Plotter vs. Pantser: When to Plot, When to Pants, and When to Combine Them

by J. D. Edwin | 1 comment

How do you plan a story? Do you get caught up in the plotter vs. pantser debate and struggle to plan (or write) your story because of this?

If you're a writer, you've probably heard about different creative writing methods to finish a first draft. Is there a right or wrong to these? Have you tried different methods, but still don't feel like you've found a perfect fit?

plotter vs pantser

At some point in your process, it's likely that you will with primarily pants or plot a novel. Maybe you even do both at different times in your writing process.

In this article, you'll learn when the best times are for planning your novel. You'll also learn different stages of that planning process when you might prefer to pants, plot, or some hybrid method of the two.

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Plotter vs. Pantser: A Little of Every Method

Some of us are pantsers. Some of us are plotters. I’ve been both.

I’ve shared this story several times now in the articles I've written on The Write Practice. I was once the ultimate pantser, having pantsed my way through five NaNoWriMos and an entire 145K word novel. But when I failed to produce anything worth publishing, I learned to become a plotter—which has fortunately brought me far more success.

However, this is not to say you must be one or the other type of writer. It’s never been a case of pantsers vs. plotters because the two writing methods exist side by side, and there are many ways to mix and match the two.

New writers tend to feel they must choose the “best way” and stick to it, or give up one to switch to the other. A skilled writer knows they can use both to varying degrees, switching up their method as the project needs to maximize efficiency.

All this to say that, depending on the type of writer you are, you might naturally gravitate to a certain way of writing.

However, at different stages in the writing process, it might be smart to temporarily pivot. You can take on a different role depending on what your writing process needs in the immediate moment.

When to Plot and When to Pants

You may be surprised to learn that I absolutely think that there is a place for pantsing. While I’m a big believer in plotting and planning, there’s no way to write a first draft in just a few weeks without some level of pantsing.

The key is to use plotting and pantsing in tandem. But before we get into that, it’s important to recognize when it’s more advantageous to plot and when pantsing might actually work in your favor.

Plotting is especially important in the following situations:

  • You have a clear storyline you want to follow. In other words, when you know what the core story of your book is with reasonable clarity.
  • The plot of your book is multilayered and intricate, with multiple storylines and/or subplots.
  • You have a specific message, theme, or character elements that you want to convey and need them to be embedded throughout the story.
  • You have very specific events or cast of characters you want to ensure are present within the story.

My novel Headspace was planned for three of these four reasons.

  1. I wanted to tell a specific story I had in mind about a different kind of alien invasion.
  2. I wanted to convey a theme of alienation even among one’s own kind.
  3. I had a very specific romantic subplot I wanted to carry out and needed to make sure it was handled with care, with the love interests interacting at all the right points of the plot to drive their relationship.

Pantsing, on the other hand, is more handy in the following situations:

  • You have a basic idea but are not sure how the actual scenes are going to turn out, so you’re writing to find out the story events alongside the characters.
  • You’re experimenting with a new writing style, such as a romance author trying out sci-fi for the first time, or a short story writer attempting a first novel.
  • You have some main plot lines but are uncertain of subplots and the particulars of character development.

All in all, plotting is the best route when you have a clear picture of your story in mind, and pantsing is ideal for free exploration and experimenting in new territory.

Mix and Match

The truth is, no one is a pure plotter or pantser. Aside from certain rare genres of stream-of-conciousness writing, everyone uses some combination of the two. The key is to figure out how to balance the two methods to your personal preference.

Let’s take a look at few ways that you can mix and match pantsing and plotting to find the level of planning that works for you.

As a side note, I include the same two things in all of the options below:

  1. The five essential sections a story needs, referenced in this article. This is because I believe that a five-point plan is the most minimal planning you should do when writing a book. Even when pantsing, it’s important to know your story’s beginning, middle, and end.
  1. The revision list referenced in this article. Whether you are plotting or pantsing, it’s important to keep track of changes you want to make in future drafts.

The Heavy Pantser Light Plotter

If you are looking for a route that focuses on pantsing with minimal plotting, this is the best course of action for you.

