wasn’t the only time one of my characters got involved. There were similar developments with at least three others in other situations.

In most cases I accepted the gift my characters were offering me. It’s not just my story, after all, it’s theirs too.

The necessity of plotting

All that creative inspiration – all that pantsing – was very nice, and I enjoyed it, but at the end of NaNoWriMo what did I have?

A 50,000+ word clump of text that had broken away from my plot. A dozen rebellious characters. A weak beginning, and an ending that was seriously adrift from the text I’d produced.

I pushed on at half speed, through December and into January, but eventually (now at the 75,000 word mark), I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t pantser my way out of the confusion.

I would have to dissect the clump of text and rediscover the plot. Re-plan and re-build some kind of order out of the chaos.

You can probably see where I’m going with this.

A false dichotomy

Now I believe the Plotter/Pantser question is a false dichotomy. At least in respect of my own writing.

I’ve tried plotting a story and writing it based on a pre-designed structure. It didn’t work. Perhaps AI could do it, but I can’t.

During NaNoWriMo I tried pantsing. It was great fun, but clearly I can’t write a whole book flying on inspiration alone. Maybe I could do it with a poem. Maybe with flash fiction. Just possibly with a short story. But as soon as I get beyond something very compact, I have to have a plan.

I don’t believe successful writers are either plotters or pantsers. I think they are both plotters and pantsers … and much more besides.

Feel free to disagree with me, but I think, if you buy into the dichotomy and identify with one side or the other – if you try to only write as a plotter, or only write as a pantser – then whatever you produce is likely to be … absolute pants!

Still from a video - Absolut Pants!

A note on the illustrations

This is (most of) the script for a video I made for my YouTube channel. See it here.
The final image is a still from the video.

The two pictures of Charles Schultz’s cartoon dog Snoopy are stills from animated films found on YouTube (search for Snoopy vs The Red Baron).

The portrait of JRR Tolkien is a still from a BBC documentary about him – A Study of JRR TOLKIEN 1892-1973 (narrated by Judy Dench). You’ll find a copy here:

The art illustrations I’ve been using to help me visualise my characters, are as follows:
“Ben” – this is a self-portrait by the French artist Laurent Dauptain. His website is here:
“Emmy” – A Young Girl in the Classroom, 1876 (oil on canvas) by British artist Charles Sillem Lidderdale (1831-95).
“The robot” – Doge Leonardo Loredan, by Giovanni Bellini, held in the National Gallery, London, here:

The Featured Image is a composite of two free-to-use pictures from Pixabay by an artist called Pexels. Pexels’ user page:

1 Comment

  1. My approach depends on the novel I’m writing. This Much Huxley Knows was plotted to the nth degree whereas my current projective more free flowing. Entertaining post! Thanks, John.

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