Plotting vs. Pantsing: What Story Development Method is Right for You?

Writing a novel requires a lot of important decisions. But the biggest (or the first biggest) choice you must make is how you’ll develop your story.

I’m not talking about how the story itself will play out, but how you, as the author, will plan and structure your writing process. If you haven’t given much—or any—thought to this yet, you’re not alone. Many writers, especially first-timers, don’t realize that there actually is a method to the novel-writing madness.

In fact, there are (mostly) two: plotting vs. pantsing.

Plotting and pantsing are sadly not funky new dance moves, but rather two opposing approaches to story development. Neither one is so perfect that you’ll avoid all common roadblocks and the occasional mental anguish that comes with writing. But understanding the differences and pros and cons of each can help you decide which method best suits you and the masterpiece you have yet to create—all to help you finally finish that novel.

Plotting: The Architect’s Approach

If you’re a fan of organization, charts, diagrams, and color-coded Post-it notes, then plotting will be music to your ears. Plotters approach their novels by starting with background work. They create character profiles and research settings and plan out major plot points (and even sub-plot points) before they ever sit down to write the first sentence. This clear direction helps them stay focused, only deviating from their meticulous plans when absolutely necessary.

Pros

There’s a lot to be said about planning ahead. Here are just a few potential benefits of the plotting method:

  • More efficient writing: Since they know exactly what needs to happen, plotters can make steady progress day after day versus someone who wings it and stops to think, “Now what?”
  • Well-defined structure: With a plan in place, plotters have a clear roadmap to follow. This can minimize writer’s block and keep the story on track without getting lost in tangents or dead-end scenes.
  • Crystal-clear clarity: Plotters have a deep understanding of what their story is about. So they’re less likely to have an existential crisis while writing when they realize they have no clue where it’s all going.
  • Fully developed characters: By creating detailed character profiles, plotters know their fictional cast inside and out. This deep understanding makes for more character consistency as it’s easier to stay true to them throughout the story.
  • Smoother editing: Since they’re working from a very solid outline, plotters often have fewer major revisions—and fewer rewrites—when it comes time to edit.

Cons

Not everything about plotting is sunshine and rainbows. Here are some potential drawbacks of plotting:

  • Tons of prep: Plotting requires a lot of pre-writing preparation. Depending on your novel’s complexity, this can take weeks or even months to complete before you ever write a word.
  • Limits spontaneity: With everything already planned out, plotters may miss opportunities for new ideas that come organically during the writing process.
  • Risk of planning purgatory: If you’re someone who can get so wrapped up in planning that you never actually get around to writing, plotting may hinder your progress. Spending so much time working on your novel without actually writing it can be a real motivation killer.
  • Plans can go awry: Even the best-laid plans can go wrong. No matter how much time you’ve spent thinking things through, you could find yourself with a plot hole problem that requires major restructuring.

Pantsing: The Explorer’s Approach

If all this talk of structure and planning makes you want to run for the hills, then allow me to introduce you to the chaotic art of pantsing. Pantsers—named after their tendency to fly by the seat of their pants—dive headfirst into their novels with little to no plan in place. They let their characters take them on a wild and unpredictable ride, discovering the story as they go along.

Pros

Pantsing may seem like total chaos to some, but it has its own set of advantages:

  • Spontaneity at its finest: With no plans to stick to, there’s unlimited room for creativity and flexibility. Anything can happen in a pantsed story.
  • No pre-writing prep: Pantsing gets you writing fast. There’s no need to spend weeks or months preparing before digging into your story.
  • Plot flexibility: With a blank page as your canvas, you’re free to explore any plot twist or turn that strikes your fancy. You’re just as in the dark about the story as your readers will be, so surprises are practically guaranteed.
  • Easier to stay motivated: Because the number of pages written shows a clear measure of progress, pantsing can be a great motivator. The more you write, the closer you are to finishing the story.

Cons

Just because it’s fun and spontaneous doesn’t mean pantsing is without its flaws:

  • Frequent writer’s block: Without a plan, you may find yourself staring at a screen for hours, trying to figure out what should happen next. Prepare for more bouts of writer’s block than you think.
  • Risk of inconsistency: Much like getting to know a person in real life, you often discover new traits and characteristics about your characters as you write. Without a solid plan in place, these changes can lead to inconsistencies and plot holes you’ll have to fix later.
  • More time-consuming edits: Because of the increased risk of potential plot holes, your first draft will likely need more revisions than that of a plotter. Spending months on major revisions and rewrites is not uncommon.
  • Emotional rollercoaster: Pantsers tend to experience high highs and low lows during the writing process. Some days, you may feel like a genius as your story unfolds perfectly. Others, you’ll question everything and wonder if your novel makes any sense at all—so buckle up.

How to Choose the Right Method for You

Only you can determine if you’re a plotter, a pantser, or something in between. But here are some tips to help guide your decision.

Consider Your Personality

Are you someone who loves structure and planning? Or do you thrive in chaotic and spontaneous environments? It’s a good idea to choose a story development method that aligns with your natural tendencies. If you’re not sure, try both and see which one feels more comfortable.

Lean Into Your Genre

Some genres lend themselves better to plotting, while others need the spontaneous approach of pantsing. For example, mystery and thriller writers may benefit from plotting to keep track of clues and red herrings. In contrast, romance writers may prefer pantsing for its flexibility in developing romantic subplots. Historical fiction often requires a ton of research, while fantasy thrives on creative freedom.

Go Hybrid

Create your own story development approach! If neither pure plotting nor pantsing feels quite right for you, consider blending the two methods. You can create a loose outline for guidance while still leaving room for spontaneous creativity. You could spend a month going all-in on detailed character profiles, then dive into writing with no plot plan at all. There’s no right or wrong way to write a novel, so don’t be afraid to experiment and find what works best for you.

But if you’re struggling to get your book out of your head and into the world, consider book coaching. I offer tailored, one-on-one sessions to help writers tackle their manuscripts from beginning to end. Whether you have an idea but need help with how to start or a half-finished manuscript gathering dust, we’ll work together to get your novel across the finish line.

Click here to learn more.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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