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The Pantser-Plotter Spectrum
Experienced novelists tend to lean toward one of two methods for creating their stories and sometimes these methods are viewed as opposites.
At one end of the development spectrum you have the Pantser, the author who gets an idea for a story and sits down to write with no inkling of where it will take them. At the other end you have the Plotter who can’t set a word of their story on paper without a detailed outline to work from.
What’s in between these two extremes is a wide range of tools and techniques for moving any story forward. My strongest advice for anyone just starting their first story: Don’t lock yourself in to any one type. Experiment and be open to all.
The Day Dreamer – unconscious brainstorming
The first step moving away from the Pantser end of the spectrum, is what I think of as the Day Dreamer.
Even if you don’t consciously think about your story between writing sessions, it’s still kicking around in your subconscious with the high possibility of generating other related ideas. These can be events, encounters between characters, snippets of dialogue, or whole scenes.
These light bulb moments may come to you in dreams or when you’re awake, the latter often when you’re doing something totally unrelated to writing like driving or taking a shower. (The second happens so often, some writers reportedly keep a waterproof notepad and marker in their shower for writing them down!)
The Dreamer is happy to let these off-shoot ideas float around in their mind, moving in and out of conscious awareness, and allowing them to impact the story however they will.
The Lister – records their ideas
The danger in letting your off-shoot ideas simply float around in your head is that over time you can forget them. As you start to write and your story evolves, you may find yourself veering away from the initial idea. If you get stuck, it sometimes helps to go back and review your original inspiration.
Listers guard against losing their ideas by writing them down. If you use this technique you don’t have to write the entire scene, just create a heading that will remind you of the idea you had.
From there you can simply go on pantsing and refer to your list whenever you get stuck. Often just reading over your list is enough to get you going again and can even generate new ideas so your story continues to grow organically.
Freewriting – kneading the dough
Another technique to use when you’re stuck – one that moves you a little closer to the Plotter end of the scale – is freewriting on your off-shoot ideas. If you get stuck, simply choose a topic from your list and explore it. If the idea is vivid enough go ahead write the scene. This will often generate new ideas for things that have to come before that scene and what might come after it.
You can also freewrite about your characters, exploring their backstories, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, defining moments.
The Timeliner – putting things in order
Not surprisingly, the off-shoot ideas that come to an author as they begin to write are often their story’s highlight moments. Without any knowledge of or focus on structure, your subconscious will frequently give you the first act climax, the mid-point crisis, the act 2 climax and the story’s ultimate resolution.
The Timeliner takes whatever scenes are on the list, arranges them in a logical order and then simply writes from one to the next.
The Quilter - filling in the blanks
Taking this process a step further, you have the Quilter who looks at the timeline and fills in all the blanks. Like piecing together a patchwork spread, the Quilter stitches scenes together by asking themselves, what has to happen to get me from point A to point B? What does my character need to know? What experience must they undergo? What information must my reader have?
The Outliner – adding the details
And so we arrive at true Plotter status. Yet even within the Outliner type there’s a huge range for how much detail an outline contains. An author might simply flesh out more of the Quilter’s work. Or every scene can be detailed in full, including whole conversations. (At which point the question becomes: is there really any difference between an outline detailed to the degree and a pantser’s first draft?)
Experienced authors with multiple novels under their belt will have a clear understanding of their process and often identify strongly as one of the above types. However persuasive they might sound, don’t let anyone convince you that one of these methods is better than the other. Try them and find out what works for you.
No two authors write the same. In fact no two novels are written the same even by the same author. Though I call myself a Plotter I utilize every technique on this spectrum, and each of my novels was written with a different balance of those techniques.
Also keep in mind that pantsing is often the preferred approach of authors writing shorter novels (40-60,000 words) with fewer subplots. Once you get into longer stories with multiple plot threads and points of view, you may find a bit more planning necessary.