Plotter or Panster? by Erin Farwell

IMG_3046If you’re a writer, you are probably familiar with the concept of a “plotter vs. panster.” Plotters are writers who have prepared outlines and synopses of their stories and know exactly what is going to happen in their books before they start writing the actual text. Pansters are writers who fly by the seat of their pants, not knowing what is coming next until they write the words.

I have to be honest and say that I find true plotters a bit scary. I met an author at a writer’s conference who shared with his audience the glory of the outline. He made index cards of each scene in his books and then wrote them, not in chronological order, but in the order that was most fun. Dramatic scenes first, love scenes second, and so on until he was down to the boring,  plotterpanster“transitional” scenes. Once he was done, he put the scenes in chronological order, did one last edit for continuity, and he was done. I left that session believing I would never write a book.

I tried the outline/plotting process, I really did. I ended up with a reasonable proximity of a book with relatively flat characters and a stiff plot. My editor told me she usually tells writers to tighten their stories. With me, she said, I needed to let it breathe a little more. There was one character, though, who really shone and I didn’t realize until later that she was actually the main character of my book. If I hadn’t been so attached to my outline, I would have put her in the starring role and had a better book.

Still, all was not lost. I learned that I could write a beginning, middle and an end, which I realized was difficult for many people in the writing group I was in at the time. There were several great writers who would stop writing their books, usually when they got stuck or bored, then take off on a new, more exciting project. So, my first book was a “win” in that I learned I could carry a pinstinctslot from beginning to end.

The next thing I learned was to trust instincts and to write the way that works for me. My second book is my first published novel and I took an entirely different approach in creating it. First, I did all the necessary research so I had my time (1927) and place (Chicago, Illinois and St. Joseph, Michigan) firmly in my head. After I had my when and where, I developed the general concept of the story and the primary characters. I learned that I work best if I have a beginning, a few middle points and an idea for the end for my story. The journey between those points is where my creativity flowed.

I also learned that my main character was (and still is) a lot smarter than I am. Despite my panster tendencies, I knew certain clues and red herrings needed to be inserted into the plot. I kept a list of them near my computer. I found that when I trieneon-arrowd to force a clue into place I had all the subtly of a neon arrow pointing at it and saying, “Clue Here.” When I let my protagonist go his own way, I found that I could stop every few chapters and cross off clues that had slid into my writing more cleverly and smoothly than I could have consciously managed.

Then there were the little throw-away lines I used to define a minor character or round out a conversation that later became unexpectedly important to a plot point or twist. My characters knew what to do even if I didn’t. The only thing I had to say no to was when my protafightinggonist, Cabel Evans, really wanted to have sex with the female manager of a speakeasy. I wrote the scenes, and they were good, but he needed to take the high road to maintain his integrity even if his lower road had different ideas.

I have come to accept my panster essence, knowing that I have a few plotter characteristics as well. I need to know my setting and overall concept as well as a few milestones to keep my story moving in the right direction. However, I can’t work from the tight confines of an outline. For me story telling works best if I can discover my fictional world as part of the writing journey.

Question for the writers out there – are you a plotter, a panster, or a little bit of both?

Learn more about me at:

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20 thoughts on “Plotter or Panster? by Erin Farwell

  1. I’m a plotter. Do a fairly involved outline, breaking it down into chapters. Then I write even more detailed scenes for each chapter. I will do character sketches, including physical traits. Even before starting the fantasy trilogy, a friend did a map of the world showing mountains, rivers, etc. I then did general descriptions of the main cities where action would take place. I will admit… once I started actually writing the scenes, often I’d divert from the outline and would have to revise and adapt, even sometimes ditch scenes and write new ones. Outlines have to be living, breathing documents, I’ve discovered.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also do a lot of character development of my main peeps and I know my time/location very well but I need a more fluid writing process than you. Of course, with fantasy, I’m sure there is a lot more to keep track of. Thanks for the comments!


