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While researching how best to write your novel, you’ll be overwhelmed with a ton of information, some useful, and some about as useful as a snack machine after midnight when surrounded by gremlins. So, slightly less useful. But chances are you’ll hear that there are two kinds of writers; there are pantsers, and there are planners.

And what, you will ask, are they?

Well, the answer is quite simple; a pantser is short for someone who writes by the seat of their pants (in other words, winging it), while a planner is someone who plans and outlines a story ahead of time.

So which is the best method?

Well, though many say that, as with most creative processes, there isn’t one, I do have a slightly different view of things. Yes, I know; writing is a very personal process, and what works like a charm for one person will be a nightmare for another. But if you’ll bear with me, you’ll see what I mean.

But first, here’s a closer look at what exactly these types are:

What a Pantser is

As mentioned above, a pantser is someone who “writes by the seat of their pants”, meaning that they sit down and start writing, allowing the story to flow through them without knowing ahead of time where it is headed.

The advantage of this method is that no planning is required, and writers who find it a struggle to organize might be more comfortable with this method.

Authors who are pantsers, such as Stephen King, are known to say that for them, planning would take away the freedom of following where the story leads because you’re resisting, trying to force it to fit in with the ending you planned out.

The problem that some writers, especially ones who’ve got a little less experience than Stephen King (so… not us, right? I’m writing this for the others…) can have is that you can write yourself into a wall when you’ve got too vague of an idea of where you are going with things. When you’ve written as many novels as Stephen King, then you know instinctively where you’re going, and what elements need to be placed where in the story so that it makes sense. For someone like me, just starting out, well… That probably wouldn’t work so well.

Pantser vs planner, which is better? | J. E. Masterman | jemasterman.com

What a Planner is

A planner is one who, as the name states, prefers to plan out the story before beginning to write. They create an outline, map out their story, world and characters, in a detailed manner or just as a vague idea.

It allows you to build your story in a logical and elegant that flows for the reader. You know the major events in your story, you know your characters and how they behave, you know your world and its history, and you know your ending.

Knowing all of this doesn’t only ensure that your story is coherent and has a nice flow, it also allows you to foreshadow events because you know what’s going to happen down the road, and why it matters. This gives more depth to your story.

Another advantage of this method according to those who prefer it is that it is very effective against writer’s block. Indeed, when you have your story outlined, you always know where you’re going and what to write next. No block!

A famous planner is J. K. Rowling; you can see an example of her outline for the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix here.

Pantser vs planner, which is better? | J. E. Masterman | jemasterman.com

Pantser vs plotter: Not just a matter of preference

As I said at the beginning of this post, I believe that there is more to this than just a matter of preference, and that there are other elements to take into account when writing.

Important ones are:

  • What kind of story are you writing?
  • How long is it?
  • How many characters, secondary characters, subplots and arcs do you have going on at the same time?
  • Is it a short story, with only a couple of characters? Or is it an epic, with it’s own detailed world and races and characters?

If you’re a pantser, you might be fine writing a short story, or even a full-length novel without too much planning, as long as you keep good track of what’s going on in your story.

If you’re writing a longer, more intricate story, you might want to consider mapping at least part of it out to know where you’re headed. Otherwise, chances are you’re going to forget sub-plots or characters, and end up with plot holes that your readers will not appreciate. (Yes, they will notice. I think we’ve probably all been there as readers, and we don’t like it…)

And even with a shorter, less complex novel, you might get stuck. Being a pantser can work great for writing geniuses like King, but for authors starting out like you and me (me at least…), we might need some structure.

Actually, scratch that. We definately need some structure.

I’m not saying you need a full-out complete outline of every single detail, but you need to have some general idea. If you like the idea of a pantser being able to go where the story takes them, that’s fine! Just leave enough room in the outline to do so. But I do think it’s important to have a basic outline.

Without it, chances are we’ll get lost in the middle of our book, forget where we wanted to go with it, and give up long before it’s as good as it could be. And even if we did manage to kick our own butts enough to get it done (very difficult to do, don’t know if you’ve ever tried to kick your own butt. I twisted my knee trying.), chances are we wouldn’t be able to foreshadow events in a way that hooks readers and fleshes out our story. We wouldn’t be able to give it that real, deep, vibrant feel of a story that has taken on its own life.

This is why, even if you prefer the romantic side of being a pantser, I would recommend not starting to write without at least a basic outline.

How to write a Basic outline

As stated above, whether you are a pantser or a planner, chances are you should know at least these elements as you start to write in order to allow you to write full, believable, and interesting stories:

  • Who your story is about: is there just one main character, or several? Who are they? Why is the story about them? (This is important – if it’s not compelling enough, readers are going to wonder why you’re even writing their story in the first place)
  • What are the major events: what are the characters going to have to deal with in the story? What events are significant enough that they will change your character(s)?
  • How do(es) the character(s) change: readers want characters to go through a change in the story; big or small, good or bad, but they need to change.
  • How it ends: yes; you should have at least some idea of how your story is going to end, even if it’s only knowing if it is good or bad. (Also, this can change as you write your story, get to know your characters and the little scuttleborgs refuse to go through with what you had planned for them. This is normal, and not to be feared.)

Foreshadowing events properly in a story is, in my opinion, a huge part of what makes a story feel true and gives it depth. Planning is a major part of being able to foreshadow effectively.

Personally, I was never the strongest planner. I used to barely outline my story, start writing, get frustrated, change my story, barely outline the new one, write some more, then change it drastically again.

Because of this, I have a cemetery file of half-started drafts who will (probably) never see the light of day.

This only changed when I began to properly outline my novel. Outlining allowed me to overcome any obstacles that popped up, and to finally, finally get my novel written.

I know it may seem like a lot of work upfront, when what you really want is to write. But trust me, if you’re anything like me and also have that cemetery file (and, come on, I know you do), then try outlining.

It could really help, I promise.

What about you? Are you a pantser or a plotter?

Are you a pantser or a planner? I would love to hear how you write your stories, your process and what works and doesn’t work for you! Leave a comment and let me know πŸ™‚

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