Question of the Week: What are the Pros and Cons of Plotting a Novel Versus Pantsing?
This very sensible question was posed to Janalyn by epic fantasy author David Burrows. Thanks, David!
Writers can get into heated debates over which is better, plotting or ‘pantsing’ (from the term: seat-of-the-pants writing, meaning to write without a plot). Conflict arises from assuming the writing process that works best for us must be correct for everyone else.Writing a novel, already a fascinating process, is made even more so by the fact that every writer approaches it differently. Some of us are wired to plan out a novel in loving detail and some are at our best when writing on a wing and a prayer. Sometimes, at least in my case, a particular book calls for one approach, while a different book needs another.
So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of each method. I consider myself particularly qualified to tackle this topic from both perspectives because my writing process is usually a hybrid between plotting and pantsing. If you want to know my process, I’ve described it in Plotting a Novel by the Numbers.
Pros and Cons of Plotting
Pros of Plotting:
Usually creates less editing. When you know where you are going in a story, it’s easier to stay on course and write less extraneous matter to cut out later. Having thought out the story flow beforehand can mean not moving scenes around in the editing process, with the attendant small corrections throughout the manuscript.
Keeps you on point with your plot. When you know the true path of your story, bunny trails are more recognizable, which saves you time. Also, when you know your story’s end from its beginning, it’s easier to support your plot in every scene.
Helps you weave thoughtful characterizations. Understanding your characters from the get-go helps in building believable characters that resonate with readers. Because you know your theme and story problem from the start and have brainstormed possibilities, you will probably have considered an array of possible motivators and character arcs. If done well, this process helps you develop well-rounded characters.
Makes it easier to keep track of an intricate plot. Someone who writes intricate mystery novels or epic quest adventures usually has a lot of details and a complex timeline to manage. Trying to keep all of that in your head while writing can be a bit of a headache. I know, because I carried the plot of DawnSinger, the first novel of my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, in my head. There’s an easier way, I learned when I developed my hybrid plotting method with Wayfarer, book two in the series.
Helps you tailor a manuscript to a certain length. Plotting lets you estimate how many words your novel should be, the number of scenes you will need to reach a certain word count, and arrange them in a logical progression. I explain how to do all this in my plotting your novel posts.
Makes it easier to come up with a synopsis. I often start with a pitch sentence to help me understand the kernel of my story. From there I develop my synopsis, aligning to the plotting a novel in three acts structure. Working from less to more spares me from having to distill an entire novel into a couple of pages, something most writers, myself included, find frustrating. It also helps me refine the plot.
Makes identifying needed research easier. When you know what your story will cover, you have more of an idea what your research areas will be. This saves time during the initial research stage.
Cons of Plotting:
Takes time you could invest in writing the actual manuscript.
Locks the plot on a particular path. This might not be a bad thing, depending on your personality. If when traveling it bothers you to change direction at all once your course is set, plotting could become concerning for you. If like me, you use your plot as a guideline that can be adjusted as needs require, plotting might work for you.
Could stymie creative expression. If you are more of an organic writer, you plot by instinct as you write. Plotting your story in advance might interfere with this and leave the true story you would otherwise have written untold.
Pros and Cons of Pantsing
Pros of Pantsing:
Makes every writing session a cathartic adventure. Writing a novel is already quite a journey, but starting a story with no idea where it will lead can launch you on a path to self-discovery. Not knowing the way through your story jungle hones your senses and puts you in the story in an intimate way.
Your plot can shift with relative ease. You can follow a path in your story without deviating from your preconceived ideas of where its plot should go. This frees you to explore ideas you might have ignored while following a plot.
Characters can evolve naturally as you write about them. While writing instinctively, it’s not all that difficult to tap your subconscious and populate your story with vivid character arcs you might not have otherwise created.
Lets your manuscript find its own length. There’s a lot to be said for telling your story in as few or as many words as it needs. If you are aiming for traditional publishing, you’ll need to fit within word count guidelines. If you are a self-published author, you have more freedom to experiment with longer or shorter books.
Cons of Pantsing:
You might get stuck. Plotting while writing can slow you down and even paint your story into a corner. This can block your creativity until you sort out what to do. During these times, your story might become a point of pain for you, something you want to avoid.
It’s easier to follow bunny trails while writing organically. The benefit of being able to turn your story on a dime means that you can far too easily take the story down the wrong path. Such forays can confuse you and also increase editing time.
You will most likely have more editing to do. Since you discover your story as you write, when you go back through the first draft, you’ll likely discover the need to move scenes, clear up inconsistencies, support the ending, develop characters differently, and other such adjustments.
You might have to stop to research. When you don’t know where your story is headed, you’ll only have a vague idea of the research needed. This can be a minor concern as you write, or it can completely stop progress as you confirm a vital fact. Sometimes, your impromptu research may lead you to change directions or scrap entire scenes. Don’t ask me how I know this.
Some Final Thoughts Involving Ice Cream
As you may notice from my analysis, there are trade-offs for either method of story development you pursue. Developing your own writing process is informed by your personality, your learning method, your ability to track details, your natural bent, and your preferences. Only you, alone, can determine which method(s) you can live with.
Writers sometimes assume that one writing process is superior to another. That’s like saying that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate. It might or might not be, depending on who you ask. (I vote for chocolate.) :o)
Contact me to ask a writing question of your own. If I use your question, I'll credit you with a backlink to your site. You may also opt to ask your question anonymously.