  2. I think writing mystery takes a little less plotting than some of the other genre like Mike’s. I’m a lot like you. I like a real loose outline. I figure somewhere around 25 short chapters, so I write 3 points for each chapter (which usually never PAN out), but in the back of my mind they’re there. I love doing character studies, but I usually don’t, I get in a hurry to see what’s going to happen. I should do more planning, it would make my life easier. I know November is coming up quickly. Cindy Carroll usually gets very prepared for Nano. I love seeing how people process the plotter or panster beginnings. Cher’ey

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cher’ey. I don’t really do an outline though sometimes I get to a point in the book when I know what’s coming up and so I’ll stop and write a few paragraphs about that but this is as far as I go. 🙂 Thanks for your comments!


  3. True panster here! I envy Mike and his ability to get everything in order before he writes, but I’ve tried it and it just doesn’t work for me. I do have a general idea in mind. I don’t have any idea how the book will end or the characters, because I haven’t met them yet. I love sitting at my laptop and letting my fingers fly as I make up the story on the spot. That doesn’t mean I haven’t done tons of research before I start, and even more during the writing process. I just prefer making things up as I go along. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, Linda, once again I see that we are sisters. I also do a lot of research before and more during the writing process but I can’t get too organized or my story becomes stifled. Thanks for the comments.


  4. Good post and i often wonder what I am! A bit of both I guess, but mostly pantser. I too envy those who have a thorough outline, but also like finding out what happens as I go. My first full length book I finished had a character who rode into the scene on an old mule and became a catalyst for insights and changes in the protagonist. He was a very necessary character and came out of nowhere seemingly. It’s kind of like playing house when I was young, the action and reaction flowed spontaneously. Guess I was a pantser as a kid too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Erin, I”m as pantser, no question. Most of my work is written in improv writing sessions. I know who my characters are, where they are and where I want to end up. Otherwise, let the fun begin. Fun and informative post. Thanks Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Doris. It sounds like are writing processes are very similar. It is interesting that most of us on this site (so far) are pansters yet we write so many different genres and styles. Thanks for the comments.


  6. I’m mostly a pantser (maybe a Brit version of the spelling?) but with historical writing a bit of planning has to happen to make time lines work properly. I have vague beginning and end and an empty middle which I then ‘add in’ to a long piece of paper that’s set out as a time line for my historical work. My contemporary mysteries are almost pure pantser.


  7. I’m a plotser – half plotter, half pantser. I generally start with an idea, start developing characters, come up with three or four turning points and an ending, then wing it from there. Do research as necessary but mostly let my characters drive things. Always fascinated by where they take me.


  8. As a writer, I come across this topic a lot and I always enjoy discussing it. It’s so interesting to see how different everyone’s approach to writing is. I am most definitely a pantser. I’ve tried plotting or outlining and it’s practically impossible for me. It’s just not how my brain thinks. I feel trapped when I try to outline. Also, I sometimes have no idea what the story is about. Sometimes all I have is a scene in my head. Or sometimes I’ll be inspired by a character. Since I mostly write crime fiction short stories, then it’s easier I think to work this way. The novella I wrote actually began as a short story and when I decided to expand it, I had no idea how it would end. I just went with it and let the characters take over. It’s a very frustrating and hair-pulling way to write, but unfortunately, it’s the only way that works for me. Sigh. Great post, Erin.


  9. I am with you, Erin. I am a pantser and just let the words flow. I’d like to be more of a plotter, though, and I think with my next work I’m going to try to plan at least some of it. I may end up changing stuff with editing, but that’s part of the process … and the fun! Great post — thanks for sharing!


  10. I admit it I am a big ole fat punster. I start with an idea and see where it goes. My first full length manuscript didn’t even resemble the original draft. Thanks to some direction from a number of fellow authors it evolved quite nicely. Of course in the process a lot got trashed and may someday be a work of it’s own.


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