Start your plotting with a one-sentence summary. Really focus on what you're trying to tell your target audience and reduce the basic plot to the main character and event. From there, build to the five-point plan. This is the only formal planning you will do.

Once you’ve completed the plan, write your first draft with a focus on connecting the different parts of the plan. This will result in a story that has a definitive beginning, middle, and end, but you are still free to pants the events that take place in between as you see fit.

You are likely to spend a lot of time in discovery with this method, uncovering details of the story as it unfolds. Your first draft will likely need more revision than the other methods, but you may also uncover a lot of unexpected plot points that enrich your story.

The Even Steven

For those looking for a balance between pantsing and plotting, the Even Steven approach works best.

In this approach, you'll create your five-point plan, but then go one step further and create a scene list as well. Use the scene list to lay out how the different parts of your plan should connect to each other and note any significant points of character development. Use the scene list as you write your first draft.

A major difference between this method and the previous one is that as you add things to your revision list while you write, you will be able to note which ones need fixing as well, or if certain scenes should be added or deleted.

The Light Pantser Heavy Plotter

This is my current primary method. In my very biased opinion, it’s the best one. But of course, that’s ultimately up to you to judge.

To use a heavy plotter approach, you start by creating the five-point plan and the scene list, then follow up with a plot synopsis. A synopsis takes the scene list one step closer to becoming a proper book. In the synopsis, string together the scenes and try to turn each scene into a workable summary. Think of the synopsis as a much more detailed outline.

My plot synopsis usually ends up being fifteen to twenty pages long. This may seem long, and a little intimidating for someone approaching a book for the first time, but if you follow the steps of the plan and the scene list, you will find that your synopsis will easily grow to an impressive length.

There are also other things are can do as part of your own method of writing, such as character profiles, character arc notes, and major plot points.

And when you are ready to start tackling that book you’re going to find it flows much easier with that synopsis to guide you. It will cut down your writing time by a noticeable amount.

This method also includes a few more parts, one being a revision list, which will help you organize your thoughts for the second draft. The next item is the plot treatment, which will be addressed in a later post.

But in a nutshell, a plot treatment is a redo of the plot synopsis, with the revision notes incorporated.

Pantsing Draft One, Then Plot

Pantsing is the best option when you don’t want too much pressure on the project. It’s best for producing something that you already know will be heavily edited or rewritten, like first drafts. These usually include a good amount of pantsing, no matter how plotted they are.

The whole point of this series is being able to write your first draft quickly by spending time to build a solid foundation. So essentially, all this planning is not meant to restrict your pantsing but rather make it easier and faster.

Having an idea of where your story is going prevents you from writing yourself into a corner while pantsing. Even when you're not planning scene by scene, even a rough plan will go a long way to ensuring you turn out a much more usable product after you’re done.

The key to writing a fast first draft is to pants—but with a plan.

Which novel writing method do you follow? Why does this work for you? Let us know in the comments.


In today's article we talked about different novel writing methods, specifically focusing on how you can approach the pantsing vs. plotting methods.

For five minutes today, I'd like you to take a scene from your current work in progress. Reflect on how you write this scene.

Now, spend ten minutes re-writing it or restructuring it using a different novel writing method than you usually use.

When you're done, consider if you liked this different approach. Why or why not? Share your experience and revised scene in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for three of your fellow writers!

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J. D. Edwin is a daydreamer and writer of fiction both long and short, usually in soft sci-fi or urban fantasy. Sign up for her newsletter for free articles on the writer life and updates on her novel, find her on Facebook and Twitter (@JDEdwinAuthor), or read one of her many short stories on Short Fiction Break literary magazine.

1 Comment

  1. Ina Housley

    I prefer Pantser for the first draft with the knowledge that scenes and even characters may not make the cut. I write about the characters, with the characters, and for the characters. It is all about the people. I like the management of tracking. That really works for me. I write a preface which I can easily replace with a good plan. I will be forever going back and re-reading everything you are teaching so that I know what can work in the future drafts. I have been making up stories and scenes in my mind my entire life so the structure will come in the second draft, because I now know that it is absolutely essential!


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